The ‘Palace Papers’ and Australian Meddling in British Politics

John C. Mitcham
Duquesne University

Last Tuesday, the National Archives of Australia finally released the classified “Palace Letters” between the British Monarchy and Governor General Sir John Kerr. The highly anticipated correspondence shed new light on the famous 1975 Constitutional Crisis in Australia, when Kerr employed the reserve powers of the Crown to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government.  This was a pivotal moment in Commonwealth relations, sparking a diplomatic backlash from Canberra and fueling the movement for an Australian republic.

The constitutional evolution of Australia’s place within the Commonwealth stems from a historic and obsessive desire to protect national autonomy from British overreach. Indeed, the dusty annals of the old Colonial Office is replete with similar instances of British Cabinet ministers or Governors General interfering in the purely domestic affairs of the self-governing Dominions.

However, this trend could be a two-way street.

Nearly sixty years before the Whitlam dismissal, an Australian Labor leader helped to bring down a British Government. At the height of the First World War, Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes visited the United Kingdom for high-level consultations. The enigmatic Hughes quickly became a celebrity, rubbing elbows with the royal family and being feted by the press as the savior of the nation. Before long, he became a bit player in the famous palace intrigue against Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith.


Billy Hughes was an unlikely hero of the British Right. Born in 1862, Hughes spent his childhood on a farm in Wales before emigrating to Queensland.  Thereafter followed a hardscrabble and itinerant existence as a laborer, cook, and fruit picker. Hughes entered Australian politics as a socialist organizer and member of the new Labor Party.  His brash demeanor and demagogic personality that served him well in the political arena, where he became known for his xenophobic support of the “White Australia Policy.”

In the Fall of 1915, Hughes became Prime Minister and made plans to visit Britain. Ostensibly this was part of an effort to acquire a greater voice for Australia in the running of the war effort. Privately, Hughes saw his journey as a crusade to save the empire from the Asquith Government. The Gallipoli fiasco convinced Hughes “that another leader was essential—a man who could and would lead the nation—who would fire the imagination of the people, match words with deeds, and above all else organize.” En route, Hughes met with the premiers of New Zealand and Canada, who endorsed his mission to shakeup the imperial establishment.[1]

Upon his arrival, Hughes startled his hosts with his blunt talk and sharp criticism. His London-based confidant, Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert), introduced him to leading journalists and arranged for the quick publication of a biography. Hughes barnstormed the country, appearing as a sort of colonial Cato the Elder, branding Germany as a cancerous menace to Western Civilization. “What must Britain do to be saved?,” he asked an audience in Cardiff. “That is the great question. She must be born again.”[2]

Before long, a strange cross-section of media outlets and political groups mobilized behind the visiting Australian premier. Conservative papers like the Morning Post and the Daily Mail praised his “frontier” credentials and bold imaginative leadership, “qualities which are rare in British public life.” The radical antiwar Daily News insisted that Hughes “is not here as a picturesque figure, but as a representative statesman of Greater Britain, called in to advise on the biggest work of Imperial reconstruction the world has ever seen.” The socialist editor of the Clarion simply concluded that “if Mr. Hughes were Prime Minister of England the war would be practically settled.”[3]

Perhaps the most surprising support came from the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union. They organized a mass rally in Hyde Park, damning Asquith’s “wait and see” policies and calling on Australians to “lend” their iconic statesman for a year or two. “If we had as good as, or better than Hughes, it would not be so bad,” lamented the suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst. “But we have not.”[4]


Ultimately, Hughes became involved in a shadowy plot to bring down Asquith’s Coalition Government. He worked with a group of malcontents known as the “Monday Night Cabal,” centered around the arch-imperialist Lord Alfred Milner. Though often represented as a quintessential “English” political conspiracy, the transnational cast of characters included the Anglo-Irish Unionist Sir Edward Carson, the Canadian newspaper tycoon Max Aitken, the South African filibusterer Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, and the American-born millionaire and press baron Waldorf Astor.

These men tried to talk Hughes into taking a seat in the British Parliament. Milner dangled a financial prize and the promise of a peerage if Hughes would abandon his political career in Australia and return “home.” Similarly, the infamous press baron Lord Northcliffe offered £50,000 and a seat in Cabinet if he would stay in Britain. He ordered his newspapers to use Hughes as a foil against the unpopular Asquith. “A really remarkable little man,” admitted the editor of the Times, who praised him as “exactly the kind that most distresses our mandarins.” [5]

The Bulletin, March 16, 1916

Hughes also conspired with Liberal politician David Lloyd George (the man who would ultimately supplant Asquith as Prime Minister). The two men had much in common, including their shared Welsh heritage. In a series of meetings, Hughes urged Lloyd George to work with Andrew Bonar Law (the Canadian-born leader of the Unionist Party) and gain the premiership. Lloyd George listened sympathetically and assured him that the time was not right. He nonetheless used Hughes to negotiate with Sinn Fein—a sort of “Colonial Solution” to the interminable “Irish Question.”[6]


Though he basked in the spotlight of his newfound fame, Hughes ultimately resisted the siren’s call of British politics. Before he left, though, he reminded his hosts that the empire had crossed the Rubicon and must now find a way of including Dominion statesmen. “For all practical purposes, save one, the Dominion are really independent nations, bound to Great Britain only by the ties of kinship” he insisted. “It is sufficient to say that there must be a change, and it must be radical in its nature.”[7]

The change would come soon enough.

Within six months, Lloyd George would take the keys of office, and one of his first acts was to invite the Dominion premiers to join him on an Imperial War Cabinet—a council of equals representing the best and brightest the empire had to offer. Until the end of his premiership in 1923, Hughes was regularly in London, participating in the highest levels of imperial decision-making.

Hughes seated next to Lloyd George at the 1918 Imperial War Cabinet

For the next sixty years, prominent Commonwealth statesmen made constant intrusions into British politics. Newfoundland premier Edward Morris spent the last seventeen years of his life in the House of Lords. Robert Menzies remained a fixture in Downing Street during the crisis year of 1941. King George V even entertained a proposal to designate the popular South African premier Jan Smuts as British Prime Minister in the event of Winston Churchill’s assassination or sudden death.

This is not to suggest that Jacinda Arden or Justin Trudeau should come to Britain and save a weary nation from Boris Johnson’s policies towards COVID (though no doubt many Britons would welcome such a role).

But herein lies the irony of the historic Commonwealth connection. Episodes like the 1975 Crisis certainly facilitated the constitutional devolution of the empire and became iconic moments in the making of an independent Australian nation. However, Commonwealth institutions also operated as a double swinging door for settler colonial elites to transgress national boundaries and interfere in the democratic politics of Britain. Lesser known stories like Mr. Hughes’s 1916 visit to London complicate the traditional colony-to-nation-state narrative and reveal an interconnected imperial and post-imperial world.

John C. Mitcham ( is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh PA. He is currently finishing a new book on imperial politics and settler colonialism in the early twentieth century.

[1] W.M. Hughes, Policies and Potentates (Angus & Robertson, 1950), 151; National Archives of Australia. Lord Novar Papers Series 9, Hughes to Governor General Munro-Ferguson, January 20, 1916.

[2] “On National Regeneration,” Delivered at Municipal Buildings, Cardiff, March 24, 1916. In W.M. Hughes, The Day—And After. War Speeches of the Rt. Hon. W. M. Hughes Prime Minister of Australia (Cassell and Company, 1916), 53.

[3] Morning Post, March 28, 1916; Daily Mail, April 7, 1916; Daily News, March 10, 1916; Quoted in Tweed Daily (New South Wales), April 27, 1916.

[4] The Britannia, July 21, 1916 (formerly The Suffragette); West Sussex Record Office. Leo Maxse Papers Vol. 472 Christabel Pankhurst to Maxse, June 27, 1916.

[5] L.F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Angus & Robertson, 1979), 144-146; Bodleian Library. Geoffrey Dawson Papers MS 66 Dawson to Valentine Chirol, March 22, 1916.

[6] Hughes, Policies and Potentates, 145-150; George Riddell, The Riddell Diaries 1908-1923 ed. J.M. McEwen (Athlone Press, 1986), 149.

[7] Quoted in Meaney, Australia and the World Crisis (Sydney University Press, 2009), 137-138.