Stanley Melbourne Bruce: The forgotten prime minister

Dr David Lee

The following paper was presented by Dr David Lee at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 11 April 2010.

In 1962, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, paid a gracious and surprising tribute to Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Australia’s Prime Minister from 1923 to 1929.

Menzies referred to Bruce as ‘probably the outstanding Australian of our time’. This comment was not the product of cronyism. While both men were positioned to the right of Australian politics in the first half of the twentieth century, by the middle of the century this was no longer the case for Bruce.

As Trevor Smith, foreign correspondent for the Australian Associated Press, insightfully commented on the former arch enemy of the working classes in the 1920s:

In Mr. Bruce today, there has evolved as an Empire statesman who is neither jingo imperialist not die-hard Tory. If anything, he is a left-wing Conservative, probably it would be more accurate to say that he is an independent progressive, an individualist with no real political attachment…[1]

Menzies made the remark as he himself was approaching his record 16-year term as Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966; while Sir Howard Florey, the doyen of Australian scientists and discoverer of the therapeutic value of penicillin, still lived; and the cricketer Donald Bradman was still regarded with an affection that far surpassed any that the Australian people had ever had for Bruce, whose achievements by that time they had largely forgotten.

The Sun Herald newspaper commented that Menzies’ remark would be neither popular nor historically endorsed. Bruce’s six-year period as Prime Minister, the paper continued, was ‘averagely successful’ but ‘wrecked by a gross political miscalculation in 1929’ and ‘the fact remains that the greater part of his career was spent abroad’.

This parochial commentator voiced the sentiment of many Australians then and later. For many Bruce was, and remained, simply a caricature: the man who wore spats, who lost his seat and who was more English than Australian.

Three biographies have thankfully helped correct the record.

Cecil Edwards was a journalist who followed Bruce round the campaign trail in the 1920s, knew him, and talked to him extensively for his 1965 biography Man of Two Worlds.

In a time of strengthening Australian nationalism Bruce, Edwards wrote, was a man who divided his life between the Old Country and the new. For Edwards, Bruce straddled two worlds: one British and the other Australian. However, this assessment, in part, conformed to the stereotype of Bruce derived from popular caricature.

Among nationalists and Australian natives there was a strong view of Bruce that he was ‘English and not Australian’. Among members of the Labor Party and the working class, Bruce’s manners and bearing were often the subject of derision.

In 1923, the year of Bruce’s accession to the prime ministership, the Labor MP Frank Anstey described Bruce as ‘a cultured Australian seeking to adapt himself to the manners, customs, and fashions of Bond Street and Piccadilly’.

The lasting working-class resentment towards Bruce is demonstrated by a perhaps apocryphal piece of Canberra folklore: that Bruce, before his death in 1967, had stipulated that his ashes should be scattered over Canberra, the rural Australian town that he had helped to establish as Australia’s capital. So the story goes, when the terms of his will were executed, the working-class patrons of the outdoor beer garden of the Ainslie Hotel made sure to cover their beer glasses.

Bruce was the subject of two further biographies. The diplomat Alfred Stirling wrote a personal memoir of Bruce’s period as wartime High Commissioner in London and added the hope that his memoir and Edwards’ biography would later form the basis of a more definitive biography.

IM Cumpston, then a London-based historian, wrote a third biography in the 1989. This biography added in some respects to the first two. But in the 1998 Oxford Companion to Australian History, Professor Stuart Macintyre wrote that none of the biographies had fully ‘rehabilitated his domestic reputation as an anglophile reactionary…[But he] is likely’, predicted Macintyre, ‘to become better appreciated as one of the shrewdest in a line of Australian statesmen, from Deakin to Menzies, who mediated the imperial relationship’.

The marvellous exhibition displayed by the National Archives in 2009 and 2010 about Bruce is making an important contribution to the reassessment of Bruce’s innovatory significance. For Bruce ranks in importance alongside Alfred Deakin, WM Hughes, John Curtin, JB Chifley and RG Menzies as one of six most important Australian politicians of the first half of the twentieth century.

He was a Member of Parliament from 1918 to 1929 and again from 1931 to 1933. He was Treasurer from 1921 to 1923, Prime Minister between 1923 and 1929, assistant Treasurer and Resident Minister in London from 1931 to 1933, and High Commissioner in London between 1933 and 1945.

In this talk I’ll look at Bruce’s formative years, his career in Australian politics and his post-prime ministerial career in order to place his legacy in historical context.

Stanley Bruce was born in 1883, the son of a Scots Northern Irish immigrant, John Munro Bruce. John Bruce emigrated to Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century and became a partner in the Melbourne softgoods (that is, linen, clothing and apparel) firm, Paterson, Laing and Bruce. Bruce’s father was doing well enough to have become part of the Melbourne establishment and to send his son to Melbourne Grammar School by the early 1890s.

Guido Baracchi, later to become influential in the Australian Communist Party, was several years Bruce’s junior at school. He recalled being impressed with his favourite ‘old boy’, Alfred Deakin, who used to thrill the students with his oratory on speech days:

But at the school it was SM Bruce who, as Captain of the School, was more immediately my hero. He was in the Sixth Form while I was still in the ‘Shell’ so called, but in a spare hour I used to sit in at the English class…which Bruce attended and would anticipate with pride the friendly smile and nod with which he always greeted me at the end.[2]

But the 1890s depression hit the Bruce family hard. Stanley had to be withdrawn from Melbourne Grammar School temporarily before returning to captain the school and excel in football, cricket and rowing. ‘However, golf was the sport which was to sustain him throughout his life.’

His scholastic abilities were inferior to his athletic ones; while he could not be described as an intellectual, he was an intelligent man capable of synthesising vast amounts of information and conveying his arguments in cogent prose.

Under pressure from his business partners, Paterson and Laing, both of whom blamed him for the ailing fortunes of the business, John Munro Bruce raised the capital in the 1890s to buy them out and bring the firm under the control of the Bruce family. This was a complex and risky initiative, undertaken with the Australian economy in a slump.

In the midst of it, in Paris in 1901, John Munro Bruce died. In this talk, I won’t discuss the circumstances of his father’s death or those of his brothers. But you can consult those details in my forthcoming biography. Suffice it to say that his adolescence and adulthood were marked by personal tragedy and loss.

The outward image of Bruce by which he became known – calm, unruffled, imperturbable – belied an inner turmoil. Some of this, I think, is reflected in the painting by the artist, William Beckwith McInnes, on display in Old Parliament House. Bruce is depicted in profile, isolated against a dark background, the face and hands highlighted.

Contrast this portrait with McInnes’ interpretations of Bruce’s successor, Jim Scullin, a man overwhelmed by the Great Depression, and Scullin’s successor, a satisfied looking Joseph Lyons. One senses that McInnes saw behind the Bruce enigma, a man constantly thinking, driven by his family experiences and war service to leave a mark in the world.

Most of Bruce’s immediate family died one after the other from 1899 to 1919 and then in 1915 he was sent to endure the carnage in Gallipoli where so many more of his comrades died.

His family and war experience left with him a sense of providential survival that helps explain the driving ambition he applied to Australian and international politics.

A great source of stability for Stanley to counterbalance his personal history was his marriage. He wedded Ethel Dunlop, daughter of Andrew George Anderson and grand-daughter of Thomas Manifold, in 1913. The Manifolds were a prominent family from the Western District of Victoria.

Stanley periodically came back to Australia to help run the firm, but the majority of the period 1901 to 1914 was spent in England.

Bruce returned to Australia somewhat by accident during the war. By family agreement, Ernest Bruce, who had served in the Boer War, was supposed to stay in Australia as General Manager of Paterson, Laing and Bruce, while Stanley would enlist. Although he was then in middle age, Ernest enlisted and served in the British Artillery after 1917 when Stanley had been demobilised.

When he returned to Australia, Bruce’s family connections encouraged him to stand for Parliament as a Nationalist in the seat of Flinders. Bruce won the by-election easily in 1918, campaigning on a win-the-war platform and the need to introduce business-like methods to government.

I’ll now turn to an examination of Bruce’s time in federal politics. His period as a back bencher from 1918 to 1921 was unremarkable. He made few interventions in Parliament and concentrated much of his time on the business affairs of Paterson, Laing and Bruce. His ascension to the prime ministership had much to do with the entry of a third force into Australian politics: the Country Party in the immediate post-World War I years.

When Bruce joined the Nationalists, he saw himself not as joining a conservative party but a broad-ranging and progressive coalition of patriots dedicated to winning the war. After the war and with the strengthening of protectionist arrangements for industry and workers, the rural element in Australia sought to protect its own particular interests by establishing a separate political party. The formation of the Country Party precipitated Hughes’ downfall and Bruce’s rise.

The hostility of many Liberals and conservatives to Hughes’ socialist proclivities and the detestation of the Country Party for his policies led to the leader of the Country Party, Earle Page, seeking to topple Hughes in 1922.

In order to strengthen his ministry against Country Party attacks, Hughes had invited Bruce to join the government in 1921. By accident in London in 1921, the government had invited Bruce to be Australia’s delegate at the League of Nations.

In Geneva, he had spoken movingly of the futility of war and made such a mark on the gathering that he came to the positive attention of the Australian and international media.

The key figure in Hughes’ government after World War I after Hughes himself – Walter Massy-Greene, the Minister for Trade and architect of the ‘Greene tariff’ – was Bruce’s chief rival.

But to general surprise, Massy-Greene was defeated at the 1922 election by the Country Party candidate Roland Green, campaigning on the slogan ‘Vote for Greene without an “e”’. The election gave the Country Party the balance of power and gravely weakened Hughes’ prime ministership.

That left the still relatively young Bruce, holding the only senior portfolio other than the premiership, as Hughes’ only viable successor despite having one year’s experience in government.

As a clean skin Bruce was well equipped to conduct the negotiations with Page that led to the composite Nationalist–Country Party being formed, which replaced Hughes’ Nationalist government in 1923. Bruce became Prime Minister – an accidental Prime Minister – at the age of 40.

Bruce’s prime ministership has been presented as unremarkable. Moreover, a major criticism of him is that policies of extravagant borrowing left Australia in a particularly vulnerable position on the eve of the Great Depression.

Such a view underplays the difficulties that Bruce faced. Compared with his immediate predecessor Hughes, who split the Labor Party, bungled the conscription issue and left behind a legacy of a bitterly divided Australia, partly on sectarian lines, Bruce, for all his faults, was a more constructive Prime Minister.

Bruce did not come into Australian politics with any ‘federalist’ baggage, that is, an inflexible idea that the Commonwealth and states should be confined to their separate spheres; he was a nation-builder prepared to use Commonwealth cooperation to achieve national goals.

His first substantial achievement was the Nationalist–Country Party coalition (the coalition today consists of the Nationalists’ successor, the Liberal Party, and the Country Party’s successor, the National Party). From Bruce’s time for the rest of the century, the coalition would be in office for about twice the length of time as Labor.

In 1923 Hughes, the ‘Little Digger’, had nominated Bruce as his successor. But he always thought that the young upstart would fall at the hurdle and that his ‘composite’ Nationalist–Country Party government would break up, prompting the nation to recall their Cincinattus to the prime ministership. But Hughes was no Roman dictator to return to centre stage. He was to remain a thorn in the side of Bruce, who not only consolidated his position domestically, but also followed in Hughes’ footsteps to become a stirrer for the dominions in London, particularly at the 1923 Imperial Conference, when he was depicted in a Punch cartoon leading a chorus of cubs demanding ‘meat’ when offered ‘dried fruit’ by the British lion. He and the other dominion prime ministers were much feted for their contribution to Imperial politics.

It was at this conference that Bruce announced his famous aphorism, ‘men, money and markets’. This was no manifesto for enriching wealthy capitalists like him. It was an idea of nation and empire building. Australia needed immigrants (men) from Great Britain to populate the new nation. To do that Australia needed investment and capital money from Britain. And it also needed new markets, mainly in the Empire, so that the immigrants settled on the land could sell their agricultural products. At that time, wool and wheat were Australia’s staple crops; but other products such as meat, dairy and dried fruits struggled to find international outlets.

Returning to Australia in 1924 from a pilgrimage to Gallipoli, after which he retained an abiding affection for Turkey, Bruce found his supporters restless.

In the following year, an election would have to be fought but there was not yet any institutional basis for the coalition at a time when the state Country Party in Victoria had supported Labor and vice versa. If Country Party and Nationalist members competed against each other, there was no knowing what the outcome would be: Bruce’s semi-rural seat of Flinders was especially at risk.

In 1924, Bruce forced through an agreement he reached with the Country Party Leader, Earle Page, for the Nationalist and Country parties to give each other’s sitting members electoral immunity; and more generally to exchange electoral preferences.

Bruce’s ‘crash through or crash’ policy on the pact – he was prepared to dissolve the government over it – worked. The electoral organisations of both parties caved in and agreed to it; Bruce fought the 1925 election on it; and it has substantially survived to the present day.

His activities in this regard were to extend beyond ‘bricks and mortar’ and the symbolic moment. In addition to his support for establishing Canberra as the national capital and his policy on roads, other examples include his creation of the CSIR (now the CSIRO), and most significantly, his creation of the constitutional reforms of 1927, whereby the Commonwealth took responsibility for state debt, achieving national policy goals through grants to the states.

His Main Roads Development Act 1923 set an important trend in long-term Commonwealth policy by exploiting Section 96 of the Constitution, which provides that the Commonwealth ‘Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit’. The Whitlam and later governments would especially exploit this section.

Bruce’s roads legislation authorised Commonwealth grants to the states under Section 96 for the purpose of building and maintaining roads according to a program approved by the federal Minister for Works and Railways.

This was an ingenious way for the Commonwealth to solve the problem of its preponderance as a collector of revenue and the limitations of its constitutional powers vis-à-vis the states.

In conjunction with the Commonwealth’s taxation power, Section 96 enabled the Commonwealth government to influence the uses that the states made of their exclusive legislative powers.

Australian roads before the 1920s were in dire shape; after the 1920s they were vastly improved.

One of Bruce’s most significant achievements was the establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Towards the end of the decade, however, he became concerned with the degree of Australian protectionism.

His intention was 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’, but only to such manufactures, opening the rest to British goods.

Bruce’s penchant for efficiency and business-like methods of government led to a significant reform of Commonwealth–state relations in 1927. Concerned by the inefficiency of Commonwealth and states competing with each other to borrow on the London money market, he abolished the system of per capita payments to the states and arranged for the Commonwealth to take over state debts.

Henceforth the Loan Council, a body consisting of Commonwealth and state ministers, would be the constitutionally approved vehicle to coordinate and authorise public borrowing in Australia.

The supremacy of the Commonwealth in the financial field, which Bruce’s reforms had brought about, was confirmed in 1932 when the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier, Jack Lang. This was after Lang refused to pay money into the Commonwealth Treasury for the repayment of debts under the Commonwealth’s Financial Agreements Enforcement Act. Bruce played a leading role in formulating the Lyons government’s tactics against Lang.

Bruce’s Achilles heal was industrial relations. In 1925, he had toughed out an Australian seamen’s strike in support of their British brethren, and followed this with an effort to deport two leaders of the Seamen’s Union: the Irish-born Tom Walsh and the northern European-born Jacob Johnson. While the High Court later ruled out the deportation of the two unionists, Bruce was able to easily win a law and order election later in the year.

From his point of view he saw union militancy as a perverse preference for conflict over cooperation and as a threat to the kind of peaceful, prosperous, scientific and rational domestic and international order he wanted. This stance would lead to Bruce from 1925 onwards becoming a polarising and deeply unpopular figure, in his time perhaps the most despised non-Labor Prime Minister.

He and his new Attorney-General, John Latham, became concerned with the overlapping Commonwealth and state jurisdictions over industrial relations.

In 1926, Bruce and Latham unsuccessfully fought for a constitutional amendment to gain full industrial powers for the Commonwealth.

On the eve of the 1928 election, confronted by industrial turbulence on the waterfront, Bruce rushed through legislation to license waterfront labour and thus break the Waterside Workers Federation, rebelling against Commonwealth awards. Bruce licensed waterfront workers with a dog collar, both disciplining unionists and opening up the waterfront to non-union labour. The parallel between this and the Howard government’s waterfront policies of the late 1990s is striking.

Bruce won another election in 1928 when he presented the future to the electorate as a choice between law and order and industrial anarchy.

In 1929, however, the industrial situation deteriorated. The coal proprietor, John Brown, locked out the miners on the northern New South Wales coalfields. Latham recommended he be prosecuted, but Bruce, in an effort to bring the parties together to settle the dispute, stopped the prosecution.

Then Bruce went ‘over the top’, to use the military metaphor, and brought in a Bill to abolish the Commonwealth Arbitration Court and vacate the field of industrial relations in favour of the states.

Bruce’s decision to go ‘over the top’ reflected his extreme frustration with labour disputes and his lack of adequate power to deal with them, his accurate sense that the Australian economy was heading for a crash unless major economic reforms were effected, and also his tiredness and depression.

He had been prime minister for six-and-a-half years and he had told his Cabinet colleagues after the 1928 election that he could not continue working at the same pace.[3]

He would not be pinned down by sniping in the trenches from the detested Hughes, who had publicly criticised liberal policies relating to the immigration of Italians, and for the rest of the year worked actively against him.

Bruce would follow the example of his father when he took the bold gamble of taking over Paterson, Laing and Bruce in the 1890s – he would go ‘over the top’, to use the military metaphor he often used, and attempt to resolve Australia’s economic problems in one decisive move.

Bruce had come to the view that the coming economic depression would hit Australia hard unless it did two things: lowered the rates of tariff protection, which he regarded as excessive, and reformed industrial relations by handing over centralised wage fixing to the states. In short, Bruce believed he had fundamentally to reform the Australian ‘settlement’ established after 1901.

The result of the election on 12 October was devastating for Bruce. Overwhelmingly, the Australian people feared that the economic foundations of their lives would be torn away by the dismantling of Commonwealth arbitration.

Bruce’s effort to reform radically the industrial relations system encouraged the same kind of political mobilisation against him that the Howard government’s industrial reforms provoked before 2007.

It was a landslide victory for Scullin’s Labor Party, which won 46 of the 75 seats in the House of Representatives, taking five seats from the Nationalists in New South Wales and four in Victoria.

The depth of the Nationalist defeat was so great that not only did four Nationalists lose their seats, but Bruce himself was defeated in his own electorate by none other than a trade unionist whom he had prosecuted over a strike, EJ Holloway.

I have talked about Bruce as Australian Prime Minister. I’ll now proceed to examine his later career, which was in fact more distinguished than his prime ministership, particularly after he was appointed as High Commissioner for the Commonwealth of Australia in London, a post he occupied between 1933 and 1945.

First, however, after a brief period in London, Bruce was to return at the end of 1931 to campaign for his old seat of Flinders.

But he arrived back in Australia too late to obtain more for himself than the position of Assistant Treasurer in the United Australia Party government led by Joseph Lyons. As well as negotiating the Ottawa Agreement (a system of reciprocal preferences between Britain and Empire countries), Bruce oversaw the conversion of Commonwealth and state debts, incurred before the Depression at high interest rates, into loans with the lower interest rates that prevailed during the 1930s.

He also earned a considerable international reputation in the 1930s for his work at the League of Nations. Broadly, he thought that the League would fail if it tried to act as a security organisation, but considered that it had great value in the technical and economic fields in raising world standards of living and nutrition. For this he was nominated by his government for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936.

Bruce’s most substantial contribution to the League of Nations came in 1939 when the Secretary-General of the League, Joseph Avenol, asked Bruce to chair a committee of experts to advise on League reform. His so-called ‘Bruce Report’ urged the League to devote equal efforts in the social and economic sphere as in the political.

In addition to its role on matters of sovereignty and peacekeeping, the League had played an expanding role in fostering international cooperation to address transnational socioeconomic problems that could not be overcome solely by national action, for example on narcotics, refugees, health and finance.

Bruce had been active in promoting both these programs and the inclusion of a social welfare ethic in them. Following the Council’s action, Avenol impressed on Bruce the importance of the task and hoped Bruce’s committee would prepare a report ‘of a very wide nature’ permitting the League to escape the ‘impasse’ confronting it.[4]

The Bruce Committee, which met in Paris on the eve of World War II from 7 to 12 August 1939, issued its report on 22 August. The resulting Bruce Report accordingly recommended establishing a Central Committee for Economic and Social Questions to direct the work of all the relevant League committees.[5]

Although the Bruce Report was overtaken by the outbreak of war, it was a landmark in the history of international organisation that subsequently paved the way for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, which would coordinate the work of the United Nations’ manifold specialised agencies.

It was the culmination of a movement to transform the League into an organisation for the study of socioeconomic concerns and to promote the idea that international economic policies should promote the wellbeing of the masses.

While the League was soon to break up, the Bruce Report helped lay the foundation for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in whose establishment he was later centrally involved. He supported the appeasement of Germany, while urging that the Empire use the breathing space of peace to re-arm.

Another high point in his diplomatic career was in 1936 when he chaired an international conference at the Swiss town of Montreux, which restored to Turkey its full national control over the Dardanelles by peaceful negotiation between treaty partners.

In his closing remarks at the conference, the man, who as a temporary captain had fought to seize the Dardanelles for the Allies in 1915, declared that Turkey in 1936 had provided a ‘magnificent example’ to the whole world in trying to reach a solution to international problems through legal methods.

He also expressed the hope that the Montreux conference would mark the way for easier and better regulation of international conflicts.[6] The agreement at Montreux gave practical expression to Bruce’s thesis that international collaboration on the basis of peaceful negotiation, especially between erstwhile enemies, offered an efficacious means of preserving world order.

For Turkey, Rustu Aras remarked that ‘we should rejoice that those tragic happenings which marked one of the most heroic episodes of the Great War spared [Bruce] so that one day he might come and preside here over the peaceful solution of the question of the Straits’.[7]

Another Turkish diplomat, Rauf Orbay, described Montreux to Bruce as ‘the beginning of Anglo–Turkish friendship – shattered by World War I – on a strong basis’.[8] Of immense personal significance was a silver cigarette case that Atatürk himself sent to Bruce and which Bruce was to use for the rest of his life.[9]

Bruce served as High Commissioner in London from 1933 throughout World War II. Bruce’s period as High Commissioner in London was a frustrating one. As a rationalist and peaceable man, Bruce naively thought that the warring nations, rather than fight the horrors of industrial and total war, would be induced to the negotiating table where a peaceable world order would be negotiated.

This fundamental view, as well as his tireless advocacy for the proper reflection of the Australian point of view in the making of imperial policy, put him at odds with the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

They disagreed on many issues: the botched British attack on Narvik in April 1940, the possibility of a negotiated peace with Germany in April 1940, and on the fiasco of the largely ANZAC operations in Greece and Crete. On fundamental issues like the negotiated peace idea, Churchill was right and Bruce wrong. But on many strategic issues Bruce’s advice was sound.

The real long-term significance of his diplomatic work in the 1940s was not strategic but in the area of international postwar reconstruction. Although Bruce had little influence over Churchill, he was respected by other British ministers and officials. Moreover, he had met, knew well and was even more respected by members of Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration, by Roosevelt himself, State Department officials like Dean Acheson and Sumner Welles, and most importantly, the US Ambassador in London, John Winant.

Bruce impressed on both the British government and US policy-makers the need for a joint declaration of war aims that sketched the fundamental basis of an entirely new postwar order.

During Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s first Summit meeting off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, Roosevelt, influenced in part by Bruce and Winant, pressed Churchill for a joint declaration of Allied war aims and peace aims.

Ironically, Churchill who had stood resolutely against Bruce’s idea of making such a declaration now took up Roosevelt’s suggestion with alacrity.[10] The two leaders, assisted by their advisers, agreed to issue nine points in what became known as the Atlantic Charter.[11]

Bruce indirectly influenced the Charter through his paper to the British War Committee a few days before the Charter was agreed and through his personal diplomacy with US officials, particularly Winant, Harry Hopkins and Sumner Welles. The Charter, which was subsequently adhered to by other Allied countries including Australia, became the basic reference point for a series of Allied statements and agreements that progressed through to the United Nations Charter of 1945, and ultimately to one of Bruce’s proudest achievements, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Atlantic Charter would also serve as one of the foundation documents in the alliance between the United States and Great Britain and its dominions, and as the basis for the doctrine of multilateralism that would underpin international relations in the period after 1945.[12]

Later in the 1940s, Bruce played an important role in establishing the one important UN specialised agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, headquartered in Rome. He was to chair the Preparatory Commission on World Food Proposals, which was tasked with addressing the seemingly intractable problem of providing food for the world’s peoples in 1946, and chaired the World Food Council until 1951.

The legacies of Bruce’s prime ministership are considerable: the federal coalition, national policies achieved through cooperation with the states such as federal road aid and the Loan Council, the establishment of Canberra as the national capital, and his support for the establishment of scientific principles to industry and agriculture.

Beyond the purely domestic, Bruce was visionary in contemplating a postwar world in which the European empires were decolonised, and international economic collaboration institutionalised through such entities such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Indeed, Bruce’s postwar vision of the international order has been realised to a greater extent than that of Churchill, who had a more limited conception of international organisation and aspired to resurrect the British Empire of his boyhood.

After his retirement from the high commissionership, Bruce lived as an expatriate in London, tirelessly advocating international cooperation and continuing his association with Australia through the Australian National University, which he saw both as a university to represent the nation and as the premier Australian institution for international research.

After his death in 1967 he was generally under-appreciated by Australians for, despite significant flaws, he had played a constructive role in Australian politics and a major role in the development of international collaboration and organisation. While Bruce did never attained the stature internationally of the South African Jan Smuts, the two men are comparable figures: both of them strong nationalists as prime minister of their respective dominions, advocates of their country’s integration into a strong British Empire, internationalists who both played prominent roles in the development of international organisation, and chancellors of major universities.

On 25 August 1967, Stanley Bruce died at the age of 84. The response to his death in the Australian press was patchy, it having been overshadowed by deaths of a Beatles manager and a Hollywood film actor.[13]

Ranking Bruce in Australia on his prime ministership alone, he falls short of Alfred Deakin, the visionary architect of the Australian settlement but, as Warren Denning concluded, he ‘is worthy of consideration alongside Deakin; in some ways the Cambridge blue was a better Prime Minister, because more enduring things took solid shape and substance under his practical, businesslike hand’.[14]

His was also a less significant prime ministership than that of Robert Menzies, whose 16 years as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 dwarfed Bruce’s six-and-a-half year prime ministership but who was, for all that, a less imaginative and visionary politician than his predecessor. He falls short too of John Curtin, the inspired and inspiring war leader. Bruce’s prime ministership was more successful, however, than the divisive and unstable Hughes, of Scullin whose government was wrecked by the Depression, and of Lyons whose prime ministership resulted in diminishing confidence in federal institutions.

But if we take into account the totality of Bruce’s life: his prime ministership and his international experience, one can see the justice of Menzies’ 1962 assessment. As a statesman he was the ‘outstanding Australian of our time’.


1 Alfred Stirling, Lord Bruce: The London Years, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1974, p. 62.

2 Baracchi to Edwards, 18 December 1966, Edwards Papers, MS 4637, Box 3, National Library of Australia.

3 Bruce to McDougall, 30 April 1929, NAA: M111, 1929; Alfred Stirling, Lord Bruce: The London Years, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1974, pp. 165–6.

4 Avenol to Bruce, 27 May 1939, League of Nations Archives, 1933–1946/50/38247/38247 (R.5805).

5 Victor-Yves Ghebali, La Société des Nations et la réforme Bruce 1939–1940, Centre européen de la Dotation Carnegie pour la paix internationale, Geneva, 1970.

6 Actes de la Conference de Montreux, 22 Juin–20 Juillet. Compte Rendu des Séances Plenières et Procès-Verbal de Comité Technique, Paris, 1936, p. 185.

7 Undated notes by SM Bruce, c.1936, NAA: AA1910, 33.

8 Alfred Stirling, Lord Bruce: The London Years, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1974, p. 280.

9 Aras to Bruce, 22 September 1936, enclosing letter from Atatürk to Bruce; and reply from Bruce to Atatürk, 22 September 1936, NAA: M104, 4; Cecil Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne: Man of Two Worlds, Heinemann, London, 1965, pp. 239–40.

10 See Sir Llewellyn Woodward, British Policy in the Second World War, Vol. II, London, 1971, pp. 198–210.

11 Cablegram from Cranborne containing message from Churchill to Menzies, 24 August 1941, DAFP V, pp. 85–7.

12 See Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights, Cambridge, 2005.

13 Alfred Stirling, Lord Bruce: The London Years, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1974, pp. 459–60.

14 Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Oral History Interview, Denning Papers, MS 5129, Box 1, Folder 4, National Library of Australia.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019