Born in Melbourne in 1883, he was the youngest of five children. When he was ten years old the importing firm on which the family wealth depended, Paterson Laing & Bruce, became one of many colonial casualties of the 1893 London bank collapse. The family mansion in Toorak was sold and Stanley was taken from school. Four years later, his father had rebuilt the firm and bought out his partners. He was then enrolled at Melbourne Grammar where he captained the cricket, football, athletics and rowing teams. In his final year, he captained the school itself. After a year working in the family firm, he moved to England with his mother and sister.
It was then he entered Trinity Hall at Cambridge University in January 1903, and his achievements there were capped with a rowing Blue. He graduated in 1906 and was admitted as a barrister.
In 1913 he married Ethel Dunlop Anderson, and the couple made their home in London. A year later When the First World War broke out, he was commissioned as an officer in the British Army and fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front. In 1917, decorated with the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre and bearing the scars of two severe wounds, he was invalided out of the army and returned to Melbourne to reorganise the family business In 1917 the couple returned to Australia so that he could take over as general manager of the family business. They reached Australia at a time when Prime Minister WM Hughes attempts to introduce conscription had been rejected in a referendum. This divisive issue produced violent clashes like those in Melbourne, home to leading pacifists like Vida Goldstein.
As a decorated hero of Gallipoli, Captain Bruce was involved in Australia's recruitment campaigns for the remaining years of the war. He became the Nationalist Party's candidate in the seat of Flinders, in Victoria. By the time the war ended, Bruce was a Member of the House of Representatives for Flinders.
In 1921 the Bruce's spent nine months on business in London when Hughes asked him to represent Australia to the General Assembly of the newly established League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations. Bruce performed so effectively that, when he returned home, Hughes appointed him Treasurer.
They reached Australia late in October, to a warm welcome from Hughes and an offer of the Trade and Customs ministerial portfolio. He was more interested in succeeding Joseph Cook as Treasurer, an ambition he achieved on 21 December. Typically firm and efficient in the role, one of Bruce's early proposals was to reduce the salaries of members of parliament.
The 8th parliament sat for the last time on 12 October 1922. When the 9th parliament assembled the following year, he had replaced Hughes as Prime Minister.
Bruce's government fostered the increasing power of the federal government over the states; for example, establishing the Loan Council which gave the federal government greater financial control. Presiding over a period of economic stability, he sought to promote business enterprise. As part of this policy, he tried in 1929 to dismantle the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. This legislation was designed to return responsibility for conciliation and arbitration to the states but ultimately caused the downfall of Bruce's Government. This downfall was caused when Hughes and a number of his colleagues who had defected from the Labor Party in 1917 voted with the Opposition to defeat the bills.
Bruce retained his seat in the 1922 elections but the National Party won only 28 seats against Labor's 30. The Nationals could govern only with the support of the new Country Party's 14 seats. Earle Page, the CP leader, agreed to a coalition but rejected Hughes as Prime Minister. Bruce proved the only man acceptable to both sides of the coalition and, after only five years in politics, he stepped into the top job.
Australia was by then well into the post-war boom and enjoying the glittering social revolution of the 1920s. Bruce saw the time as ripe for a businessmen's government, and wanted British immigration to build up the workforce, British loan capital to fuel the economy and utilise the British markets for Australian primary produce.
He seems he gave little thought to social reforms but concentrated mainly on land settlement and developmental works. At the same time, he kept the Country Party on side with export subsidies and price support for primary produce. Possibly his most significant achievement was the establishment of what is now the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
Overall his policies called for a strong, unified Australia which would attract overseas investors, and for closer ties with Britain on foreign affairs. As a businessman, he worked with Earle Page to create the Loan Council as an authorised body for public borrowing instead of voluntary annual payments by the Commonwealth to the states. He also organised the 1927 transfer of the Parliament, and some government departments, to Canberra.
As a businessman, he saw socialists as inefficient and disruptive: "Wreckers who would plunge us into the chaos and misery of class war." The Russian Revolution of 1917 was fresh in everyone's memory and many people believed Australian Labor to be the spearhead of a similar revolution. Bruce increased tensions with antiunion legislation and proposals such as abandonment of the arbitration system. He spoke of maintaining law and order but his legislation actually increased industrial turbulence.
Nevertheless, the future still seemed bright during the worldwide boom of the 1920s. When that boom began to fade, Australia quickly felt the results. Wheat and wool prices collapsed, unemployment rose and British loan funds dried up. Bruce claimed the country was "not heading for inevitable disaster" but, by mid-1929, everyone sensed that disaster lay ahead. The October 1929 elections were held only 17 days before the collapse of the Wall Street stockmarket and the onset of the Great Depression. The Bruce-Page coalition also collapsed, abandoned by voters angered and frightened by Bruce's assault on the unions. Bruce lost even his own seat, but regained it in 1931. He sat for a couple of years, before appointment as High Commissioner in London.
For the majority of the rest of his long life he held a 'roving commission' which enabled him to serve both Australia and his adopted country, Britain. He did so with a number of official positions in both peace and war. In 1947 he was created Viscount Bruce of Melbourne, he became the first Australian to sit in the House of Lords.
But, at the very end, he returned to Australia. When he died in London in 1967, his will provided for his ashes to be brought home and sprinkled over Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.