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George Reid was Leader of the Opposition for three years following the end of his prime ministership in 1905. In November 1908, he handed over to his deputy, Joseph Cook, to secure an anti-socialist liberal alliance with Alfred Deakin’s party.
A year later Reid resigned after nine years in federal parliament, seven as Leader of the Opposition and one as Prime Minister. However, Reid had not yet finished his contribution to Australia’s public life. He became Australia’s first High Commissioner to London in January 1910 and spent six years in the post.
In 1916 Reid became the only Australian to sit as a representative in three different parliaments, when he took the seat in the British House of Commons he held until his death in 1918.
George Reid’s term as Prime Minister ended on 5 July 1905. For the next three years he was once again Leader of the Opposition. Though often absent from parliament to attend to his law practice, politics remained his purpose. In Opposition he developed a merger of anti-Labor groups with his Free Trade Party and, in 1906, became leader of this new Anti-Socialist Party.
Reid’s last federal election campaign was one of his best – ‘a tremendous personal campaign’ in historian LF Crisp’s view. His passion for liberalism was evident in all his activities: in his April debate with William Holman in Sydney, in the lively and witty speeches people crowded to hear, in his party’s fiscal policies and its opposition to universal and compulsory military service, and in his full-frontal attack on socialism and the Labor Party.
On 12 December 1906, Reid’s Anti-Socialists out-polled all other groups, attracting twice as many voters as did Alfred Deakin’s declining Protectionists. However, JC Watson’s Labor Party came a close second. Again, Deakin would not align with Reid and he remained Prime Minister only with Watson’s support.
The 1906 election marked the end of an era of parliamentary democracy where a politician like Reid excelled. As Reid had foreseen, the development of the Australian Labor Party meant that only a united front of anti-Labor groups could achieve electoral success. But this also meant the blurring of significant differences in political ideas and practical politics amongst liberals. Reid’s political style, his audience appeal on the hustings, his debating skills in parliament and his ability to shape alliances, all belonged to a more liberalised politics than would suit organised parties both inside and outside parliament.
At the end of 1907, Andrew Fisher succeeded JC Watson as Labor leader. The Alfred Deakin–Labor alliance lasted another year. In November 1908 Labor withdrew support from Deakin’s Liberal government and on 13 November Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister.
Reid’s response was to remove the only obstacle – himself – to the anti-socialist unity he had long pursued. Three days later he handed leadership of the Anti-Socialist Party to his deputy, Joseph Cook, leaving his party for his country’s good. On 26 May 1909, Alfred Deakin became leader of the new Fusion Party, the merger of free trade and protectionist anti-socialists. On 2 June, the Fisher government fell and Alfred Deakin began his third term as Prime Minister.
Reid declined the portfolio Deakin at last offered. Instead of this ‘too little, too late’ reward for his inexhaustible work in building a bulwark against the socialism he dreaded, in the King’s birthday honours at the end of June 1909, he received the Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) and became Sir George Reid.
On Christmas Eve 1909, Reid resigned from parliament to become Australia’s first High Commissioner, the enabling act having been passed during his last six months in parliament.
A farewell banquet in the Sydney Town Hall on 20 January 1910 was a grand tribute to Reid’s thirty years in colonial and Commonwealth parliaments. Within his own party rooms in Parliament House, the acclaim at his appointment was warmed as much by relief as respect. Reid was by no means the last to see that his usefulness there was at an end.
A great imperialist
When Reid arrived in London he observed that he ‘completed the circle of High Commissioners’. The other dominions of Britain – Canada, the unified South Africa and New Zealand – had already established representation there.
In the six years they spent in the post, George and Florence Reid were a great success. In the view of one journalist, Reid ‘made Australia known’ to the British. They were well-suited to this task, perhaps partly because in the years 1910–16 British imperialism was still a proud theme. This was an eventful time in British–Australian relations. Events in which the Reids were closely involved included the coronation of King George V in 1911, preparations for the first world war, the launching of HMAS Australia for the new Australian Navy, and the close diplomacy over the role of the dominions in the conduct of war.
On 24 July 1913, the King laid the foundation stone of Australia House. Later that year the Reids made a return visit to Australia for the wedding of their daughter, Thelma, arriving back in England on 12 April 1914.
Reid’s role in the creation of the Anzac legend offers an example of his activities as Australia’s representative in Britain. When the first Australian and New Zealand divisions were despatched to England in 1914, Reid objected to the arrangements being made for their accommodation in Britain, on a wintry and bleak Salisbury Plain. As a result of Reid’s intervention, ‘under the camouflage of genial buffoonery’, the Australian and New Zealand troops were instead stationed in Egypt where, he argued, the climate would be more suitable. Reid went to Cairo and visited the men camped near the pyramids on Christmas Eve. Four months later, the men were despatched to the failed assault at Gallipoli.
Reid left Australia House more unwillingly than he had left the prime ministership, his party and the parliament. After protracted and unsuccessful negotiations with the Labor governments of Andrew Fisher and then WM Hughes, Reid finally retired as High Commissioner in January 1916. Although unrewarded by his old opponents, in Britain his value was recognised with the award of a GCB, and well-deserved praise as ‘a great imperialist’ by the London Daily Telegraph.
The last post
At 71, Reid was not yet ready to ‘rest and rust’. He managed to arrange one more opportunity for the political life he had begun almost forty years before. On 10 January 1916, he became a Member of the British House of Commons, sitting in his preferred position as a non-party man. The Conservative-dominated coalition government of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd-George would have been familiar to the new member for the St George’s, Hanover Square seat.
As well as attending parliamentary sittings Reid was a sought-after speaker and was active in a range of clubs and organisations, including the British Empire Society and the Royal Humane Society. His autobiography, written in 1917, does not record an association with the Cobden Club in west London, where he had been awarded membership fifty years before for his essays on free trade. Nor does he mention meeting Walter Hines Page, United States Ambassador to Britain from 1913, and former editor of the liberal journal World’s Work of which Reid had apparently been an admirer.
One of Reid’s speaking engagements, in June 1917, was a public lecture titled ‘The Influence of the New World on Old World’s Parliaments’. But on his entry to the British parliament, Reid observed he felt more like ‘an old hand in a new world’. Even his last year was a full one – from October 1917 until April 1918 he was in the United States for meetings and public speeches to promote the war effort.
Four months after his return, on 12 September 1918, George Reid died at the London home he shared with Forence Reid and their son Douglas, his private secretary at Australia House. As the first former Australian Prime Minister to die, Reid’s funeral arrangements caused some concern as to appropriate arrangements. His pallbearers included WM Hughes and two former prime ministers, Andrew Fisher and Joseph Cook. The coffin, draped with Australia House’s 12-foot Australian flag, was driven to the church in Kensington from the Strand. Among the mass of wreaths, two were distinctly Australian: one in the shape of the Southern Cross, from the staff of Australia House, and one from the Australian government, fashioned from palm leaves and wattle into the form of Australia.
Crisp, LF, George Houstoun Reid: Federation Father, Federal Failure?, Australian National University, Canberra, 1979.
Hughes, Colin, Mr Prime Minister: Australian Prime Ministers 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Irving, Helen, ‘Sir George Houstoun Reid’ in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland, Sydney, 2000.
McMinn, WG, George Reid, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1989.
Reid, George, My Reminiscences, Cassell, Melbourne, 1917.
From the National Archives of Australia collection
Appointment of Sir George Reid as High Commissioner, January 1910, NAA: A2911, 1/1909
Sir George Reid appointed as High Commissioner – London, 1910–15, NAA: A1, 1915/7247
Deaths: Sir George Reid, 1909–23, NAA: A2910, 416/1/1