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Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1883–1967)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

Stanley Melbourne Bruce, 1920s

Stanley Melbourne Bruce, 1920s

National Library of Australia, 23242080

Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1883-1967), businessman, prime minister and public servant, was born on 15 April 1883 at St Kilda, Victoria, youngest of five children of John Munro Bruce and his wife Mary Ann, née Henderson. His parents were comfortably circumstanced, his father having become a partner in the softgoods importing firm of Paterson, Laing & Bruce in 1878. The family spent some time in England while Bruce was a child, and he began his formal education at Eastbourne, probably with an English governess. In 1891 he entered a Toorak, Victoria, prep school run by Miss McComas, who remembered a delightful boy, serious, earnest, very good-looking, always 'a little gentleman' and very self-reliant. He went on to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1896, where he captained football, cricket and rowing, was a cadet-lieutenant, and in 1901 school captain.

When his father's firm encountered liquidity problems during the 1890s financial crisis, the family moved temporarily from its comfortable Toorak home. His father retained a right to draw £2500 a year and in 1897 he was able to buy out his senior partner, John Paterson. He then formed a limited liability company to which he transferred assets valued at £400,000 and as part payment became majority shareholder. The English partners, or their estates, took up shares and also provided short-term finance. On J. M. Bruce's death in 1901, the English directors controlled London head office. In a manoeuvre to shift that control without a flight of capital, Bruce was made acting chairman in 1907. It was a delicate situation for the family: they could not take up the debt themselves and they could not be sure they would be able to replace the capital if it was withdrawn as the firm's 4 per cent dividend was below market average.

Bruce had worked in the Melbourne warehouse of Paterson, Laing & Bruce in 1902 before going to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He rowed in the winning Cambridge crew in 1904 and in later years sometimes coached for Cambridge, following the principles of Steve Fairbairn. Known affectionately as 'Bruggins' on the tow-path, he had a winning crew in 1914. After he graduated B.A. in 1905, Bruce trained with Ashurst, Morris & Crisp, a leading firm in commercial law, and read for the Bar. He was appointed acting chairman of Paterson, Laing & Bruce in October 1907, and next month was called to the Middle Temple. The firm appears to have taken priority though he had leave to travel to Mexico in 1908 and to Colombia in 1912 on legal commissions to collect evidence. The management of the firm was the reason for his living in London. His elder brother Ernest was in charge of the Australian end of the business.

Bruce's task was to retain the confidence of the English debt-holders while the firm's profitability improved. His appointment as chairman was confirmed in 1908 and in his first report to shareholders he included a detailed analysis of the effects on the market of political developments in Australia. Intended to show the firm was a growth enterprise, this exercise, which Bruce repeated in later reports, kept him up to date with Australian politics. His tact and courtesy to the older directors, together with his sound advice on the business, ensured their continued backing. By 1910 the company had accumulated reserves of £100,000 and the dividend was raised to 5 per cent and in the following year to 6 per cent. It then matched the market and when capital was needed in 1913, Bruce had no difficulty in arranging a new debenture issue.

At Sonning, Berkshire, on 12 July 1913, Bruce married Ethel Dunlop, daughter of Andrew George Anderson and grand-daughter of Thomas Manifold. Ethel was to be his closest confidante. Letters to friends reveal that the decisions which touched him personally and closely in later years were made in consultation with her. They took motoring holidays together, shared interests in bridge and golf, went regularly to the theatre, and when possible to the Henley regatta. On his numerous journeys overseas and around Australia, she always went with him and he was especially helped by her quick recollection of people they had met.

Bruce had come into business at the top but he acquired a thorough knowledge of the firm's operations; in 1910 he returned to Australia to act as general manager while Ernest was overseas. They again exchanged positions in 1914 and at the outbreak of war Bruce was in Australia. He returned to London in December, was commissioned in the Worcester Regiment in January 1915 and, seconded to the Royal Fusiliers as temporary captain, fought in the Gallipoli campaign. He went ashore at Helles and on 3 June was wounded. Bruce rejoined the fighting at Suvla Bay where he won the Military Cross for making contact with an isolated section. In October he was wounded in the knee and invalided to England. Later he received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme in recognition of support his battalion had given the French.

He was able to take some part in the management of Paterson, Laing & Bruce during 1916. Despite shipping difficulties and double taxation, against which he spoke forcefully, the firm was better placed than its small competitors to obtain supplies, and Australians were buying more expensive lines: it continued to pay a 6 per cent dividend. Bruce returned to Australia in January 1917 to take over as general manager, Ernest having left to join the British artillery. The business continued to prosper. By 1919 it had over 1000 on its payroll and a nominal capital of £1 million. In 1920 its dividend was raised to 7½ per cent. On Bruce's initiative a profit-sharing scheme had been extended to junior staff.

Bruce took his military discharge in June 1917. The following April he secured National Party endorsement in the by-election for the Federal seat of Flinders. He observed the benefits of co-operation between National and Country parties when the Victorian Farmers' Union candidate withdrew, following agreement to introduce preferential voting. Bruce had an easy victory. Contrary to the later myth, which he fostered, he was not a political innocent nor did he stumble into politics. Sir Walter Manifold, president of the Victorian Legislative Council in 1919-23 was Ethel's uncle; J. C. Manifold, her second cousin, was a member of the Federal parliament. Fears about socialistic legislation had recurred in his chairman's reports: Labor's land tax was 'a deliberate attack on capital'. Arguing that rising prosperity would counter these tendencies, Bruce had advised vigorous government action on irrigation and immigration. However, the reports reveal a growing disquiet about 'uneconomic' expenditure. In his campaign Bruce stressed the need for business methods in government.

In the guise of a businessman who disliked 'party politics', he was able to criticize the government for its administration while accepting most of its legislation, departing from the party line only on its land tax amendment bill. The new tariff he accepted, acknowledging a need for new industries, a view which derived ultimately from a businessman's appreciation of the benefits to trade of increased national income.

Bruce spent eight months of 1919 at head office in London. Ernest died that year, leaving Bruce to handle the two positions they had shared. He again went to London early in 1921 and was about to return when rumours circulated that he was to be Australia's delegate to the September meeting of the League of Nations. When the appointment was announced he was golfing at Le Touquet, a favourite holiday then and later. At Geneva he spoke movingly of the horror of war: 'If the League of Nations goes, the hope of mankind goes also'. Five of his fellow officers had been killed in the first weeks on Gallipoli.

His return to Australia coincided with a political crisis. W. M. Hughes failed to get the Country Party to join the government and on Sir Joseph Cook's retirement took the opportunity to reconstruct his ministry. Family and business connexions ensured Bruce would be considered, but in this instance he did hesitate: he could combine his responsibilities in the family firm with those of a back-bencher, but he could not run a department and manage the firm. Only when offered the treasurership was he prepared to hand over the running of the company. He placed Thomas Alston, the firm's solicitor and Ethel's brother-in-law, on the board and relied heavily thereafter on his advice for the business. Bruce attended board meetings until a month after becoming prime minister, though he resigned his directorships of the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd and Equity Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. He was fortunate in coming to Treasury at the turning-point of the post-war recession. Relieved of defence expenditure by the Washington treaties, he was able to reduce income tax and show a substantial surplus.

Bruce became prime minister on 9 February 1923. Hughes had failed to get an absolute majority in the 1922 election and the Country Party again refused a coalition. He was forced to recommend Bruce. Protecting his flank from Hughes by getting his approval for (Sir) George Pearce to join the ministry, Bruce conceded to (Sir) Earle Page five of the eleven portfolios, sufficient for the Country Party to value the coalition tactic. Throughout his six and a half years as prime minister his first priority was to maintain the coalition. Repeatedly he arranged electoral pacts well in advance to forestall demands from his own party to go it alone. He was the architect of the most powerful and durable alliance in Australian politics.

Secure in office through Country Party support, Bruce was safe from challenge from within his own party. Unwisely he fell into the practice of consulting the National Party organizers, but few others in the party. In his own view the coalition lacked talent. A steady worker himself, in the office at 8.30 a.m. and using a dictating machine at home, he mastered quickly the detail of government business. His capacity for systematic analysis complemented Page's voluble and erratic brilliance and they worked together harmoniously enough; but it was Pearce to whom he later paid tribute: 'Much of my “courage” as Prime Minister was due to Pearce's pricking me on'.

Attracted to planning big, Bruce set about solving three national problems: economic development, Federal relations and national security. The solutions were interrelated. Security through membership of the Empire would be enhanced if market and investment opportunities between Australia and Britain were maximized; Australia's attractiveness as an investment area would be greater if the outstanding problems between the Commonwealth and the States were solved. Overseas capital must play an important role in its further industrial development. Bruce anticipated Germany would try to regain lost territory and that she would not be in a position to do so for fifteen years. There was no pressing security problem. His willingness to accept British strategic planning, and to add to the Australian fleet in keeping with that plan, should be recognized as being part of a wider strategy on resources. He wanted to attract British capital to Australia. He also wanted to ensure that the links forged by trade and investment would strengthen the country to which Australia looked for its defence.

Bruce was a close observer of American production methods and he warned that a flood of their products would destroy existing price levels. In much the way he lectured his shareholders, he pushed the British to recognize the importance of the Australian market for their ailing industry and the danger to that market of any undermining of prices for Australian exports: to protect their own market, they should protect Australia's market. He expected them to see the logic of Imperial preference. The Empire had 'Men, Money and Markets'; utilized properly these could ensure the industrial strength of Britain as well as of Australia.

For Australia to be an attractive investment area, the Federal system had to be seen to work satisfactorily. At heart Bruce may have been a centralist; in practice his aim was the elimination of friction between Australia's seven governments, the provision of adequate fiscal sources for the States, and the creation of machinery to set guidelines for public borrowing. Significantly, in 1923 he called the premiers together before putting any legislation to parliament. He failed to get agreement on either of his key proposals: a division of the tax field and a distribution by industries of the arbitration jurisdiction of the Commonwealth and the States. He allowed only a short session of parliament for essential business before leaving for the 1923 Imperial Conference.

Bruce tried to commit the British government to his policies for Empire development but he made little headway, apart from enlarging the existing settlement and migration agreement. As the States had used only a small portion of the money available, this had symbolic rather than real importance. His strategy was to affirm Empire unity, the Chanak incident having strained relations in 1922. He quickly abandoned a proposal for a Pacific League of Nations when warned of Canada's objections. Though he was unhappy about the United Kingdom's habit of deciding foreign policy on its own while expecting the Dominions to provide military forces when needed, he was opposed then, and until 1939, to any breaching of the diplomatic unity of Empire. Nevertheless he wished to be better informed, and on his return he arranged for the appointment of R. G. (Baron) Casey as his liaison officer in London. Casey found rooms in the cabinet secretariat, becoming in effect Bruce's personal diplomat. Bruce also placed F. L. McDougall in Australia House as his economic adviser and came to rely heavily on his opinion, especially in trying out an idea.

As an anti-socialist prime minister, Bruce was prepared to sell the Commonwealth Shipping Line, though his requirements on freight charges delayed the sale until 1928. He was not satisfied, however, with the efficiency of Australian industry and hoped to improve productivity by taking expert advice and creating advisory services. His outstanding success was the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research which was to find scientific answers for producers' problems. Bruce wanted the best British scientists to establish it and took a personal interest in finding them. His inclination to seek British experts may have reflected prejudice or been intended to reassure British capital that matters were well managed in Australia. He got J. Ainsworth from the British Colonial Service to report on the administration of New Guinea, appointed (Sir) Harry Brown as secretary to the Postmaster-General's Department, and looked around for a top-class English banker to be governor of the Commonwealth Bank. The bank's charter had been altered in 1924 to provide for the appointment of a board of businessmen and to facilitate its development as a central bank.

During Sir Littleton Groom's absence in 1924 Bruce was acting attorney-general in a period when the unions were ready to test their strength against employers. The post-war recession had passed. The waterfront was busy and both watersiders and seamen were taking advantage of this to regain privileges lost in 1917 and to improve their appallingly bad working conditions. Bruce intervened with Lord Inchcape to assist watersiders but was not prepared to ignore persistent flouting of awards. Before Groom returned in 1925 application was made to deregister the seamen's union.

Bruce never had a consistent policy on industrial relations. He was impatient of complaints by employers about arbitration and included them in his recurring appeal for a new spirit of co-operation in industry. In his own experience he had found the solution to rising costs was to improve efficiency and increase turnover, and it is clear that he believed that too often the employer who complained had not put his own house in order. Yet he had no sympathy for unions persistently using the strike-weapon: in 1925 he had controversial amendments to the Navigation and Immigration Acts passed to break a strike; but he was unresponsive to complaints from employers that the dual system of arbitration allowed unions to shop around. In 1926 he strengthened the Federal court and sought constitutional amendment to gain full industrial powers for the Commonwealth.

When an attempt was made under the amended Immigration Act to deport T. Walsh and J. Johnson, Labor challenged Bruce to go to the country. He won a resounding victory in November 1925. In a campaign which linked strikes and the 'foreign agitator' with loss of wages and rising prices he appealed for law and order, directing that appeal to women especially. Since becoming prime minister Bruce had visited all States and many outback centres. He had been solicitous of women's support, speaking at their meetings and agreeing to the inclusion of women in official delegations. The following he built up by personal contact may have been more important in winning the election than the appeal to law and order; but it was his denunciation of the 'wreckers who would plunge us into the chaos and misery of class war' that afterwards clung to him.

In the new ministry J. G. Latham replaced Groom as attorney-general. Latham had only recently joined the National Party, having entered parliament with the support of the Single Purpose League, its purpose being the abolition of compulsory arbitration. In cabinet Latham argued against penalty clauses in the arbitration act. It was a curious appointment if Bruce's intention at that stage was to get tough with the unions. Groom resented his demotion to Speaker; in 1929 his refusal to vote lost the crucial division for the government.

After a short session and the unsuccessful campaign for constitutional amendment, Bruce left for the 1926 Imperial Conference. As in 1923 he was indifferent if not opposed to Dominion moves to define autonomy. Again he tried to persuade the British of the merits of Imperial preference. He secured a broadening of the terms of the settlement and migration agreement, which allowed the money to be used not merely for putting migrants on the land but also for associated development works. One of his objectives was a national transport system: he had already provided Federal money for roads and was also working towards standardization of railway gauges.

While in London Bruce had heard criticism in financial circles of Australia's 'vociferous' borrowing. He feared an adverse effect on future loans and, partly to counter that but also in furtherance of his long-term aims, he arranged for an officially sponsored delegation of businessmen to visit Australia. His insistence on getting leading industrialists delayed its departure, and by the time the British Economic Mission reached Australia in September 1928 the deteriorating economic situation made a favourable report unlikely.

Bruce was moving steadily towards firmer Commonwealth control of the economy and a new tariff policy. His intentions were to give full protection to those manufactures where the Australian market was adequate 'to keep going plants of sufficient magnitude to constitute an economic unit', and to give protection only to those manufactures, opening the rest of the market to British goods. Further, he would fix duties for a number of years so British industry could plan production for the Australian market. Finally, he envisaged a trade treaty with similar guarantees for Australian produce. The Economic Mission's role was to report the prospects for British industry and so create the necessary pressure in Britain to bring the plan to completion. He was collecting information for the mission through the Development and Migration Commission and a secret inquiry into the cost of the tariff.

In 1927 Bruce also moved decisively to settle financial relations between the Commonwealth and the States, having terminated per capita payments and provided only temporary relief. He changed the basis of negotiation from a division of the tax field to funding State debts, making the offer sufficiently attractive to obtain in return approval for the Loan Council to become the authorizing body for public borrowing. The agreement was made binding by constitutional amendment in 1928. It was to be a more effective weapon against recalcitrant States than he anticipated. Appropriately, given that shift of power, he also oversaw in 1927 the move of parliament and some government departments to Canberra.

In his overarching plan for Australia's future development the pieces were beginning to fall into place. But Bruce's planning went astray. In a major review of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1928 the government required the court to consider the economic effects of its awards, and included in the amended Act penalty clauses and provision for compulsory court-supervised ballots which were objectionable to unionists. On the eve of the 1928 election when a waterside strike threatened, Bruce rushed through legislation to create a system of licensing waterfront labour designed to break the union. On this he had taken Pearce's advice. It was presented to the electorate as a firm stand against industrial anarchy, and endorsed, but the cumulative effect of the two Acts was industrial conflict accompanied by violence. Both helped to discredit Bruce.

When he called the premiers together in January 1929 to meet the Economic Mission, he was still looking forward to new policies. Throughout his years as prime minister Bruce had stalled on social reform, promising national insurance, child endowment and finance for housing, but postponing action on all but the last. He had calculated costs before acting. Yet in 1929 he could write in confidence to McDougall: 'The world is now so far advanced that we have to recognize we must face great expenditure upon social amelioration, and the only way to solve our problems is to adopt the same course as every modern business has been forced to … of expanding our turnover rather than imagining we can solve our difficulties by reducing our expenses'. He had been patiently putting together a complex plan for greater national turnover.

It was too late. Unemployment was increasing. Employers wanted more immediate solutions to the problem of costs. In March 1929 on the northern coalfields John Brown locked out his miners. Latham insisted he be prosecuted but Bruce, in a futile attempt to negotiate a settlement, stopped the prosecution. He had called a premiers' conference for May to hammer out future economic and social policies. Instead the Nationalist premiers met ahead and agreed they would insist on the Commonwealth vacating the field of arbitration. That ultimatum destroyed Bruce's intentions for the conference: without the support of premiers of his own party he could not succeed. Within the parliamentary party his position had deteriorated. Throughout, he had resisted advice to bring Hughes into the ministry and more recently had brushed aside a concerted attempt by William Watt, (Sir) W. Massy Greene and Hughes for changes. W. M. Marks had a grievance about the entertainment tax. In April Latham had contemplated resigning.

In the August budget session, Bruce introduced the bill to abolish the Commonwealth Arbitration Court and Hughes marshalled the dissidents to bring about his defeat. Bruce fought a poor campaign in defence of a measure which it seems doubtful he ever desired. When the Labor Party sought some arrangement which would save the court, Bruce offered to stand aside for Latham. Latham insisted the bill go forward. It was a tough budget and Bruce did not expect to win the election but the loss of his own seat was unexpected. On 22 October 1929 he ceased to be prime minister.

Bruce intended to return. He predicted Labor would be unable to meet its election promises and there would be a swing against it. He would drop out of the news for about a year. He sailed for England in December, travelled in Europe and furthered his contacts with British industrialists. He was working down the familiar lines of a rational division of investment opportunities. Behind the scenes he was negotiating for the Bank of England to provide some relief on the acute problem of Australian government overdrafts. It would not do so, Bruce advised, unless convinced Australia was taking steps to get on a sounder financial and economic basis: the purpose of Sir Otto Niemeyer's visit was 'to convey this without appearing to dictate to Australia, and Scullin's job will be to try and make some arrangement without it appearing to the public in Australia that the government had been dictated to'.

In November 1930 Bruce returned to Australia earlier than he had intended. The government had begun to disintegrate, but the more pressing reason was the difficulties of Paterson, Laing & Bruce. As a result of the Scullin tariff it was losing customers. In 1930 it drew on reserves to pay a reduced dividend and in 1931 reported a substantial trading loss. When a snap election was held in December 1931 Bruce found for a second time his business blocked his political advancement, on this occasion irretrievably. He was back in London explaining the firm's poor performance to the shareholders. Though he was returned for Flinders, he was still at sea when the new ministry was formed. His position in it was assistant treasurer. His own conception of his role was as a steadying influence on the changeable Lyons but he later confided he had no desire to serve Joe again.

Lyons never allowed Bruce the opportunity to threaten his position. He appointed him minister in London and leader of the delegation to the Ottawa Conference. When Bruce sailed in June 1932, having briefly filled in for Latham at External Affairs, his career in politics was over. Well before he could make any moves to return, Lyons offered him the high commissionership in London and when Bruce endeavoured to defer his decision, still contemplating a return to politics and expecting Lyons's health would not hold up, Lyons forced the issue in September 1933.

At Ottawa Bruce consolidated his reputation as a tough negotiator, getting last-moment concessions from the United Kingdom on meat quotas. From there he went to London to renegotiate Australia's debt. Blocked by a government embargo on the raising of new capital, Bruce used his old City contacts to break through. To the chancellor of the exchequer he argued that the Australian people could not be held from default much longer and default would seriously damage British interests. He got access to the money market and carried through the series of conversion loans which by 1935 had substantially reduced interest payments. He had finely judged the mood of the market and the terms it would accept.

As high commissioner in 1933-45 Bruce was closely involved in moves to protect and extend the concessions for Australian produce gained at Ottawa. Discussion of these issues occupied much of his three-month visit home in 1934. He represented Australia at the League of Nations in 1932-39, with a seat on the council in 1933-36. He had not sought the latter, and in private was critical of the 'interminable orations' at the League which dodged 'the issues that count'.

Nevertheless Bruce's reputation as an international statesman was established during the years in which he travelled between London and Geneva while crisis succeeded crisis and the League floundered. When Turkey sought revision of the Straits Convention in 1936 Bruce was accepted unanimously as president of the Montreux conference and his chairing of it was widely acclaimed. He declined another invitation that year to chair a commission on Palestine. The League counted less to Bruce than the contacts he established there. Meeting as an equal with British ministers in Geneva, it became easier in London to get access to senior ministers and to confidential information which enabled him to be accepted as an adviser to the British government in his own right, while also acting as the main adviser to the Australian government. His technique was to send a situation-appraisal to his prime minister with prior warning of the decision he might need to take, so that in most instances the decision when made was as Bruce advised. He had a comparable influence on British policy only on the abdication, where his insistence that Mrs Simpson would not be accepted as queen spurred Baldwin to confront the King.

During the Abyssinian crisis Bruce was a reluctant supporter of sanctions and among the first to advise reconciliation with Italy after partial sanctions had failed to save Abyssinia. The key to peace in Europe he thought was to detach Italy from Germany. He urged the British to recognize this and to formulate clearly their intentions regarding Germany's claims. France, he repeatedly warned, would drag England into a European war: France would neither concede anything to Germany nor take effective action to block her, would not fight for Czechoslovakia, and could not assist Poland. An 'unfulfillable guarantee' to Poland was of utmost danger. In the last days before the war Bruce desperately tried to avert that disaster.

His concern throughout was the repercussions on Australia of Britain's situation in Europe and her lack of policy on China: Bruce recognized the danger to Australia lay in a Pacific war coinciding with a European war. As early as 1933 he was warning Australian ministers that the Royal Navy might not be available when needed: nevertheless he went on seeking assurances that it would. He welcomed (Baron) Hankey's visit in 1934 as a step towards more concrete proposals and was hopeful of getting these from the 1937 Imperial Conference. Again disappointed, he switched tactics in 1938. He began negotiations for large-scale aircraft production in the Dominions, seeking guaranteed orders and technical assistance from England to make the Australian plant viable. He was adjusting earlier ideas on rationalizing Empire production to a war situation. The natural follow-on after World War II began was the Empire air training scheme. He anticipated bombing would interrupt production in Britain and his plans for Australian production had run into difficulties. It was easier, he argued, to take men to the machines for final training than the machines to the men.

In December 1938 on his way to Australia and in May 1939 on his way back, Bruce had seen the American president. The conversations dealt with the likelihood of American support if Japan moved south, but the president regarded a public commitment as premature. When war started Bruce and (Sir Robert) Menzies were in complete agreement that Australia should not commit its forces to a European war while Japan's intentions were unclear. Bruce requested information from the British and he regarded the Admiralty's reply as misleadingly reassuring. None the less it persuaded Casey, then minister in London, and on his advice the troops were promised.

Bruce was already offside with Churchill and he never regained his former standing. Foreseeing the rapidity with which Poland would be over-run, Bruce had tried to mobilize support for a clear definition of peace aims, hoping thereby to avert the destruction of Europe. Meeting with little success, he had put his hopes on Churchill, only to find he had no aim but to smash Germany. Throughout the 'phoney war' Bruce pursued this issue beyond the tolerance of erstwhile admirers in high circles. He had moved almost to President Wilson's position of a quarter of a century earlier. If the world was to be safe after the war the victors had to show something more than acquisitiveness and vindictiveness. The aims he wanted stated as a basis for peace included equality of opportunity for nations, economic and social policies which would obviate recurring boom and depression, and programmes to improve the world food situation. Since the world economic conference in London in 1933 Bruce was concerned about national policies for restricting production as a means of raising prices; at the League of Nations he had chaired the committee which reported on world nutrition. He was moving towards linking these. If more investment was directed to the underdeveloped countries, rising living standards there would ensure the prosperity of the industrial nations. So long as he was trying to mobilize support for a statement on allied peace aims, London was the place where the decisive issues for the future of the world would be determined. To Menzies' increasingly urgent requests in late 1939 for him to go to Washington as Australia's first ambassador, he made excuses.

Bruce continued as high commissioner, loyally serving every wartime Australian government. He joined the War Cabinet in 1942 but had little influence; to his chagrin he found he was invited only on selected occasions. In August 1945 his retirement was announced. In December he returned home. In 1939 on his visit to Australia Lyons had invited him to rejoin the government, but the next day withdrew the offer. Following Lyons's death on 8 April, Page invited him to come back as leader. When it became apparent that the unanimous support of both parties was not forthcoming, Bruce declined the offer. In 1946 the possibility of returning to politics was again canvassed. He was 63 and Labor was securely in office. After allowing the rumours to circulate for four months he left abruptly for England in early April. In the 1947 New Year honours Bruce received a viscountcy, and chose to be Bruce of Melbourne. To an old friend he admitted to having reversed all his previous decisions, having discovered there was 'no niche for me in Australia'. He accepted the honour so as to have a platform if he ever had something to say, but he used it rarely. When he did speak in the Lords it was on familiar lines of doing more for the underdeveloped world. During the Cold War he was arguing that 'well-fed men are not apt to become revolutionaries'.

In London, Bruce was still respected for his business acumen and he became a director of the Peninsular & Oriental and British India Steam Navigation companies and of the Royal Exchange Assurance. He joined the London boards of the National Bank of Australasia and of National Mutual Life. In 1947-57 he was chairman of the British Finance Corporation for Industry Ltd. His inclination always had been to public service and he welcomed an invitation to be chairman of the preparation commission and then of the World Food Council of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1946-51. It was a fitting culmination to the work he had done on nutrition for the League but its scope was much more limited than the proposals he had tried so doggedly to have accepted as the Allies' peace aims.

Late in life he said the three things which had pleased him most were his Cambridge blue, his captaincy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and his fellowship of the Royal Society (1944). This was a characteristic Bruce statement: he had been the dominating figure in Australian politics in the 1920s and later counsellor to leading statesmen of other nations, yet the achievements which he claimed for himself were personal. The others were shared. Bruce believed in the team, though he preferred to lead rather than to follow. He took advice from those whom he trusted and, having made his decision, he accepted responsibility: those close to him remembered, with affection, that if the decision subsequently appeared wrong, there were no recriminations. When invited to return to politics, he waited for evidence that the party was solidly behind him and, finding it was not, he declined. He concealed his disappointment. Accustomed from an early age to exercise authority, he had no relish for serving under others, but neither did he wish to be a focus for division in his party. He was never nakedly ambitious, yet his advice to a younger man that ambition was necessary to succeed in politics undoubtedly was a reflection on himself. He did not like to appear to have been pressured. He could be tough to his own supporters and to his political opponents. The objections of the former were muted but not the latter's: in the folk memory of the Australian labour movement, Bruce was its arch-enemy.

Bruce went out to meet the people, and on tour and as a host he had a charm few could resist. Yet his reluctance to wheel and deal, his propensity to argue from basic principles, and his toughness once a decision was taken, marked him out as exceptional. In consequence, he was regarded, mistakenly, as an Englishman who happened to have been born in Australia: too aloof and reserved to be an Australian. His spats seemed to confirm this. Having worn borrowed spats to the football to protect an old ankle injury from the chill of a damp Melbourne day, when the press scoffed he persisted in wearing them: he would not accept dictation on what he wore. As he was tall, well-built and, in the conventions of his time, handsome, the spats were the joy of cartoonists.

From the time he had been required to live in London to represent the family, Bruce retained a strong sense of being an Australian. The English never doubted whose interests he had at heart. His vision had extended from his own country to the world but, invited in 1951 to be the first chancellor of the Australian National University, he accepted. Other work kept him in England and his visits were infrequent and for ceremonial occasions. This, his last public office, linked his abiding interest in the beneficial uses of science and his long-standing desire to be of service to Australia; he did not relinquish it until 1961. Bruce continued to live in London where he died on 25 August 1967. His wife, who had shared his confidences, had died in March. His will provided a generous endowment for the university and directed that his ashes be scattered over Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • A. Stirling, Lord Bruce: The London Years (Melb, 1974)
  • R. G. Neale (ed), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, 1937-49, vols 1-2 (Canb, 1975-76)
  • Paterson, Laing & Bruce, Annual Report to Shareholders, 1907-34
  • D. Carlton, ‘The Dominions and British policy in the Abyssinian crisis’, Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, Oct 1972
  • P. G. Edwards, ‘S. M. Bruce … and Australia's war aims and peace aims, 1939-40’, Historical Studies, no 66, Apr 1976
  • G. T. Powell, The Role of the Commonwealth Government in Industrial Relations, 1923-1929 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • S. M. Bruce papers, CRS A1420-21, M100-14, A1486-96, Accession CP362/4-5, AA1970/555-9 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • J. Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Paterson, Laing & Bruce records (Australian National University Archives)
  • G. F. Pearce papers (National Library of Australia).

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Heather Radi, 'Bruce, Stanley Melbourne (1883–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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