Non-Party Man

Ross McKibbin

  • The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps by Peter Clarke
    Allen Lane, 574 pp, £25.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9390 1

Stafford Cripps is perhaps the only major figure of 20th-century British politics to have had no full biography – one based on the whole range of scholarly sources. His political significance is unquestionable: Solicitor-General, Ambassador to the Soviet Union, leader of two ‘missions’ to India, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons, Minister of Aircraft Production, President of the Board of Trade, Minister of Economic Affairs, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1942 he was seriously spoken of as successor to Churchill were Churchill’s luck not to change. (It did change.) Between 1947 and 1950, as Chancellor, his policy and personality more or less held the Attlee Government together. It was central to the way contemporaries saw postwar British socialism: either as an exercise in joyless austerity or as the embodiment of fair-dealing and social equity. On these grounds alone Peter Clarke’s biography is welcome. His is not the first biography of Cripps. Patricia Strauss wrote one in 1942; but it just missed its moment, being published soon after Cripps was ejected from the War Cabinet. Eric Estorick, a strong admirer, wrote two, the second of which (published in 1949) was widely read. Both Strauss and Estorick were, as Clarke puts it, ‘partisan’ and made use of ‘selective access’ to Cripps’s private papers. His widow, Dame Isobel, a vigilant guardian of his reputation, commissioned C.A. Cooke to write an official biography which was, as Clarke delicately notes, ‘deeply inhibited’. A second official commission was then issued, but never got off the ground. However, during the years it was in force the Cripps papers were closed to other scholars. The result was that the unofficial biographies by Chris Bryant (1997) and Simon Burgess (1999) – whose quality Clarke graciously acknowledges – were written without access to Cripps’s personal papers. This was unfortunate. In general, Clarke writes, the exclusion blighted rather than fostered scholarship. ‘Dame Isobel’s well-meaning effort to keep alive her husband’s flame has had the perverse effect of threatening to extinguish it.’ In particular, it has meant that those with whom Cripps served have all had their ‘versions’ published long before. Of the big five of the 1945 Labour Government – Attlee, Morrison, Bevin, Dalton and Cripps – four have had heavyweight biographies, the most recent of which, Ben Pimlott’s biography of Dalton, is already 17 years old. Furthermore, Dalton’s own more than readable autobiography was completed 40 years ago, and his memorable description of Cripps (in the 1930s) as a ‘dangerous political lunatic’ is one of those phrases which remains in the mind while the context in which it was written does not. Even the younger generation got in first: Philip Williams’s biography of Gaitskell (1979) and Michael Foot’s of Aneurin Bevan (1962-73) also long predate Clarke. Cripps’s biographer, as Clarke admits, faces the further problem that the Governments in which Cripps served – and his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer in particular – have now been intensively studied by historians.

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