Observer Review: The Cripps Version By Peter Clarke Essay, Research Paper
The creepy Mr CrippsThe Cripps VersionPeter ClarkeAllen Lane ?25, pp574One day, when he was a member of the wartime coalition Cabinet, Stafford Cripps barged into Number 10 demanding an instant audience with Winston Churchill. The great man was on the lavatory. He grunted to his butler to tell Cripps to get lost: ‘I can only deal with one shit at a time.’To other contemporaries, Cripps was ‘a saint’ who was the only person to possess the talent and stature to replace Churchill as war leader.Cripps is a fascinating character who played a hugely influential part in seminal events of the middle of the twentieth century. And yet he has largely been ignored by historians. Peter Clarke draws on unmined sources to issue a masterful corrective. He examines the rollercoaster course of Cripps’s life with a sympathy for his subject which does not preclude rigour about his failings.Impeccable research is lucidly marshalled. The human side is told well: Cripps coupled a keenness for knitting with an enthusiasm for nude sunbathing, neither considered normal for a man of that time. Important chapters on Cripps’s role in cementing the anti-Nazi alliance with the Soviet Union and bringing India to independence will oblige other historians to recast their interpretations.Admirable though this biography is, it does not convince me that Cripps is to be all that admired. In too many ways, he personified why the British Left handed so much of the last century to the Conservative Party.Cripps was born rich, bred a Tory, became wealthier still by marriage to the devoted Isobel and earned as a lawyer what he called ‘fabulous and fantastic sums’. With a mansion in the country and a taste for luxurious cruising on the Med, the ‘Red Squire’, also known as the ‘Red Admiral’, was dogged throughout his career with the charge of hypocrisy. At one level, he can be absolved of humbuggery. In the 1948 Budget, which heavily taxed his own class to finance the welfare state, probably no one was hit harder by his capital levy than the man introducing it.What really offends about Cripps was his intellectual hypocrisy. In the Thirties, he became the leading prophet of a revolutionary Marxism so unrealisable that it could never threaten to disturb his own privileged life. All it did was make the Labour Party seem scary to many voters. Herbert Morrison was far from alone in regarding Cripps as a ‘dangerous lunatic’.A fine mind was marred by the fatal conceit that his opinions were impermeably correct until the moment that he violently changed them in another, sometimes diametrically opposite, direction. He was implacably opposed to sanctions and rearmament against the fascist powers until the too-late moment that he became absolutely in favour of acting against Hitler.Presiding over postwar rationing, he revelled in the image of ‘Austerity’ Cripps, a reputation for indulgent self-mortification magnified by his puritanical demeanour, vegetarianism and teetotallism. That made its contribution to the notion – never helpful to the Left – that socialists are killjoys.The 1949 devaluation of sterling was a success for the country, but a disaster for Labour, mainly because Cripps made it so. Wounded by imputations that he had broken his word, an accusation pressed by Churchill, Cripps refused to deliver another Budget until the people had given a verdict.Labour was forced into the premature 1950 election in the unseasonable month of February. Attlee’s majority was slashed to an anorexic six. By 1951, the Tories were back in power, where they would remain for another 13 years on the back of the consumer boom. Not for the first time, the priggish Cripps had sacrificed the interests of his party and the progressive cause on the altar of his own self-righteousness.This is a fine biography. But I’m with Churchill. Cripps gives me the creeps.