Stanley Melbourne Bruce: In Australia’s Service

One hundred years ago, on November 5, 1923, a remarkable funeral service took place in Westminster Abbey. The deceased was Andrew Bonar Law—dour, puritanical, but able. He had been Tory leader for twelve years. He was the man who in 1922 had mercifully destroyed Lloyd George’s flashy and corrupt coalition. As it happened, the last straw was the “Chanak” incident just south of Gallipoli. It caused great concern in Australia because it was thought to have brought Australia into a war with Turkey without Australia’s having been consulted—only seven years after Gallipoli. Bonar Law then served as Prime Minister for only 209 days before retiring with the cancer which killed him.

The Great War had ended five years earlier. Its grim memory hung over the service. For one thing, the service ended with the singing, in Rudyard Kipling’s presence, of his great poem “Recessional”, with its repetition of the famous phrase “Lest We Forget” in the last line of the first four verses, and its reminders of the inevitability of imperial decline and the perils of human folly. For another thing, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” had recently been created in the Abbey. As the mourners shuffled out, the last Liberal Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, is said to have remarked, “It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier.”

Among the mourners were the Dominion Prime Ministers present for the 1923 Imperial Conference. One of them was the forty-year-old Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce. Bruce knew many of the mourners. For example, from their pre-war days at the English bar, Bruce was acquainted with one of the pall-bearers, Edward Carson—the famous Irish cross-examiner who supplemented his legal career with a great political career, made out of the slogan “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”. Carson had praised Bruce’s own efforts as a cross-examiner before the war. In future years Bruce was to become well known to even more of the mourners.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Bonar Law was not the only Unknown Prime Minister. For of all the Australian Prime Ministers since W.M. Hughes, apart from Scullin and Forde, Bruce has the best claim to be called the Unknown Prime Minister.

This would have surprised Bruce’s contemporaries. One of those contemporaries, George Pearce, was the leading member of the Bruce–Page government of 1923 to 1929. In his long career he spent thirty-six years in the Senate and twenty-four in the Cabinet. When he led the Australian delegation at the Naval Disarmament Conference held in Washington in 1921-22, he impressed Arthur James Balfour, leader of the British Empire delegation, a former Prime Minister whose experience of international affairs stretched back to the Congress of Berlin in 1878. He told Bruce that Pearce was the greatest natural statesman he had ever met. For his part, Pearce called Bruce the best Prime Minister of his time in politics on either side. And in 1962 Robert Menzies gave Bruce the supreme accolade: “Probably the outstanding Australian of our time.”

Yet many people now know at most two things about Bruce. One is that in the 1929 general election, he lost not only his office as Prime Minister in a landslide, but also, by a handful of votes, his previously safe parliamentary seat. The other is that he wore spats. He himself claimed that he had once been photographed wearing spats at a wedding. Another possibility is that he once wore borrowed spats to protect an old ankle injury during a chilly visit to the football. Whatever the event, it excited so much derision that he doggedly continued to wear spats until he left politics, on the basis that no one should tell him what not to wear. As has been said, “he did not want either to disappoint his critics or to appease them”.

One myth can be disposed of immediately. Spats or no spats, he was not some foppish fool or silly-ass Englishman out of P.G. Wodehouse, like Bertie Wooster at the Drones Club, or Lord Emsworth feeding his champion pig, the Empress of Blandings. That common caricature of him (right) was quite false.

A fictional equivalent to Bruce may be more readily found in John Buchan’s Richard Hannay. Hannay was a bluff Anglo-South African mining engineer. He had moved in the world of the South African veldt but was not of it. And he had moved in the British cloak-and-dagger world but was not of it either. In the same way, to English eyes Bruce sometimes seemed to be aggressively Australian. To Australian eyes he was over-Anglicised. Both misapprehensions were matters about which he couldn’t have “given a damn”—to employ a phrase he often used.

Bruce was born in 1883 in Melbourne—the “second city of the Empire”. His nearest relatives were far from possessing the excessive “Englishness” attributed to him. His father had been born in Ireland but arrived in Australia as a young and impoverished Presbyterian Scotsman. His mother was an Irishwoman of dark beauty. Bruce’s own wife, whom he married in 1913, was a Presbyterian of Scottish-Irish stock who had lived all her life in Australia and whom Bruce had known since childhood.

By 1883, his father had become the Australian principal of an Anglo-Australian business importing what were called “soft goods”—clothing, fabrics and “Manchester”. Its modus operandi was to buy goods from Yorkshire or Lancashire manufacturers, ship them to Melbourne, and then sell them either directly to the public or to retailers. Billy Hughes later derisively called Bruce “a Flinders Lane importer”. The firm was called “Paterson, Laing and Bruce”.

The family lived in a Toorak mansion. They holidayed in a country residence. His father founded the Royal Melbourne Golf Club. He seemed to be a man of substance. He held many positions suggesting that he was a most solid pillar of the community.

In his early childhood, Bruce spent a couple of years in England, being educated there by a governess. He then went to a prep school in Toorak. His secondary education was at the school now known as Melbourne Grammar School. There he did not shine academically, but he enjoyed great non-academic success. He was captain of football, cricket, rowing and athletics. He was captain of the school. He was active in the parliamentary debating society. He was head of the Cadet Corps.

After school he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read Law. The examiners placed him in the third class. He had not worked hard. Indeed, he admitted that in the first year, “I did nothing but row”. But he rowed in the winning Cambridge VIII of 1904. This is a convenient place to deal with the happy subject of his stature as a sportsman.

Some of our Prime Ministers have been deeply interested in cricket—Barton, Chifley, Menzies, Hawke and Howard. Chifley was good at rugby league. Abbott was good with his fists, both in the ring and in the front row of the scrum. But Bruce outshone them all. He coached many crews while at Cambridge, and many more on leaving. He coached a winning Cambridge VIII in 1914. In 1919 he wrote a short book—Rowing: Notes on Coaching, which was eventually published. He was an apostle of Steve Fairbairn, an Australian who had been at Cambridge twenty years earlier and who advocated a revolutionary technique stressing utility over style. Bruce was President of the select Leander Rowing Club for four years. He was also an enthusiastic rider. Sixty years after the Cambridge years, an eyewitness remembers him as a “superb figure on horseback coaching [the eights] with an unrivalled flow of abuse, as was the fashion in those days”. Like his wife he became a keen and successful golfer. In 1954 he was the first Australian elected Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews. He has had only one Australian successor.

Until 1917, but for occasional visits to Australia, Bruce lived in England. His father’s death in 1901 left Laing, Paterson and Bruce in difficulties. Bruce was appointed acting chairman in 1906, aged twenty-three. He became chairman in 1908. The need to exercise authority and judgment at an early age must have quickened the growth of his latent abilities. From 1906 Bruce also practised at the English Bar. He learned French and Spanish. His firm began to prosper again. It grew to have over a thousand employees. He and two brothers each received £5000 per annum from it—a large sum at the time.

Bruce’s career was closely followed by Warren Denning, a journalist of Labor sympathies who in old age was interviewed by the National Library. He sketched colourful pictures of Bruce at different stages. He said that in the pre-1914 years Bruce had “acquired that quality of aloofness from the Australian man in the street which separated him from the heart of his own country; it left him even in his political heyday a foreigner in his own land, a man out of touch with the people he was leading”. He failed to say that Bruce, whether out of touch or not, was a big man not only in physical size, but in presence and personality. He proved to be so for the rest of his life.

When war broke out in 1914, Bruce volunteered for the British Army, not the Australian Imperial Force. He served in Gallipoli as a subaltern and a captain in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. They landed south of Anzac Cove, at Cape Hellas. On June 3, 1915, he was wounded in the arm. After his return to duty, in August his unit was moved to Suvla Bay. He was awarded the Military Cross for having, on the night of August 21-22, “carried out a difficult night enterprise … and brought in two officers and 40 men of another unit who had been isolated”. He was also mentioned in dispatches for “gallant and distinguished services in the field”. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre avec palme.

On September 23 he received a second and much more serious wound in the knee. It hospitalised him and put him in a wheelchair and then on crutches for many months in Cairo, London and Bournemouth.

The Gallipoli campaign gave Bruce a hatred of war—and an extreme distrust for the strategic judgment of one of its authors, who was also implicated in the Chanak affair, and with whom Bruce had many dealings in the Second World War, namely Winston Churchill.

In 1917 Bruce returned to Australia, still on crutches. He resumed running Paterson, Laing and Bruce. In 1918, he began a political career as the successful Nationalist candidate in a by-election for Flinders.

Warren Denning described him at this time as “a tall, dark, slightly stooping, well-dressed, always slightly Londonish figure, walking with a curious suggestion of the Australian slouch, which was perhaps the only obvious Australian thing about him”. The “slouch” was in fact a dragging of his feet caused by the second Gallipoli wound.

Bruce presented himself to the electors as a simple businessman and soldier. But he was not quite the political neophyte he made himself out to be. As chairman of Paterson, Laing and Bruce, he had included in reports to shareholders detailed analyses of Australian politics and their effects on business conditions, together with remedies for economic problems. Some of his wife’s relatives were politicians. His father had had political interests, having supported Alfred Deakin in the 1880s.

In parliament Bruce spoke a lot, mainly about military and business affairs. He voted against a pay rise for MPs. Without publicising the fact, he took no salary as a backbencher. He accepted pay only when he became a minister in 1921 and had to suspend his work for Paterson, Laing and Bruce.

In 1919 the government sent him to Europe and the United States and Canada to investigate repatriation systems. In 1921 Prime Minister Hughes had him summoned by telegram from a golf course in Dieppe while holidaying with his wife, to represent Australia at the General Assembly of the League of Nations. This started a long interest in international co-operation. On Bruce’s return Hughes made him Treasurer.

The 1922 general election produced no party capable of governing in its own right. The Country Party and its leader, Earle Page, hated Hughes and refused to support him any further. And the feeling was mutual. When in old age Hughes was asked how it was that he had led every party that existed in his lifetime save the Country Party, he replied: “Brother, you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Hughes advised the Governor-General to invite Bruce to form a government. Bruce then succeeded in forming a de facto coalition with the Country Party under Page (left). It has generally been in operation ever since. In hindsight this was an achievement of historic importance in generating political stability at the federal level in Australia, apart from the minority governments of 1940 to 1941 and 2010 to 2013. Page insisted on the government being called the Bruce–Page government, to which Bruce replied that he didn’t “give a damn what it was called so long as we could get a government and get on with the job”. He was thirty-nine. In our annals no one has been younger as Prime Minister (save J.C. Watson, aged thirty-seven) or less possessed of parliamentary and ministerial experience (save Bob Hawke, who had little of the former and none of the latter).

If Hughes had hoped that the inexperienced and fragile coalition would collapse and pave the way for him to return to power, he was to be disappointed. The Bruce–Page government won two elections and lasted six years and eight months, the longest tenure of any federal government until the 1930s.

But why was Bruce chosen? No other Nationalist had any cabinet experience, save the greatest of the Labor rats in 1916, George Pearce, whose presence in the ministry Bruce made an absolute condition of his acceptance of office. Pearce’s enormous experience of office was vital. So was his knowledge of parts of Australian life not well known to Bruce—the worlds occupied by the small farmer, the industrial worker, the miner, the suburban resident, and most people outside Melbourne. Further, unlike Hughes and later Menzies, Bruce was able to harness the talents, such as they were, of the prickly and disorganised Page.

What qualities did Bruce bring to the Prime Ministership? To the junior and the powerless, Bruce was generous, courteous, calm and impeccably mannered. To those of power equal to or greater than his he could be blunt.

He later told Dame Enid Lyons that a Prime Minister had to have a hide like a rhinoceros, overweening ambition and a mighty good conceit of oneself. He filled the bill on these points. But he also had an empirical and non-abstract approach to problems. He thirsted for discovery of the relevant facts. He had punctuality, charm, integrity, firmness, capacity for intense concentration, considerable powers of self-expression, and a good memory.

Sir Garfield Barwick used to praise those who did the work of the day in the day. In that spirit, in the Australian Public Service, Bruce gained a reputation for expedition, and for thoroughness and care in dealing with papers.

Bruce also had certain assets of a negative kind. He had no grass-roots political background. His mind had not been forged into particular positions or policies by the heat and pressure of local prejudices that clung to others like a shirt of Nessus. He had risen to power in a speedy and accidental way. He was thus keen on national policies, not partisan conflicts. Since he was not of the generation that made the Constitution, he had no a priori theories about the balance between the Commonwealth and the states.

Menzies said of him that “he was, of all the notable men I have been associated with, the most down-to-earth and practical, and the least concerned with either theory or rhetoric”. His idea was to foster in Australia the civilisation that underlay the British Empire. He was no socialist, but he did see the government as a potentially active agent of change and development, and an ultimate source of protection for those incapacitated by age or illness or other misfortune.

Bruce was acquainted with many people but had few close friends. For example, despite his numerous official contacts in London in the 1930s and 1940s, he is not mentioned in the diaries of “Chips” Channon. But to avoid being a crony of “Chips” was a badge of honour rather than the reverse. His austerity and remoteness discouraged the heartiness and back-slapping and false bonhomie to which Australian Prime Ministers can be subjected. He disliked his name “Stanley” and discouraged its use.

What were Bruce’s achievements in government? One major achievement was to restore dignity to the office of Prime Minister. Hughes had been unpunctual, chaotic and unpredictably erratic. Bruce was on time, orderly and consultative. Hughes was mercurial. Bruce was methodical. Hughes had rarely attended Parliament. Bruce participated in the debates with concentration, calmness and ability. He showed opponents and journalists the courtesy they did not always show him. Hughes had dressed like a tramp. Bruce was always faultlessly attired for the needs of the particular occasion. These things mattered in an age which prized them more than our own.

Another field of success was his role in fitting Australia out with the institutions which were needed by an increasingly independent nation organised as a modern state—a process partly interrupted by the Great War. He accelerated progress towards Canberra becoming the national capital. The first cabinet meeting was held there in early 1924. The legislature and a small part of the Public Service moved there in 1927. So did the Prime Minister’s residence. Attempts were made to improve the educational quality of the Public Service. He created the body now known as the CSIRO. He created the Commonwealth Bank as a central bank with complete power over the note issue. He created the Loan Council to avoid the seven Australian governments driving up interest rates by seeking loans in competition with each other. He created the Tariff Board and the Development and Migration Commission. His term in office saw the longest period of sustained immigration since the 1880s. The roads, which had been collapsing into an appalling condition, were a state responsibility, but he substantially increased funding in co-operation with the states. He unified the Sydney–Brisbane rail gauge. He established the Royal Australian Air Force. He introduced compulsory voting in federal elections.

In foreign policy, a sharp reaction against the Chanak incident took place in the Balfour Declaration in 1926, partly drafted by Bruce. It declared the United Kingdom and the Dominions as autonomous, equal in status, with full treaty-making power, but united by common allegiance to the Crown. This was also a step towards Dominion autonomy in legislation.

The Bruce–Page government won the elections of 1925 and 1928. But it fell in the 1929 election because of Bruce’s greatest failure—industrial policy. The 1920s were a period of industrial unrest. To cope with it there were federal and state arbitration systems which overlapped. Some thought the systems encouraged strikes. Others viewed two systems as wasteful. In 1926, a referendum seeking to render the Commonwealth regime exclusive failed. In 1928-29 Bruce reversed that policy. Legislation sharply reducing Commonwealth power generated division within the government. Defeat in the 1929 election followed. Warren Denning said: “The Bruce–Page government passed characteristically into extinction. Mr Bruce sat through the divisions in his lounging, imperturbable manner.”

On Bruce’s death in 1967, the Leader of the Opposition in the federal Parliament, Gough Whitlam, pronounced the following stylish eulogy on Bruce’s political career:

He possessed a patrician hauteur which perhaps led him into political difficulties, combined with a singular unflappability which enabled him to survive these difficulties and setbacks with calm indifference.

Bruce did not know it in 1929, but his political career was almost over. He spent the years 1929 to 1931 with Paterson, Laing and Bruce. In 1931 he regained his seat. But the old Nationalist Party had gone and its replacement, the United Australia Party, had Lyons and Latham as leaders. He did become a minister but spent most of the next two years abroad. At the Ottawa Conference on Empire Trade, Bruce and the leaders of other Dominions obtained more favourable tariffs from Britain than were available to non-Dominions. This involved enormously fraught, detailed and painstaking negotiations. The same was true of his next task. As Minister Resident in London, Bruce renegotiated loans by British lenders to Australian borrowers and obtained reductions in the rate of interest. In late 1933 Bruce was appointed High Commissioner in London. He held that post until 1945, and also held various posts at the League of Nations until the war. He had to leave the ministry and leave Parliament. In 1935 his protégé, R.G. Casey, tried to get him back into politics. In 1939, Lyons offered to resign the prime ministership in favour of Bruce. And later in 1939 Page tried to procure the prime ministership for Bruce after Lyons died. But these unrealistic manoeuvres all failed.

In both his new roles—in London and Geneva—Bruce enjoyed great success. For this there were two reasons—his own talent and the peculiar environment of London and Geneva in those years.

By 1933, Bruce seemed to possess ample self-confidence, energy and determination. In the words of P.G. Edwards, he could be “bluntly polite or politely blunt”. He had presence. “Bruce knew what he wanted and would fight for it with endless persistence and patience, ignoring, with what often appeared to be a lordly disdain, the slings and arrows of outraged opponents.” Apart from these skills, he had personal advantages not shared by others. He was a former Dominions Prime Minister. He was a Companion of Honour. He was a Privy Councillor—exchanging information with other Privy Councillors which was secret from all others. He had many other sources of information. He had good contacts in the City of London. He could see any British minister—even the Prime Minister—almost at will and often without notice—including the prodigiously overworked Churchill. And when he did see Churchill, the meetings were not perfunctory but lengthy. He wrote long letters to Churchill. In due course those letters were fully answered.

Let us turn from Bruce’s personal qualities to some key aspects of his environment. The conditions of London in those days favoured Bruce in several ways. The first was that most of the world comprised colonies. In Africa, only South Africa could be described as in any real sense having independence. Ethiopia lost its in 1935. Egypt and Liberia had pretensions to independence, but they were not states that mattered. In Asia, Thailand was independent but weak. Japan was independent but hostile. India was to be very helpful to the war effort but was experiencing the birth pangs of independence. South America was dotted with parts of the European empires. Those parts which were not political colonies were economic colonies of the United States or Britain. By June 1940 there were no states in Western Europe completely independent of Germany or the USSR save Sweden and Switzerland—and to be brutal about it, neither was entirely independent of Germany. Finland had fought gallantly for independence from the USSR in 1939-40 but had somewhat fallen from grace by joining forces with Germany in 1941. The Middle Eastern countries were either de facto colonies or powerless.

Australia was not a very powerful country. Of the Dominions, Canada was the most powerful, but Australia was the most influential. Its capacity for influence was greatly expanded by the power vacuum left by the rise of German and Russian hegemony just before the war began and the collapse of the French, Dutch and Belgian colonial empires after Germany conquered the metropolitan states. During the war, London was a place of even greater significance in the world than it had been in 1939. It was the principal place at which resistance to the Axis by the British Empire and its Allies was organised. And from June 1940 to June 1941 there were no Allies apart from virtually powerless governments in exile. Even after June 1941 Russia was an extremely demanding, difficult and treacherous ally. And even after December 1941, the United States was an unusual ally—determined to destroy the German, Italian and Japanese empires and also the British Empire, but not necessarily in that order.

Bruce is best known for a couple of dramatic episodes in the 1930s. One was his firmness in 1936 in stressing to Baldwin, man to man and face to face, that any marriage between King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson would cause immense harm to the Crown and therefore to the constitutional arrangements of the empire. Another was his vigour in expressing the view of the Lyons government that there should be no war over Czechoslovakia in 1938. He actually put this view, again man to man and face to face, to the British cabinet on September 27, 1938, just before Chamberlain’s third visit to Hitler.

Now as Kipling pointed out, it is very easy to shoot Kruger with one’s mouth. To armchair patriots in 1938 and since, the appeasement policy of 1938 was inglorious. But it is defensible if one concentrates on the unpleasantness of reality. Less defensible was Bruce’s eagerness to detect peace feelers after the fall of France in May-June 1940. But it was not ignoble for a man who had seen the horrors of modern warfare at Gallipoli in 1915 to try and prevent their recurrence in the Second World War. He did unsuccessfully urge the Lyons government to accept 30,000 Jewish refugees—many more than most other countries.

The wartime conduct of Bruce which is most remembered is the relentless pressure he put on Churchill to consult Australia more, despite the superhuman burdens resting on that unfortunate man. Indeed Dr Evatt, of all people, to whom he had to report after Labor took office in 1941, considered that Bruce dealt with Churchill too rudely and abrasively. The imperialist conservatism of Churchill, who had charged at Omdurman in 1898, is understandable, but even strong Labour men like Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary towards the end of Bruce’s stay, were imperialists. Bevin regarded the Dominions as only colonies. Their troops might be useful, but their views did not matter. Their leaders were best seen and not heard.

There is, I think, no doubt that Bruce was the most successful diplomatic representative Australia has ever had. Taking into account the conditions of time and place he faced compared with those likely to be faced by others in future, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a better one.

Bruce’s career at the League of Nations can be summarised briefly. He attended sessions of the League Assembly from 1932. He represented Australia during its term on the League Council from 1933 to 1936. He served as its President. He chaired many committees. He was keenly interested in the League’s roles in improving nutrition, freedom of trade and economic growth. He continued this work with the United Nations after 1945. He was involved in the League’s unsuccessful attempts to deal with the Italian-Ethiopian crisis in 1935, the Rhineland crisis in 1936 and the Sino-Japanese crisis in 1937. His greatest success was his chairmanship of the meetings leading to the Montreux Convention. It guaranteed access to the Black Sea without generating hostility from Turkey, whose neutrality was to be vital after 1939. Turkey had proposed that Bruce be the chairman, and its diplomats were very grateful to him. Bruce’s opponent of 1915, the great Kemal Ataturk himself, gave him a silver cigarette case, which he used for the rest of his life. His tactful and courteous conduct in the chair was much admired. Even W.M. Hughes, whose vindictive hostility to Bruce in 1929 was one cause of the electoral defeat that year, praised Bruce in 1936. He said that the Turks followed Bruce “like a wise old sheep”.


Anthony Eden, the British minister who had most to do with the League, applauded Bruce’s “almost inexhaustible good sense and patience”. Many English tributes to Bruce can be collected in relation to his double roles in the 1930s and his diplomatic role up to 1945.

In 1945 the Chifley government (that is, Dr Evatt) declined to extend Bruce’s term as High Commissioner. Bruce, at sixty-two, was still vigorous and very keen to do hard work. He had great difficulty in finding much of it. He then paid a short visit to Australia. There was no room for him in the Liberal Party. Anyway, it was in opposition. Menzies was firmly in charge. Bruce had probably moved too far to the left to fit into it, with his zest for international co-operation and sympathy for the USSR. Warren Denning saw him on the steamer about to take him back to England as a “grey, stooping, imperturbable, immaculate figure lounging on a deck chair”. Eden and Dean Acheson both favoured his appointment as Secretary-General of the United Nations, but to no avail. He did do some work for United Nations committees. Attlee made him Chairman of the Finance Corporation for Industry Ltd. He received various honours but gradually drifted into the shadowy world of the non-executive director. He died in 1967, shortly after his wife.

I have given you the skimpiest of facts about a most energetic and forceful statesman. Those facts are easy to find out. What lay behind them is not so easy. Bruce’s life was affected by three powerful factors which pushed him in one direction.

The first concerned the fortunes of the family business. That business did not make him consistently and securely wealthy. It is true that at times he was very wealthy, but at other times he was not. At his death he left less than he had inherited from his mother. The effects of the depression of the 1890s, his father’s death in 1901, the world war, his eldest brother’s death and the Great Depression were very damaging. In the 1890s his father nearly went bankrupt. Bruce had to be removed from his prep school for a time. The Toorak mansion had to be sold. Bruce’s gilded Cambridge education was funded by borrowed money. On numerous occasions Bruce had to drop other activities and attempt to get the firm back on its feet. He had no capital—only the income he spasmodically gained from the firm, and his income from government service. The superficial appearance of wealth kept alternating with the bleak reality of economic decline in a sickening, see-saw way.

The second factor is the fate of his immediate family. Bruce was the youngest of five siblings. One brother committed suicide when Bruce was sixteen by jumping under a train at Rockdale station while under treatment in that suburb for mental illness. Then his father committed suicide by jumping from his Paris hotel window when Bruce was eighteen. He was suffering from depression. When Bruce was thirty-six, his oldest brother shot himself, probably as a result of war-caused post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression. Another brother became a chronic alcoholic. His sister died at the age of thirty-five of kidney disease. These shocking events have not been fully revealed to the public until recently. But they must have presented a problem to Bruce which can be put in old-fashioned but brutal words: “Is there madness in my family?”

A third factor was Gallipoli. Immediately after his first wound on June 3, 1915, after Bruce had been evacuated, an attack made by his battalion led to the death of every officer—hence that first wound probably saved his life. His second wound, too, must have seemed providential, for junior infantry officers who survived Gallipoli had only a limited chance of survival on the Western Front. Years later he told a diplomat on his London staff that these experiences made him think that he had been kept on earth for some purpose. All his life he scrupulously attended and organised solemn religious services to commemorate the fallen of the Great War. At Geneva in 1921, and in Parliament on his return, he delivered a very powerful address describing the suffering of soldiers as they experienced the loss of a friend, or the killing of a whole company, or the destruction of an entire battalion almost to a man; the slow death of the wounded beyond the barbed wire; the horrors of gassing.

Behind his aloof and impassive visage his brain seems to have been asking: “Why have I been repeatedly spared a soldier’s death when so many others have died? Why am I sane when half my immediate family is mad? Am I in truth wholly sane? Will I remain wholly sane? Why have I retained some wealth when it is so transient? What purpose is my life to serve? What do my talents and health and assets, such as they are, matter, unless I exploit them for that purpose?”

All this seems to have developed in him a sense of duty—to serve his country and eventually to serve all humanity—and a consciousness of the need to summon up drive and toughness and willpower which would enable him to respond to that sense of duty. He cared deeply about his duty, even though, to use his phrase, he “couldn’t give a damn” about those whom he might offend or those who might criticise him. His life had a nightmarish quality. For him to understand it must have taken courage. To think about it must have caused unendurable pain.

Paul Hasluck was one of our greatest ministers. He worked with Bruce in London in 1945. He was not prone to dispensing cheap praise. But in his memoirs, he described Bruce “as a man of size without pettiness and a good Australian who thought more of the interests of his country than his own importance”. On Bruce’s death in 1967, Hasluck, then Foreign Minister, told the House of Representatives that “throughout his life he … kept steadily before him the possibility of serving Australia and had dedicated himself to that purpose”.

Whether Bruce is a wholly unknown Prime Minister or not, he certainly deserves to be better known.

Dyson Heydon has long had an amateur interest in Australian diplomacy just before and after the Second World War.

15 thoughts on “Stanley Melbourne Bruce: In Australia’s Service

  • sabena says:

    One matter Dyson Heydon does not mention is Bruce’s work at Ashurst Morris & Crisp which he joined whilst reading for the bar.After he joined the bar he was sent by them to Mexico and Colombia in respect of a claim and persuaded the other side to settle which was an achievement given his youth(he was not yet 30).
    The firm is now in Australia as Ashursts,having taken over Blake Dawson Waldron.I wonder whether they commemorate Bruce’s time at the firm?

    • Tony Tea says:

      My grandfather was the senior partner at Blakes (then Blake & Riggall) and while there the trustee for a fund which was intended to keep communism out of Australia.
      PS: There is a Bruce House at MGS.

  • David Isaac says:

    Changing fashion mores be damned Voldemort Zelinsky should folow Mr Bruce’s sartorial example. Thanks for an informative article on a man who seems to have been Ming before Ming. I wonder what he would’ve made of marvellous Melbourne today.

  • Robert McMahon says:

    I am very cross with Judge Heydon about this biographical piece. It was such compelling reading that I could not stop doing so, and was late for an appointment as a result!

    We have a saying that history will be kind to figures misunderstood in the present. This is clearly not the case for Bruce: his contribution to governance in our country has almost been wiped from the national consciousness. That is why this account is as outstanding as it is important.

  • Paul McSweeney says:

    An anecdote re Bruce and rowing to illustrate “the politely blunt” aspect of Dyson Heydon’s excellent article.
    Lex Rental, a revered coach at Melbourne University Boat Club was invited to coach the senior RAAF crew to compete in the first Royal Henley Regatta to be held since the beginning of the Second World War on 7 July 1945. Lex recalled the circumstances in a letter to Clive Disher, the stroke of the winning First AIF crew which won the Henley Peace Regatta and the King’s Cup in 1919 as follows:
    “When the war terminated in Europe Mr Bruce [who was then the Australian High Commissioner in London] sent for me and said ‘Rentoul, I want an Australian Eight to row in the first post war Henley – if only to emulate the example of the First AIF Crew and the King’s Cup.’ I replied that I did not know one single serviceman in England who had rowed. Bruce said: “That is your problem , not mine – get cracking.’ To cut a long story short I managed to produce two eights and a four…”
    Well Rowed University: Melbourne University Boat Club, the First 150 years. p.144

  • wdr says:

    An outstanding essay. Couldn’t put it down. There are parallels with his contemporary Stanley Baldwin.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thanks Dyson for an absorbing, hard to stop reading, article.
    I would only make one suggestion and that is that the title could be shortened to “Stanley Melbourne Bruce: Statesman”. As you have fully described, he undoubtedly was a statesman.

  • Paul W says:

    Excellent article – exactly why I come here. You won’t find it in the MSM.

  • padraic says:

    An excellent article about great man for his times in Australian history, so it is disappointing that his actions and legacy are not more widely known or acknowledged, apart from a suburb named after him in Canberra. Hopefully this Quadrant article is just a start. He became PM in a turbulent time in Australian politics when big social, economic and political changes were taking place in society. Until after WW1 the Empire economic model was for Britain to do the manufacturing of goods for export to the Dominions while the Dominions focused on primary production and mining for export to Britain. Following his experience during the war and the ups and downs of his father’s manufacturing business, Bruce promoted the development of Australian industry by a rational approach to national development. His view can be summed up in what he said in Parliament in the Second Reading Speech of the “Development and Migration Bill”, 1926, viz: “The problems of development and migration …. are linked together inseparably. We cannot develop unless we have more population, and we cannot absorb more migrants unless we develop.” At that time, for example, motor vehicles were replacing horse drawn vehicles as the main means of road transport, electricity was replacing kerosene (and candles) as a source for lighting, the PMG was putting in telephone infrastructure, etc – all of which needed to be supported by a viable manufacturing sector. As well, the country was importing a wide range of consumer goods manufactured overseas and “dumped” in Australia thus holding back local manufacturers, hence the Tariff Board in 1921 to protect the nascent Australian manufacturing sector. The trouble with Protection in Australia was (and still is) that while it may favour the development of local industries it also has a negative effect on the agricultural sector since the high tariffs make the once cheaper imported inputs even more expensive than locally produced high cost products which increases the cost of agricultural production and thus makes its export products less competitive internationally. With his background as a treasurer he could see this problem and set up the Brigden enquiry to examine this issue. He was in a bind – on one hand he knew that Australia had to develop industries under the shelter of Protection and on the other hand at that time Australia was heavily reliant economically on its agricultural exports . Politically, the Coalition model he and Page established has basically lasted until this day and has become more settled following the dysfunctional days of Hughes and Page. Because of his experience of living and working in Britain he was a valuable asset to Australia as High Commissioner in London. He refused to accept the chairmanship of the BBC offered by Chamberlain when it looked war was about break out, preferring to remain as High Commissioner to ensure Australia’s interests were not overlooked if war did break out. When PM, he began the reform of how business was conducted in Cabinet. This had been pretty ad-hoc up until the departure of Hughes. Bruce had several MPs and the High Commissioner in London to study how the British Cabinet Secretariat functioned and as a result he made some minor changes (major changes were effected after WW2) and the way he conducted Cabinet business was more systematic and professional than that of Hughes. As PM, as pointed out in the article, he oversaw the establishment of many of institutions of a modern Australia and which reflected the goals set out in the new Constitution. Not only that, he managed to add to the Constitution the very practical Section 105a as the foundation for the financial arrangements between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories in a successful referendum in 1928. The change I like the most was for compulsory voting – very democratic. – which his government supported but had not initiated; that being done by a private member in the Senate. He was not impressed with politicians using “point scoring” to gain electoral traction and had a high regard for voters as evidenced by what he was reported to have said in a newspaper article , viz: … People taken in the mass have an amazingly sound judgement and a wonderful political sense … What appeals to them is not brilliance, it is character, earnestness and sincerity.” We saw that play out in the recent referendum. Let’s hope that the current Coalition follows this good advice at the next election.

    • Brian Boru says:

      Thanks for all of that padraic. I particularly appreciated your quote from Bruce about the sound judgement and wonderful political sense of people in the mass.

      • padraic says:

        Thanks Brian. In those days and for a while after WW2 political parties used to take out full page ads in newspapers outlining their policies being taken to an election. Their values were well known through the media and books etc and thus the voting public were well informed and hence could make a considered decision when voting. These days it seems that some political groups don’t like to reveal what they are really about, in case people won’t vote for them, hence the “vibe”.

  • Sindri says:

    He would have been astounded by the modern phenomenon of the pile-on.

  • Jeremy Hearn says:

    A fascinating slice of history.
    Thank you very much.
    An off the ball question, Bruce was a very popular first name in Australia as noted by Monty Python.
    My own father born in 1924 was named Bruce.
    Can we assume that this name popularity came from the Prime Minister?

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