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.

In these circumstances any biographer of Cripps has to make a difficult choice: either to write an even-paced biography which risks merely repeating what others have written; or to write one which differs significantly in balance. Clarke has chosen the second course. His book ‘shifts the centre of gravity away from the political infighting of the 1930s and the economic policy-making of the 1940s’. ‘Instead,’ he writes, ‘I give close attention to Cripps’s involvement with Russia and – still the most neglected aspect of his career – with India. In the process, I explore the personal dynamics of his relationships with Churchill, with Nehru and with Gandhi.’ There is a further reason for such a choice. There is much hitherto unused evidence about these episodes, particularly diary evidence: Cripps’s own (intermittently kept), those of his wife and his daughter Theresa, the diaries of the ‘official’ colleagues who accompanied him to Russia and India, and those of his extended political family – known as the ‘Crippery’. (And the novelty extends beyond the archival: this is the first book I have read in which the list of acknowledgments of those who agreed to speak to the author begins with ‘Her Majesty the Queen’.) To some extent, therefore, the biography is source-driven: the best unused evidence concerns Russia and India. Clarke has obviously found this material very attractive. Thus of a book of 530 pages of text only about fifty are devoted to Cripps’s Chancellorship – fewer than on the Moscow Embassy, and only about a third of the number on India. It isn’t hard to understand why Clarke adopted this strategy, but it does raise the issue of due proportion and the reader’s expectations. We perhaps should know in some detail about Cripps’s visits to India or time in Moscow, but his historical significance lies surely in British domestic history: in the politics of the Labour Party in the 1930s and, above all, as a senior minister in the Attlee Government. He was a good Minister of Aircraft Production, but the Ambassador’s job was, as Clarke himself notes, something he had not sought and for which he had little aptitude. The wartime mission to India, although successful from Churchill’s point of view in that it convinced Roosevelt Britain was serious about giving India dominion status, was otherwise a failure. The postwar ministerial mission to India, although Cripps was central to it, was always of secondary importance to his ministerial career after 1945. Furthermore, of Cripps’s Chancellorship, Clarke writes that ‘there is a richer cache of personal evidence than might be expected, yielding insights that are much needed in complementing the dry public records.’ If that is so, the argument in favour of archival novelty applies as much to his Chancellorship as to his missions to Russia or India.

Most readers (I assume) are more interested in Cripps in his British political milieu or in Cripps the man. In either case, though they will not necessarily be disappointed (especially on Cripps the man), they will need to put in some work. The Indian chapters, particularly, are very detailed and the reader would do well to have some prior acquaintance with Anglo-Indian relations, and, indeed, with the internal politics of India. The Indian and Russian chapters are definitely not tedious, however. They are lucidly argued and written with Clarke’s usual panache. The Russian chapters are fascinating – if only for the light they throw on Stalin’s Soviet Union and the futility of the notion that Left understands Left. The problem lies in the weight given to them. Can it be justified by the novelty of the sources and the fact that other historians have tended to neglect them? Do they complete a hitherto incomplete picture; or do they constitute a series of relatively discrete essays? Almost inevitably they are a bit of both. I learned things about Cripps I had not previously known and ways of looking at him I had not previously considered. But I did not get a real sense of what it all meant.

The real difficulty for any biographer of Cripps is his sheer oddity and his utter lack of typicality within the Labour Party. Clarke notes the extent to which Cripps has faded from popular memory, while the names of a number of his colleagues have ‘remained linked with living issues and ideological traditions in a way that his does not. There are Bevanites but not Crippsites.’ The dwindling band of Keynesians in the Labour Party take the name not of Labour’s most self-consciously Keynesian Chancellor, but that of his successor, Hugh Gaitskell. Clarke makes clear just what an odd fish Cripps must have seemed:

That [by 1939] he should have become a left-wing socialist was a paradox. That he should have become a teetotaller . . . likewise jarred with convention. That he should have adopted a vegetarian diet was more unusual in the 1930s than it would have been half a century later, although it could be explained by reference to his known medical condition. That he had taken up the Alexander technique, accounting for his distinctive posture, was not publicised until later. That he wore flat heels might have been noted by a quizzical eye. That he was a devotee of knitting was not a foible widely reported at that time.

That Cripps did any of these things might have passed as an agreeable eccentricity; that he did all of them in succession stored up hazards for the future in forming and projecting his public identity.

That he was also increasingly a devotee of the Church of England as the Labour Party became ever more secular only added to the oddity.

In the interwar years there were, broadly speaking, four routes (not mutually exclusive) into the Parliamentary Labour Party: the trade unions and/or local government; the Independent Labour Party (of diminishing significance); the radical wing of a disintegrating Liberal Party; and the settlement movement and/or student socialism – often via the Fabian Society. Cripps came to the Parliamentary Labour Party through none of them. He was, of course, not without connections. He was Beatrice Webb’s nephew and so by marriage nephew to Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield), a senior minister in the first two Labour Governments. His father, C.A. Cripps (Lord Parmoor), was also a senior minister in those Governments. But Parmoor, too, was something of an oddity in the Labour Party. A lawyer and churchman, he had drifted into the Party for ‘peace’ reasons: he supported Labour’s foreign policies. This was not unusual – several Liberals did the same. But Parmoor had been a Conservative MP, and that as a route into the Labour Party was very unusual. Stafford Cripps’s route was the law. His remarkable rise was due to the fact that Labour then, unlike now, was short of first-class lawyers. Cripps’s elevation had at least two precedents. Patrick Hastings, one of the outstanding barristers of the time, became a Labour MP and Attorney-General in the first Labour Government. W.A. Jowitt, Attorney-General in the second Labour Government, had actually been elected as a Liberal MP when offered the post by MacDonald. Neither Hastings nor Jowitt had strong affinities to socialism. Cripps, a formidably talented and successful barrister, with tremendous technical skills, had caught the eye of Herbert Morrison when he represented the LCC before the Railway Rates Tribunal in the 1920s. With Morrison’s support he allowed himself to become prospective Labour candidate for West Woolwich, a seat Labour could not normally expect to win (he never actually stood there). But his almost immediate appointment as Solicitor-General in 1930 was due not to his Labour sympathies but to his standing as a lawyer. He had one other piece of luck. On appointment he was found the safe Labour seat of Bristol East, which he held at the general election of 1931, when virtually all the Labour front bench lost their seats. By the end of 1931 Cripps, having been virtually unknown in the Party a year earlier, was one of its leading figures. He thus never had, as Clarke writes, ‘the apprenticeship in Labour politics that might have given a 40-year-old lawyer, however brilliant in his own field, the time and experience necessary in mastering his new trade’. The result was that he never mastered his new trade.

Among his contemporaries in the Labour Party Cripps probably most resembled Attlee and Dalton – both products of the late Victorian Tory upper middle class. But the resemblance is not close. They had both served their apprenticeships. Both had entered the Party via one of the accepted routes. Above all, both were partisan Labour politicians. They were as sectarian and as suspicious of progressive coalitions and united fronts as any trade-union leader. Clarke’s biography, however, is not of a partisan Labour politician. He argues persuasively – perhaps the central argument of his book – that Cripps was an instinctive coalition-maker, a seeker after agreement, something his rather muddled Marxism of the early 1930s tended to conceal. It was this which gave unity to Cripps’s highly diverse and rather puzzling political career. And it was the peculiar circumstances of the 1940s which made such a career not only possible, but successful.

Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 precisely because of his coalition-making – in this case with people (the Popular Front) unacceptable to the leadership. He remained outside the Party until 1944. As a prominent figure on the Left, but one independent of the traditional parties, he was the beneficiary of the marked movement to the left in popular opinion which occurred in 1940, but which was frustrated by the existence of a coalition Government and the electoral truce between the Conservative and Labour Parties. Furthermore, his independent stance was reinforced by a technical competence – he was a trained chemist as well as a lawyer – also at a premium in the 1940s. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, no particular friend of the Left, and deeply averse to party politicians, wrote of Cripps in July 1944: ‘I like him more each time I meet him.’ Brooke could have written this comment for several reasons – Churchill thought he and Cripps were all too alike – but I would guess it was Cripps’s independence of party and his technical competence that Brooke admired.

Cripps’s Chancellorship should also be seen as, in effect, non-party. He came to embody all that much of the Conservative Party and the middle class loathed about the Attlee Government – his personal austerity the private counterpart of the public misery he imposed on the British people. Yet in the circumstances of the 1940s the Conservatives could hardly have done anything very different. Cripps was obliged to fund a (cheap) welfare state, suppress home demand at a time of full employment, and restrain inflation. In fact, he was practising a ‘full-employment’ Keynesianism which I think neither he nor Keynes thought particularly party-political. After all, though he did not live to see Cripps implement it, Keynes believed he had devised a form of economics which made older, conflicting forms of political economy ideologically redundant. And the late 1940s was probably the last moment when such a view could plausibly be held. Thereafter Keynesianism became ineradicably politicised as one side in the struggle between Gaitskellites and Bevanites in the Labour Party and as a form of profligacy and irresponsibility increasingly detested by the political Right throughout the English-speaking world.

Cripps succeeded when history was on the side of a broadly progressive non-party politics. He failed when it was not. This is so because he represented none of the Labour Party’s own traditions: he was not a conventional party man and when he tried his hand at party politics he did it badly. He had little use for the networks, loyalties and feuds that comprised Labour politics and involved himself in none of them. The same is true of the missions to India and Russia. In India Cripps succeeded when conditions permitted a non-partisan politics and failed when they demanded the opposite. And Indian politics were deeply partisan. He failed in Moscow – probably an impossible mission anyway – because Stalin and Molotov were nothing if not party politicians. They knew that Churchill had the divisions and Cripps, like the Pope, had none. He succeeded after 1945 because there were in the circumstances few obvious alternatives to what he did. Cripps was a man of the Left but a non-party man of the Left. He therefore bequeathed no usable rhetorical or ideological traditions to the Labour Party. That is why there were no Crippsites: not because others got their versions in first. Such an interpretation is, as I read it, implicit in Clarke’s biography and would certainly follow from what I take to be his central argument. But it would have rounded out the book had he made it explicit or, if mine is a complete or partial misinterpretation, given us instead the interpretation he himself would offer.