Review: The Cripps Version By Peter Clarke Essay, Research Paper
Tighten your belts The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps Peter Clarke 592pp, Penguin Who is New Labour’s patron saint? Aficionados claim Attlee, anti-Blairites mutter MacDonald. One name that doesn’t get mentioned, but should, is Cripps. Not only does he offer religion and the law, Cripps can lay claim to the title of Britain’s leading pragmatist and consensus-builder of the 20th century, who spoke simultaneously for middle England and the dispossessed. A prime minister who is rightly embarrassed to claim the mantle of Nye, and who has airbrushed Harold, should surely feel comfortable with Stafford. Cripps died half a century ago. It has taken so long for an authorised study to be written because of his executors’ concern to do him justice. In the 1970s, exclusive access to diaries and other papers was granted to a distinguished historian who never completed his work. As a result, the door was closed to other scholars until Professor Clarke agreed to undertake the present work. The result is a triumph of judicious argument and meticulous research, which restores Sir Stafford to the plinth long reserved for him. The author draws on many sources and is sharply critical when the evidence requires it. This is important because Cripps was (to put it mildly) a rum character, and there is a danger in taking him at face value. Few political careers better deserve to be called “meteoric”, and Cripps had a quicksilver quality. “The man’s a saint”, was one commonly expressed sentiment. His saint-like qualities included a simple Christian faith, a penchant for nude bathing and raw vegetables, and a Saint Sebastian-like commitment to self-defined principles. At the same time, one of Sir Stafford’s most remarkable gifts was his absolute belief that whatever position he took was the right one, up until the point at which he changed his mind. Unusually in top-flight politics, Cripps was outstandingly successful before entering it. After a Winchester education and service in the first world war, his career as a barrister took off. Although his father (Lord Parmoor) and an uncle (Sidney Webb) both served in the first Labour cabinet, Stafford neither thought nor behaved like an aspirant politician until he was middle-aged. His early political identity was, if anything, Tory paternalist, When, early in 1931, he was elected Labour MP for Bristol East, it was not as the result of a Damascene conversion, but because Labour needed a solicitor-general, and offered him the job. His political career might have been short-lived but for his accidental survival in the electoral bloodbath later the same year. It was critical to the unfolding tale that there was no apprenticeship: no thankless years hunting for a seat, no languishing on the back benches. Within months of entering parliament, he was one of the most prominent and widely discussed MPs. This was partly because the Damascene conversion that had not preceded his entry into parliament quickly followed it. Cripps’s move to the left following the election was one of the wonders of the age. By the mid-1930s, he was leader of the left-wing Socialist League. Before the outbreak of the second world war, he had been expelled from the Labour party for backing the communist-led movement for a Popular Front. Such a trajectory was scarcely the result of either investigation or experience. “He is ignorant about political, social and economic institutions,” reproved his aunt, Beatrice Webb. “And he does not know that he is ignorant.” The leading apostle of the left had no knowledge of Marx, earned fabulous fees at the bar, and was aptly dubbed “the Red Squire”. Few doubted his sincerity. Yet as Michael Foot, a quizzical admirer, put it, “he declared the class war without ever having studied the contours of the battlefield”. It was not long, however, before Crippsian red turned a lighter shade of pink. “Although his rhetoric still smacked of the left,” his biographer shrewdly observes, “his strategy pointed increasingly to the centre.” As fast as he had turned one way, he now turned the other, opening a complex relationship with the man he called “the future prime minister”, Winston Churchill. Nuanced exchanges between Cripps and Churchill over the next six years deserve a book in themselves. As premier from mid-1940, Churchill first sent Cripps to Moscow as special envoy, then brought him back and put him in the war cabinet. Clarke provides a fascinating account of Churchill’s oddly masochistic regard for a rival who was a frequent nuisance and intermittently a threat. Not that Cripps’s own existence was unqualified fun. In Moscow between June 1940 and January 1942, the British embassy was little more than a prison. “We did not at that time realise sufficiently that Soviet communists hate extreme left-wing politicians even more than they do Tories or Liberals,” Churchill later observed. Destiny, however, lent a hand: the Nazi attack on Russia (which Cripps had accurately predicted) changed his domestic status overnight. He returned to London a hero and – at a time when Churchill’s standing was at a low ebb – as a widely talked-about alternative PM. “There is about him a dignity, an austerity, an almost inhuman rectitude,” wrote a supporter, contrasting him with the flamboyant Churchill, who had a habit of losing battles. “Well, Stafford,” Churchill greeted him at Chequers, “how have you returned? Friend or foe?” There was feverish speculation. Might he have taken over? “As a threat to the Prime Minister,” Clarke disappointingly but no doubt accurately concludes, “Cripps was much overrated, not only by his own cronies but by paranoid rivals too.” It is notable, however, that the man of “almost inhuman rectitude”, who could have distanced himself entirely from the chatter, conspicuously declined to do so. Cripps could never quite be trusted by Churchill, but he had a unique ability to inspire the faith of others. If the times required a spiritual leader, Cripps was equal to them. Clarke argues convincingly that dignity and austerity worked particularly well with the leaders of the Indian subcontinent. In May 1942, Cripps was dispatched to obtain an Indian settlement. His proposals were rejected. However, he earned guarded respect, and began the painful process of convincing Hindu leaders that the British were serious about disengagement, while convincing Muslim leaders that there would be no precipitate British abandonment. Clarke devotes several chapters to India: notably less to the 1945 Attlee administration. Yet it is during this last episode that Cripps came most prominently to public attention, and that his reputation as half holy man and half killjoy, a kind of British Gandhi, finally matured. “Shiver with Shinwell, Starve with Strachey,” went the Tory refrain in the government’s early days – but that was before “Austerity Cripps” took over as chancellor in 1947 and stole the show. As Clarke explains, it was as much style as reality. The key belt-tightening decisions that turned Cripps’s chancellorship into the harshest of the century had already been taken by his predecessor. “Misery” Cripps was arguably just the messenger. At the same time, he became the first chancellor to turn the principles of Keynesian economics into a policy revolution. Cripps was lucky with the first half his chancellorship, as he appeared to get to grips with the economy, and unlucky with the second, as the position worsened, forcing a massive devaluation in 1949, which he took as a personal defeat. In the following year, illness pushed him out of politics. Cripps’s legacy is to be found not only in Indian independence and in the Keynesian consensus, but also in a curious, self-abnegating egotism. “Crippsian” is an adjective that contains more praise than abuse, and involves the notion of cruel-to-be-kind measures not designed for the public gallery. At the same time, as this excellent book indicates, it implies a long-term strategy that is more subtle about public opinion than spin doctors always understand. Crippsianism has by no means been the signature tune of the post-1997 years. Yet premier Blair and chancellor Brown may be right occasionally to aspire to it. Ben Pimlott is the author of biographies of Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson.