The fine blossom of the capitalist system who became a Labour rebel

Peter Clarke

  • Stafford Cripps: A Political Life by Simon Burgess
    Gollancz, 374 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 575 06565 6

When the Guardian covered the recent Budget, it had a lot of fun unpacking the surprises sprung by Gordon Brown in the course of his demonstration that ‘all this prudence is for a purpose.’ The point was that his ‘updated Protestant work ethic’ offered rewards both for individuals and for the nation as a whole, in the form of tax cuts and increases in public spending. And the spectacle of this fiscal relaxation was so piquant precisely because ‘no Chancellor since Stafford Cripps has taken more relish in donning a hairshirt.’ The survival of this image is impressive. How many readers instinctively shivered or reached for their ration books? Not many under the age of 60, surely. Perhaps the near-homophone helps in ensuring that our flesh duly ‘creeps’; but the real Cripps is a largely forgotten figure today.

Yet his death in 1952 was headline news around the world. Ill-health had only recently forced him to step down as Chancellor. Along with Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, he had incontrovertibly been one of the cornerstones of the postwar Labour Government. Indeed, from 1947 he was not only the executive force directing its strategy for economic recovery but also the public face of ‘austerity’ – an image that came to characterise a decade. Cripps was remembered, too, for the extraordinary wartime interlude in his career when, posted to Moscow as a sympathetic British Ambassador while still remaining an MP, he was felicitously associated with Russia’s entry into the Second World War. Linked in the public mind with the resistance of the Red Army at a time when there were few British victories to record, he seemed for a while the only plausible challenger to Churchill’s wartime leadership after his return to Britain in 1942.

Such were the lineaments of a reputation that once made Cripps a household name. Why, then, the subsequent oblivion? Partly, no doubt, because of the fortuitous impact of longevity. In securing the last word for those who succeed in literally burying their rivals this has a direct, if largely unacknowledged, importance in politics. There is also an indirect or secondary effect, in determining who becomes the keeper of the flame and how that flame is kept. Stafford Cripps had a notably happy family life, the domestic debt he owed his wife underwriting his own notably successful, notably dedicated, notably strenuous public career. It is significant that Isobel Cripps outlived her husband by nearly three decades, during which she kept a tight hold on his private papers. This was one constraint on commissioning an official biography and the progress of the work here was dogged by further adventitious causes of delay.

As the 1940s passed into history, and new perspectives were established, Cripps was eclipsed rather than debunked. One remarkable phenomenon has been the continuing rise in Attlee’s ratings as Prime Minister, with his reputation burnished by more than one able biographer. Morrison received a full and sympathetic scholarly appraisal, while Alan Bullock’s magisterial biography of Bevin ran to three volumes. Dalton, abruptly replaced by Cripps at the Treasury in 1947, was strikingly restored to historical attention, in large part thanks to Ben Pimlott’s commanding biography. If Cripps’s stature was retrospectively diminished in comparison with his colleagues in the Labour Government, his reputation suffered, in death as in life, an even more invidious comparison with that of his famous rival on the other side of the House of Commons.

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