chapter
The Rise and Fall of the High Commissioner: S.M.Bruce in London, 1933–45
Pages 17

There has long been an assumption prevalent among scholars, in the media and in the general community that the position of an ambassador in the twentieth century is very much less significant than that of his predecessors of a century or two ago. In the era of shuttle diplomacy, summit meetings and split-second telecommunications, it is argued, the ambassador has become little more than a dignified clerk obeying instructions. The more extreme versions of this argument have been ably debunked by Lord Trevelyan and others,2 but one would seldom expect to find an ambassador these days in a central, focal position in the policymaking process, with the possible exception of a temporary, bilateral crisis. This perhaps accounts for the surprise with which Australians, professional historians and laymen alike, are discovering from recently released documents that their High Commissioner in London from 1933 to 1945, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, was a very much more active, assertive and influential, in some senses powerful, figure than the standard accounts of Australian diplomacy would suggest. He is almost totally ignored, for example, in Sir Alan Watt’s Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy.3 Sir Paul Hasluck’s official history of Australia in World War II states succinctly that Bruce was not only ‘an effective representative of Australia’ but ‘in an unusual way, an influential participant in the conduct of war’.4 He does not explain, however, what this ‘unusual way’ was, and the brevity of the reference leaves the impression that Bruce’s role had little to do with Australian political history, including foreign policy, which his two volumes record.