Uncle Bruce, the former PM who made a life after politics
Listening to ABC Local Radio a few weeks ago, I heard the former Minister John Brown saying John Howard should take a leaf out of the book of his predecessor Stanley Bruce who, when he lost his seat and lost government simultaneously in 1929, “had the decency to go and hide under a rock for the rest of his life”.
Now Mr Brown – a man who must sometimes be frustrated that his own political career tends to be summed up by the average punter as “had sex on his Ministerial desk with his wife, didn’t he?” - really should have known better.
The National Archives of Australia are opening an exhibition about Bruce this week, and I hope it will do something to change the public awareness of a man whose post-political career was if anything more distinguished than his time at the head of government.
Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the eighth Prime Minister of Australia, was my great-great-uncle. He and his wife Ethel took my mother around war-ravaged Europe with them when she arrived in London from Victoria in the late forties. My grandfather being unable to get to London for my parents’ wedding, Bruce stood in for him and gave her away at the church.
Bruce died when I was 15, still just too young to understand all his stories about Churchill, Earle Page and Billy Hughes, but old enough to appreciate his warm and engaging personality.
That warmth may seem surprising in view of his reputation: as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it: “in the folk memory of the Australian labour movement, Bruce was its arch-enemy”.
His reputation, in fact, is flash-frozen in 1929, when he lost as Australia sank into the Great Depression. Bruce would be, forever, the strike-breaker and privatiser who had taken politics too far to the right and been punished for it at the ballot box. It didn’t help, either, that he wore spats, although his official biography (long out of print) explains that by saying they were, essentially, a joke. He wore a borrowed pair to the football one cold Melbourne day because he wanted to keep his injured ankle warm. The press picked up on it, and it suited his sense of humour to bait them by wearing them again. The irony was lost, the image remained.
The politics of those times can be hard to read from this distance; some aspects, like Imperial preferences in trade and the White Australia Policy, are incomprehensible or repugnant now, but in the 1920s, were part of the assumed background of people’s thinking. Others, like the sale of the Commonwealth Shipping Line, have echoes in the privatisations of recent years; and yet others, like Bruce’s establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, are still echoing today – because ultimately, the CSIR became the CSIRO.
But the real reason Bruce is so widely forgotten is that he did not fit – or even bother to try fitting – into an Australian archetype. His business had headquarters in London and Melbourne, and so, mentally, did he.
When he campaigned - successfully - to regain his seat in Parliament in 1931, he did so, (almost unbelievably) from London, where he had gone on an emergency mission to restore his business.
And in 1932, the new Prime Minister Joe Lyons effectively closed the door on Bruce’s political career by sending him as Minister to the UK, then as High Commissioner.
Thus began his new career, as an international diplomat and statesman, and his achievements were very considerable: renegotiating Australia’s crippling loans with Britain, becoming president of the Montreux conference of the League of Nations, advising on the British abdication crisis, constantly trying to ensure that Britain would give cast-iron guarantees to come to Australia’s aid in the event of attack by Japan.
As High Commissioner and a member of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Bruce was the principal conduit between Britain and Australia throughout the Second World War.
And after the war, pursuing his interest in eradicating world starvation and poverty, he had a key part in the foundation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (the FAO), and became chairman of its World Food Council.
It’s a substantial record of achievement, capped off by his role as the first Chancellor of the Australian National University.
Hardly “going and hiding under a rock”.
Yet he was seldom in the newspapers here, and his name gradually dropped out of the public view.
Someone said about Bruce that he was “too English to be accepted by Australians and too Australian to be accepted by the English”, but as the Dictionary of National Biography puts it: “Bruce retained a strong sense of being an Australian. The English never doubted whose interests he had at heart.”
The past is another country: they do things differently there. Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Lord Bruce of Melbourne, is a reminder of a very different time, when our identity was far more bound up with that of Britain and its Empire.
He was an extraordinary sportsman, who rowed in and later coached victorious crews in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and became Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
I remember that it was not the political achievements that he relished in old age, or at least the things he thought might interest a small boy: among them, his trophy cabinet, made out of a piece of his winning Cambridge boat, and the silver tasting cup, on a silver chain, of the exclusive Burgundy wine society, the Chevaliers du Tastevin.
Bruce spent the last decades of his life in the service of his country overseas, and consequently seldom returned to the land of his birth. But that’s no reason to forget him, or to reduce his memory to a complete caricature. I hope the National Archives exhibition reminds people of that.
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