Bruce, Stanley Melbourne, Viscount Bruce of Melbourne 1883-1967, Australian prime minister and diplomatist, was born in Melbourne 15 April 1883, the youngest of the four sons and one daughter of John Munro Bruce and his wife, Mary Ann Henderson, who both came from Ireland. His father was born in county Leitrim of an old Scottish family, and was schooled at Madras College, St. Andrews, Scotland. After experience in Belfast he went to Melbourne at the age of nineteen and soon became the head of Paterson, Laing & Bruce, a softgoods firm with branches in Sydney and Queensland. He introduced golf to Australia in 1891. His son was to be the first Australian captain of the Royal and Ancient, at St. Andrews, Scotland.
Bruce was educated at Melbourne Grammar School, where he was captain of rowing, cricket, football, athletics, and of the school. The family firm suffered in the bank crash of 1893 and his father died in 1901. After a year in the warehouse, Bruce entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1903. He read law and rowed in the winning Cambridge crew of 1904. He coached college crews (and the Cambridge crew in 1911) until the war of 1914-18 and again in 1919. He wrote an excellent treatise, Rowing, Notes on Coaching (1936, written in 1919), which could serve as a guide to his Cabinet-formation. He was president of the Leander Club 1948-52.
Called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1907, he practised in the equity jurisdiction, specializing in company law. At the age of twenty-three he became chairman of the London board of his firm. Early briefs took him, for evidence on commission, to Mexico and Colombia and introduced him to Latin America, to diplomacy, and to the Spanish language. These cases brought him the approval and friendship of Sir Edward (later Lord) Carson [qv.]. He returned to Australia on business in 1911 and in 1913, at the age of thirty, married a Melbourne schooldays friend, Ethel (died 1967), daughter of Andrew Anderson. The marriage brought over fifty years of mutual happiness. His wife, quiet, elegant, and attractive, devoted herself to his career. Early in the war of 1914-18 he enlisted and served at Gallipoli with the Royal Fusiliers. Twice badly wounded he was invalided to England. He won an MC and croix de guerre avec palme.
Still on crutches Captain Bruce returned to Australia in 1917, after the death of his eldest brother, also a war casualty, to run the family firm. He pioneered in profit-sharing. Early in 1918, at a by-election, he won the seat of Flinders, close to Melbourne, then the federal capital. A reluctant politician, he intended soon to return to London and the bar. In 1919 the Nationalist Government of W. M. Hughes [qv.] fought its second general election. While in London, in 1921, Hughes suddenly nominated Bruce as Australian delegate to the League of Nations. One of the few delegates who had fought in the front line, he made a deeply moving speech on disarmament. Hughes at once offered him the Cabinet post of Customs, an offer refused and quickly raised to one of the Treasury which Bruce, after a while, accepted. On taking office Bruce at once shed all his business commitments. He soon presented his only budget which included a revolutionary reform of the Post Office, importing an expert from England as its head. Following the Chanak crisis with Turkey late in 1922 and the narrow avoidance of renewed war, Hughes's Government lost heavily at a general election. To avoid a Labour Government the Nationalists coalesced with the new Country Party, led by a surgeon, (Sir) Earle Page [qv.], which was strongly anti-Hughes and refused to co-operate with him. Bruce warned: If you get rid of the prime minister against his will he could wreck you tomorrow—a prophecy fulfilled seven years later. Hughes, enigmatic and often devious, advised the governor-general to send for Bruce, but always maintained that he had been stabbed in the back. Bruce and Page formed a Cabinet of six to five. Page became treasurer and Bruce—at thirty-nine the youngest in his Cabinet—prime minister (the first businessman to hold the post) and also minister for external affairs. His first speech as prime minister demanded a voice in the foreign policy of the British Empire. Almost at once he left for England for the 1923 Imperial Conference. While there he borrowed an Australian in the Foreign Office, (Sir) R. W. Allen Leeper, to advise how best to ensure full briefing on foreign affairs. Baldwin promised to accept an Australian liaison officer in the Foreign Office. Richard (later Lord) Casey was the first appointee and Bruce had him installed in the British Cabinet Secretariat under Sir Maurice (later Lord) Hankey [qv.], himself half Australian. Forty years later Bruce claimed that from 1924, until he himself ceased to be high commissioner in London in 1945, Australia was invariably better informed on international affairs and had far more influence on the United Kingdom Government and its policy than all the rest of the Empire together.
On his way home in 1923 Bruce went to Turkey, met Atatürk, and visited Gallipoli. Bruce attacked the MacDonald Government's decision to abandon the provision of the Singapore naval base, and he strengthened the depleted Australian navy with two cruisers built in Scotland. To apply science to industry in Australia he set up the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. (For this he became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1944.) He also set up the Development and Migration Commission in 1926. He did much to harmonize Commonwealth and State relationships with a Financial Agreement, a Loan Council, and States Grants Commission. He set about linking the vast continent with more and better highways. One major concern was the extension of Empire trade and preference. At the 1923 conference, constantly advised and encouraged by Lord Milner [qv.] he urged that Britain limit her imports of agricultural produce to what British and Dominions farmers could not supply. Empire preference won the day. Trade treaties were concluded between Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with guarantees of quality at special prices, preferential tariff duties, and reduction of freights. At home Bruce introduced a lost orderliness in the conduct of public business. He soon persuaded Sir (Cyril) Brudenell White, then chief of staff, to head the Commonwealth Public Service Board for five years. He fulfilled the pre-federation pledge to create a new national capital and by 1927 the Government had moved to Canberra which the Duke of York (later George VI) inaugurated. Bruce was appointed CH in the same year.
For his first four years Bruce seemed to dominate, firmly and politically, a difficult Parliament. Widely respected rather than popular he was untarnished by the political quarrels of the war years. The press found him punctilious and courteous. He won his first election, that of 1925, by a big majority. After the 1926 Imperial Conference, the main outcome of which was the Balfour Declaration, he paid his first official visit to the United States where he succeeded in having long talks with the normally silent President Coolidge.
But about 1927 his luck seemed to turn. He and Page were charged with extravagance and he ran into much industrial trouble. With his able attorney-general, (Sir) John Latham [qv.] (later chief justice), he tried to secure new arbitration powers for the Commonwealth, and to solve the vexed problem of the overlapping between States and Commonwealth. At the general election of 1928 there were large Labour gains. Rumbles of the depression were heard and there was continuing unrest on waterfronts and coalfields. In mid 1929, Bruce, reversing his former policy, proposed to hand over industrial powers to the States, to stop overlapping and duplication. Hughes, who had recommended Bruce as his successor, now led five other rebels to defeat the Government. Bruce invited Latham to take over but Latham declined. There was a dissolution and Bruce not only lost the election but his own blue-riband seat. Labour took over under James H. Scullin. Bruce in after years characteristically spoke of his own perfect preparedness to get thrown out of politics. The morning after his fall he quietly returned to his desk at Paterson, Laing & Bruce which once again was facing crises. He was still only forty-six.
In 1930 and 1931 Bruce made world tours on business for his firm, but with Scullin's defeat in 1931 he easily regained his seat in absentia, and agreed to serve under J. A. Lyons [qv.] as minister without portfolio. In 1932 he led the Australian delegation to the Ottawa conference and played a major role working on all the committees, to safeguard Australian economic interests, and wrestling with Baldwin and Chamberlain. The conference was a victory for the British Commonwealth as a whole and worked out the pattern of trade which was to survive for thirty years, until the development of the European Common Market. After a visit to President Hoover, Bruce went on to London with the status of resident minister. Experienced in finance, and with a personality which created confidence, he negotiated the conversion of nearly $300 million of Australian Government Loans in London which came due, and $73 million of new loans. This was against a background of great financial difficulties in Australia, but Bruce was patient and persuasive in his wrangles with the chancellor of the Exchequer, Chamberlain. He had long enjoyed great support from the governor of the Bank of England, M. C. (later Lord) Norman [qv.]. In 1931 was published Bruce's The Imperial Economic Situation."".
After a year as resident minister Bruce resigned from Cabinet and Parliament and began a record term of twelve years as high commissioner. From 1932 until its demise he regularly led the Australian delegation to the League of Nations. Early in 1933 he headed a mission to Germany, still economically weak, and he visited France twice-yearly—Paris, and Le Touquet or Monte Carlo. In 1934 he was rapporteur for a League of Nations committee on world agriculture, trade, and nutrition, which he believed was a key to world peace. (This work was in close co-operation with Frank McDougall, his economic adviser at the Imperial Conference and later his economic counsellor at Australia House, and with Sir John (later Lord) Boyd Orr [qv.], the Scottish nutrition expert.) By 1935 he always had in mind the fear that Germany would draw Italy and Japan into alliance and he constantly strove to warn against this threat. He deplored the United States' non-adhesion to the League and warned that Great Britain's closest ally, France, could prove a broken reed. Bruce was president of the League Council at its London meeting during the time of the Rhineland crisis in 1936. He chaired the Montreux conference on the future of the vital Straits of Constantinople. He was an admirable chairman, not least because of his fluent, and constantly repolished, French. In 1936 he played a role at the abdication crisis, notably because of his close association with both Baldwin and King Edward's private secretary Lord Hardinge [qv.], and he clarified Baldwin's confused attitudes. This period has been described as the high point of Australian influence on British policy. From 1937 to 1939 his association with Chamberlain, a friendship born of fights in earlier years, was very close. Bruce was desperately worried about the pace of British rearmament, before and after the Munich crisis. He always believed that the year's respite gained at Munich was all-important. Early in 1939 he returned to Australia for consultation, and visited President Roosevelt on the way. During his return journey Lyons died suddenly and Page, prime minister for nineteen days, urged Bruce to return as prime minister, which would have proved politically impossible. Bruce continued on to London, to serve the new Menzies Government and later, after 1941 and Japan's entry into the war, the Labour Government of John Curtin [qv.] with complete loyalty and immense energy, until the war ended. He promoted the Empire Air Training Scheme. His work was endless, despite his personal difficulties from clashes with Churchill as prime minister and from the fact that the consultation once given freely now had sometimes to be fought for, despite his membership from 1942 of the British War Cabinet. He remained patient and tactful and his uniquely wide range of contacts in London enabled him to make Australia's views known and respected. He devoted increasing time to international relations, keeping up bridges with Japan almost to the end, using his exceptional prestige with the Turks, from Atatürk onwards, to strengthen their neutrality and keep Germany out of the Middle East. He kept himself briefed on another important neutral buffer, Spain, through his friendship with Sir Samuel Hoare (later Viscount Templewood) [qv.]. He carefully cultivated relations with the Russians. From 1941 he was Australian minister to the Netherlands Government in exile. He was convinced of the vital importance of Australian relations with the United States and never missed an opportunity of consultation with visiting Americans, from Harry Hopkins and Eisenhower down. He continually pressed, in London and Washington, for consideration of war aims and a new world organization to replace the League.
John Curtin died just as the war ended and his successor J. B. Chifley [qv.] did not renew Bruce's appointment. The British Labour Government under Attlee at once offered him a seat in the House of Lords. He declined and returned to Australia, but accepted the offer two years later (1947) in order to have a forum on Australian questions and to promote his old dream of a World Food and Agriculture Organization. Returning to London Bruce became director of the London boards of Australian companies and of the P&O. Later he became, for ten years until he was seventy-four, chairman of the Finance Corporation for Industry. He presided over the commission in Washington which set up FAO and was chairman of the World Food Council for four years, but left it, as did Boyd Orr, disillusioned with its powerlessness. He spoke forcefully in the House of Lords on Commonwealth and international affairs, notably on the Suez crisis, until he feared that deafness was impeding him. Active to the end—and driving his own car in London traffic at over eighty years of age—he revisited Australia yearly as first chancellor of the Australian National University at Canberra. He died in his London flat 25 August 1967, surviving his wife by only five months. They had no children and his viscountcy lapsed. His funeral was private and by direction his ashes were scattered by the Royal Australian Air Force—after a service in Canberra—over the Australian Capital Territory.
Bruce was six feet tall, dark, with well-cut aquiline features. From his father he inherited a proud tradition. The Bruce clan motto Fuimus guided him—not we're have-beens, but we have been kings. With the new Bruce peerage he conformed to heraldry by adding fideles; loyalty was ingrained in him. A well-trained and successful lawyer, a brave soldier, an experienced and common-sense businessman, he was equipped not with oratory but great clarity in speech and writing and a flawless Celtic memory. Not scholastic, the one art which he cultivated was drama and its techniques. In the best sense he was a splendid actor with a sense of occasion and gift of stage-management, well hidden by his casualness but evident in all his activities. He combined insistence on essentials with a capacity for taking infinite pains. He served Australia well for nearly seven years as prime minister, and perhaps even more successfully for twice as long as her first and best diplomatist. As each of his many roles ended he turned dutifully to the next. He was a man of high personal standards and Gallipoli had given him a deep faith. He was cool, imperturbable, good-tempered, and persuasive. Some found him cold or even arrogant. For long the legend lingered that he was an Englishman in Australia, but in England he was regarded as very much an Australian. He was in fact a Scottish-Irish blend, common among Australians. His whole career was devoted both to Australia and the strengthening of Anglo-Australian and British Commonwealth relations. He received honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Toronto, and all the Australian universities of his time.
There is a portrait of him by W. B. McInnes (1932) in King's Hall, Parliament House, Canberra.
Cecil Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne, Man of two Worlds, 1965
Alfred Stirling, Lord Bruce: the London Years, 1974
Sir Robert Menzies in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. xvi, 1970
Contributor: Alfred Stirling