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.

Churchill and Cripps provide a nice study in contrasts. On the right, the leader of the Conservative Party, with strong nationalist and imperialist instincts: a fat man who notoriously enjoyed his cigars, his champagne (other people’s, too) and his brandy; and who made it the central aim of his postwar policy to give the British people more red meat. On the left, a socialist prig, with a prewar record as a fellow-traveller of Communism and an increasingly overt Christian commitment: a lean, ascetic man who notoriously became a vegetarian (for health reasons) in the 1920s; who became a teetotaller after entering Parliament, because he was shocked at how much drinking went on; who ultimately gave up his only conventional ‘vice’, smoking, on doctor’s orders.

While Cripps died young, at only 62, Churchill steamed on to the age of 90, celebrated as the greatest living Englishman, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (no less) for his vastly influential History of the Second World War. Perhaps its title ought to have been ‘How I Won the War’ – and one subtly developed subplot was: ‘without any help from Sir Stafford Cripps, thank you’. The most memorable comment on Cripps is still that of Churchill, watching him leave the room on one occasion: ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes God.’

Simon Burgess has seized the opportunity to present much the most rounded account to date of Cripps’s remarkable political career. This is a well-balanced and well-written book, developing its interpretation in an accessible and generally persuasive way. It fulfils its aims as a ‘political life’ in faithfully chronicling a political career, but it also shows how little of a ‘politician’ Cripps was – an ambitious man of power with an agenda, to be sure, but one who lacked many basic skills in rhetoric, tactical manoeuvre and coalition building. Burgess has a good knowledge of the dense historiography on 20th-century British politics and has gleaned insights and anecdotes from a wide range of published diaries and memoirs. There is also a solid underpinning of archival research, not only in official records, but in the papers of many of Cripps’s contemporaries. I do not readily see how these sources could have been put to better use in reconstructing the story.

So is this the Cripps biography that we have long awaited? Candour demands – and had candour failed, circumspection would have counselled – that I disclose one material point, which bears on my qualifications to review this book. I am myself currently writing a book about Stafford Cripps, as the authorised biographer chosen by his heirs. This means that I have inherited, along with the awkward responsibility of completing a long-overdue task, the custody of his personal papers. Compared with Simon Burgess, I thus enjoy privileged access to documents that he would dearly have loved to consult. I am obviously in a position to criticise his findings on the basis of evidence which has been denied to him but handed to me on a plate (or at least in four filing cabinets). Since it all seems most unfair, perhaps my review should end here.

Instead, as readers can well see, it fills up the rest of this page and half of the next one. Here is my plea in mitigation. I humbly submit, first, that there can hardly be further unfairness to Burgess, now that his underdog status has enlisted the jury’s wholesome instincts on his behalf; and, secondly and alternatively, that if Cripps has secrets, the fact that I know them, rather than how I came to know them, is surely the material point in my testimony. For there are aspects of Burgess’s account that would have benefited from a consultation of Cripps’s own papers, especially the diaries that he kept at various key stages in his career. His own first-hand impressions of Stalin and Molotov in Moscow, or of Gandhi and Nehru in Delhi, can obviously enrich our understanding of his judgments and actions, and thus modify the picture that emerges. It would be disingenuous to pretend that Burgess’s biography would have gained no benefit in such ways; but it would be uncharitable to suggest that arcane and inaccessible documents in the Cripps papers would convict it of disabling errors. Simply opening the archive will not in itself answer the really interesting questions nor retrieve Cripps from the myths that have so long shrouded his name.

That he had a strong personality, and was determined to get his own way, is clear. That he was often self-righteous, and sometimes self-deceiving, is difficult to deny. There were many contradictions or at least paradoxes. Stafford Cripps was a man from a background of established wealth and, after he married Isobel, they had the Eno’s Fruit Salts fortune, too. His father, Lord Parmoor, formerly a Conservative MP, had been given his peerage by the Liberal Government just before the First World War, and after it he entered the first Labour Government in 1924, along with his brother-in-law, Lord Passfield, better known as Sidney Webb.

What with his father’s example, and the intermittent influence of Aunt Bo (as his mother’s sister Beatrice was known), young Stafford had the makings of a hereditary socialist toff – or so it might seem. He resisted his fate, however, and remained strikingly a political for most of the 1920s. Instead, he served God and Mammon, devoting his energies to ecumenical Christian causes and to an enormously successful legal practice as the youngest KC in the country. He did not actually become a member of the Labour Party until 1929. But, since in 1930 the second Labour Government suddenly needed a smart lawyer as Solicitor-General, the new recruit was appointed, given the customary knighthood, and parachuted into a safe constituency in Bristol, which enabled him to survive Labour’s electoral debacle the next year.

Cripps was already conspicuous – ‘This fine blossom of the capitalist system,’ as a fellow lawyer snorted, ‘who has been rocked and dandled into a legislator!’ To say that success came easily to him is only partly true; he worked ferociously long hours and was famous for his meticulous attention to a brief, whether in court or as a minister. But his dizzy ascent was the product of luck – he was one of only three Labour frontbenchers to keep their seats in the 1931 Parliament – as much as judgment, which many thought he lacked. Throughout the 1930s, a string of wild utterances caused more dismay to his own Party leadership than to the governing class at which his taunts were ostensibly directed and against which he had turned with such uncompromising antagonism.

Cripps’s political views at this time could be described as vulgar Marxism but for the fastidious manner in which he entertained them. He argued for co-operation with the Communists, and for resistance to Fascism, while maintaining his opposition to capitalist rearmament. He was a prime example of the class traitor in politics, proclaiming the necessity for working-class unity, at home and abroad – and all the while attending to his work at the Bar, which brought him an income of £30,000 a year (nearly a million at today’s prices) and thus sustained an opulent lifestyle as the ‘red squire’ of his Cotswold village. Few were surprised when the Labour Party finally expelled its most prominent left-wing rebel in 1939 for his persistent advocacy of a popular front.

It was true, of course, that a popular front would have included the Communist Party; but its rationale was that Labour needed other allies, too, even those of a capitalist stripe, in order to overthrow the Chamberlain Government. Burgess is right to point out that Cripps was ‘arguing – with the total conviction he had previously deployed on the other side of the case – that the Fascist danger surely merited abandoning working-class control for the time being’. It was at this point, rather than during his wartime residence in Moscow, that the significant reorientation took place in Cripps’s political outlook. His Marxist terminology gradually faded away as the centrality of the class war was replaced by the invocation of the national interest and appeals to common humanity, increasingly framed in a language of duty and sacrifice with strong Christian overtones.

What remained distinctive about Cripps was his capacity to invest his current analysis of complex problems with his own uncompromising and exacting tone, and to inspire confidence in his capacity to master them. At the two great crises of his career, he projected an almost providential sense that he was the man of the hour. When he returned from Russia in 1942, Churchill sensed this power – and danger – in Cripps’s mien, writing caustically in his History of the Second World War: ‘He bore himself as though he had a message to deliver.’ It was much the same in 1947-48, when Cripps emerged as the dominant personality in the Attlee Government, taking over strategic responsibility for the whole of economic policy, with a unique authority both in the Cabinet and in the country.

Cripps’s public image was constructed, especially through the press, in a double-edged way. Newspaper cartoons showed him as an invariably severe authority figure – as a schoolmarm wielding her cane, for example – and naturally exaggerated his physical features to fit the stereotypes. Vicky, the most inventive cartoonist of the era, and by no means politically hostile, drew him as a hatstand, as a lamp-post, as a plank stretched across a ravine and as a stark and leafless tree in winter. It is a truism that Cripps lent himself to caricature. Teetotalism was funny, carrot juice hilarious. These were images that passed quickly into general circulation, outstripping any efforts at leaden-footed refutation, which simply reinforced the point that socialists could not see a joke.

It was, in short, a major propaganda coup for the Conservatives to link a satirical view of Cripps’s own persona with the hardships of the era, and to assert that postwar austerity was imposed on the long-suffering British people not through necessity but through choice. This is the ideological force that has sustained, over half a century, the hairshirt references. This is why it sounds like a lost cause even to suggest that Cripps was not a narrow-minded killjoy, or that he could show himself personally warm and privately tolerant. Nonetheless, the story of ‘the two majors’ may be worth telling.

They were a couple of odd characters who crossed Cripps’s path when he went to Delhi in 1946, to seek a settlement in India on behalf of the British Cabinet. Most of his links were with the Hindu-dominated Congress, so he tried to establish an equally effective network with the Muslim League and the Sikhs. This was the task, assigned to two young personal assistants, Major Woodrow Wyatt and Major John McLaughlin Short. Wyatt was an ebullient, high-living Labour MP, whose political career was to describe a long arc from the socialist Left to the Thatcherite Right. His main job was to keep open the line to the Muslim League. Short was an expert on the Punjab who saw it as his mission to educate Cripps on the Pakistan issue. As eccentric in his methods as he was idiosyncratic in expression, Short’s job was to talk to the Sikhs.

The two majors relished their work. Their doings weave a busy subplot through the pages of Cripps’s diary – mainly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with touches of Trinculo and Caliban – as they find a brave new world amid the luxury of the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. The bills they ran up created some embarrassment, wildly exceeding what the Treasury had allowed for entertainment. ‘You will probably agree’, Cripps’s PPS remonstrated with them, ‘that we cannot ask’ the taxpayer ‘to pay for your smokes and drinks!’ But the remonstrance fell on three pairs of deaf ears. The Treasury was curtly informed of Cripps’s view that ‘entertaining on the scale which Major Wyatt and Major Short have been giving is essential for the discharge of the functions which he wishes them to perform.’

In the next month, Short ran up nearly £500 in expenses. The wine bill alone would be well over £5000 at today’s prices. And so it continued, with Cripps’s full approval. ‘He never told me that I drank too much, though I drank a lot then,’ Wyatt later recalled. Uncensorious, intent on success, and ready to pay a high price for it, Cripps thought that he was getting good value. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe the two majors could have done their job better on carrot juice. And maybe there is more to Cripps than the legend of ‘austerity’.