'There but for the grace of God goes God'

The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps 1889-1952
September 13, 2002

Brilliant brain or canting killjoy? Jose Harris considers Stafford Cripps.

Before his death in 1952, Sir Stafford Cripps was regarded in many quarters as the foremost statesman in Europe and as the leading mediator and practitioner of a new, non-Marxian form of democratic socialist thought. Yet his arrival at such a position had been chequered and uneasy, and in the populist folklore that 50 years later still surrounds other members of the postwar Labour government, Cripps has little place. Why has this once almost-legendary figure, probably the cleverest cabinet minister of the 20th century, been largely forgotten?

Cripps was born in 1889 into one of Britain's great political families (a family unusual in that over the course of the earlier 20th century, its members' affinities stretched from High Toryism through to Bolshevism and Stalinism). Cripps's most famous relative was his mother's sister, Beatrice Webb, whom he resembled in many ways - in his striking appearance, magnetism and puritanical lifestyle, in a powerful faculty for distilling immensely complex empirical facts into simple formulas, and in a capacity for titanic mental effort followed by crippling physical and nervous collapse. Like his "Aunt Bo", he combined a devotion in principle to democracy and equality, with a penchant for "fixing" difficulties behind closed doors, and with a powerful conviction that, once he had mastered a problem, his own solution was invariably the right one. When he was only 34, Cripps was reputed to be the most highly paid barrister in England; and when he entered Labour politics in 1930 (becoming, perhaps symbolically, a minister before he was elected an MP), he seemed instantly marked out by his intellectual and forensic skills as a future party leader. His political pitch was to be queered, however, first by the Labour collapse of 1931, then by his dabbling in the politics of the far left, and finally during the late-1930s by his promotion of a cross-party, anti-appeasement national coalition (the latter leading to his expulsion from the Labour Party early in 1939). The early months of the second world war were to find him on a series of "strictly unofficial" personal visits to the Soviet Union, the US, Japan and nationalist China (in the latter he recorded that Chiang Kai-shek had "the wholehearted support of the Chinese communists at the present time, most of whom were not communists at all but at most rather advanced liberals").

Not until the crisis of May 1940 did the advent of just such a coalition as he had proposed open the way for Cripps's return to the forefront of British national politics; and even then his role remained a rather odd and marginal one. Over the course of the second world war, he was to undertake a series of important public tasks - as ambassador to Moscow, as emissary of the Churchill government to India, as minister of aircraft production; but full use of his talents appeared to be thwarted by his personal incompatibility with Churchill and by the curious rumours that circulated suggesting that many people viewed Cripps as a possible alternative war-leader to the prime minister. Churchill appears to have grudgingly acknowledged Cripps's usefulness and brainpower, but viewed both his personal habits (vegetarian teetotalism) and his earlier political beliefs (tenderness towards "virtuous" totalitarianism) as little short of poison.

Only in 1945 did Cripps rejoin the Labour Party and take his place as one of the major figures in the postwar Labour government. As chancellor of the exchequer from 1947 to 1951, he navigated the British economy through a series of unprecedented monetary and fiscal tornadoes - the suspension of dollar convertability in 1947, the 1949 devaluation of the pound, the adaptation of Keynesianism to peacetime economic management, the "free-false-teeth-and-spectacles" revolt among leftist colleagues, and the onset of the Korean war. His popular reputation over the postwar period soared and then plummeted. Initially viewed as the brilliant brain who was keeping Britain afloat during the postwar financial crisis, he was increasingly re-cast as the canting killjoy responsible for prolonging peacetime scarcity and taxing the people's pleasures.

All of this is a familiar story. Yet assessment of Cripps's role in British politics, before, during and after the second world war, has long been distorted by the exclusion of historians from access to the Cripps papers, and by the fact that (though there have been several useful studies of Cripps) there has been no fully authoritative account of his career and political thought. Peter Clarke's life of Cripps is therefore doubly welcome, both in opening up the by-no-means straightforward subject of Cripps himself, and in filling some major gaps in the wider understanding of this complex and seminal period of British political history.

The Cripps Version turns out to be, however, not an orthodox biography of the kind familiar in high-political narrative, but something both less and more. On the one hand, although it will doubtless become a standard work on the subject, it deals unevenly with the many aspects of Cripps's career, giving prominence to some episodes at the expense of others. Thus it pays densely concentrated attention to the day-to-day events of his three dramatic but largely abortive foreign missions (to Moscow in 1940, and to India in 1942 and 1946). In addition, an accentuated sense of drama is added to the whole story by the highlighting and close analysis of Cripps's ongoing personal and public duel with Churchill - a duel that supplied many of the negative but pithy Churchillian epithets ("there but for the grace of God goes God"), which stereotyped Cripps in his lifetime and have dogged his posthumous reputation. By contrast, a much more summary overview is given of Cripps's more mundane (though arguably more crucial and long-lasting) impact on domestic and international economic policy. We hear little of Cripps's role in Attlee's cabinet, or of his policies at the Board of Trade. The same rather abbreviated treatment is accorded to his earlier career, as a sponsor not just of advanced radical causes, but on occasion of explicitly subversive and extra-constitutionalist programmes and ideas.

On another level, however, The Cripps Version is much more deeply engaged than most works of this genre with precise questions of accurate historiography. The chapters on the Cripps missions sift through mounds of dubious and conflicting evidence to arrive at the closest possible approximation to what happened; and one of the great pleasures to be gained from reading this book lies in observing the ease, elegance and intellectual dexterity with which Clarke performs this intricate task. The technical skills involved in such a process can scarcely be over-emphasised. With the exception of Robert Skidelsky's volumes on Keynes, it is difficult to think of any other comparable work that so gracefully steers its way between ideas, personalities, institutions and archives, while unravelling and knitting together such a complexity of contingent historical events.

Clarke's priorities were doubtless dictated by the fact that he had access to a great deal of evidence never before used by historians, and it was the Indian dimension that appeared most urgently in need of correction and re-interpretation. This choice seems justified by the fact that almost certainly it is the account of Cripps's two missions to India in 1942 and 1946, and his closet relationships with Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, that will most powerfully grip and provoke most readers. In 1942 - despite his mandate to offer the trappings of a move towards eventual Indian independence - Cripps was largely the pawn of a reluctant and otherwise preoccupied British government. In 1946, by contrast, he had a much freer hand, backed up by virtually unlimited British government support, to offer any settlement that would satisfy both Congress visions of constitutional "universalism" and the Muslim League's desire for either an independent Pakistan or constitutionally entrenched safeguards to protect the interests of Muslim minorities. In both 1942 and 1946, the Cripps missions appeared ultimately to founder in the face of the idealistic universalism represented by Mahatma Gandhi. But The Cripps Version suggests that, whereas in 1942 the Cripps mission had been bound to fail because of the lukewarm and duplicitous attitude of the authorities in London, in 1946 the main stumbling block was the suspicion and intransigence of the unbending Mahatma. This led to the withdrawal of Cripps's delegation and its replacement by a quite different kind of negotiating team under the leadership of Lord Mountbatten, which rapidly settled for the confessional separation of Pakistan. Thereafter Cripps, with characteristic optimism, "persisted in regarding the coming of Indian independence with some pride", even though the final settlement took almost the exact opposite form to the comprehensive solution for which he had struggled in 1942 and 1946.

Clarke makes telling and evocative use of Cripps's personal papers and diaries, supplemented by a wide range of similar materials left by colleagues and contemporaries. Despite his public reputation for remoteness and austerity, Cripps appears from these sources as a man with a talent for close and warm human relationships (though more so perhaps with junior colleagues than with professional and political equals). At all stages of his life - as a leading counsel, as ambassador and special envoy, and as a minister - close associates were clearly spellbound by his dominating and dazzling intellectual powers. In the end, however, he remains an elusive and somewhat disjointed figure. The high-wiring "fixer" and wheeler-dealer of the Indian missions seems at odds with the austerely high-principled éminence grise of the postwar British economy. And although Clarke gives us a highly plausible account of Cripps's outward shift from Marxism to Keynesianism, the exact nature of his political convictions remains shadowy and sketchy. Despite his towering intellect, it appears that from early manhood Cripps never read a book; his views were entirely derived from the absorption of opinions supplied to him by others (another respect in which he resembled his Aunt Beatrice). Equally difficult to pin down is the nature of Cripps's passionately held but doctrinally hazy Christian beliefs: it is impossible to make out whether his spiritual life was deep and inward or conventional and shallow. We are left with a much clearer sense of Cripps's powerful impact on other people, both favourable and unfavourable, than of the inner motivations of the man himself.

All this means that much remains unknown about Cripps, and there will doubtless be many further attempts at the writing of his biography. These are unlikely to match Clarke's historical, dramatic and analytical skills, and for this reason it seems a pity that Clarke did not make his account of Cripps's domestic career more comprehensive. It is a measure of the readability of The Cripps Version that, after more than 500 pages, one puts it down like a disgruntled Oliver Twist, asking for more.

Jose Harris is professor of modern history, University of Oxford.

The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps 1889-1952

Author - Peter Clarke
ISBN - 0 713 99390 1
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 574

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