The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps, 1889-1952
Peter Clarke
London: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 2002
£25.00.xviii-608 pages, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index. ISBN 0713993901

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

The author of the latest biography of Cripps1 is Professor of Modern British History and Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and this in itself is a strong indication that we have to do with an academic approach to the genre. No saucy What-The-Butler-Saw revelations on his ‘sex life’ here2, but a meticulous psychologico-psychoanalytic examination of personal character and public action in the best tradition of the ‘scholarly political biography’. Of course, the genre must have many devotees if one is to judge by the constant output of major biographies of great political figures from British authors and publishers. A long time ago, there were doubts in some quarters, notably in the Annales School, that biography could be ‘serious history’ – but this was before members of that school started to write biographies themselves. Let it be said straight away that Clarke’s book would convert any unconvinced historian or intellectual to the idea that biography can contribute to the progress of historical knowledge. In itself, the book therefore fully justifies the continued success of the genre. Trevelyan once famously defined Social History as ‘History with the politics left out’3, but Clarke has written a warm book ‘with the human dimension of politics left in’, and it is no less intellectually rewarding for that.

Clarke is both lucky and unlucky in his choice of protagonist. Cripps is not a fashionable politician today, he does not appear to have left a group of devoted admirers, unlike, say, Aneurin Bevan – or even Ernest Bevin, whose attitudes as an early ‘Cold Warrior’ are often alluded to nowadays in the literature on the final demise of Sovietism. And of course he does not play in the same league as Attlee, the untouchable father figure of post-war Labourism. Clarke would therefore be hard put to it to revive a ‘Crippsian’ following which was always largely imaginary after 1951. As every good biographer, he obviously has a prima facie favourable opinion of his subject, and most of those who will buy and/or read the book also probably share his sympathy for Cripps, but the hard task is the creation of a movement of ‘rediscovery’ of Cripps’s virtues and standing for those who are at best indifferent. In this, Clarke unfortunately faces an uphill struggle.

And yet, he has a considerable number of trump cards, provided by Cripps’s participation in many of the great political struggles of mid-20th century Britain: the debate between the ‘reformist’ and the ‘revolutionary’ Left before the Second World War, with the agitation for a ‘popular front’, in which he featured prominently; his connection with the decolonisation process in India, the very symbol of past Imperial glory; his ambassadorship in Moscow from June 1940 to January 1942, that is both when Britain was ‘alone’ against Nazi Germany (with Soviet Russia’s actions in Poland and Finland seen as hostile to British interests) and when the alliance with the ‘devil’ (in Churchill’s terms) had been enthusiastically concluded; his clash with Churchill in 1942, eventually solved to the Prime Minister’s advantage by victory at El Alamein; and finally his association with austerity at the Exchequer (Clarke’s last chapter is significantly entitled ‘Austerity Cripps, 1947-1952’) during the later years of the post-war Labour Government, which is the phase in his career which probably left the most lasting mark among his contemporaries4.

It must be noted that all these episodes in Cripps’s life continue to be a subject for heated debate and passionate controversy among British historians and intellectuals – an ideal situation when you want to keep the interest of the reader alive. Moreover, the ‘educated public’ (and Allen Lane generally has this ‘target’ very strongly in mind) continues to follow the consequences of these momentous events every day in the press or in television documentaries: one only has to think of the perpetual feud between India and Pakistan. Here, Clarke very skilfully blends the narrative of events, an evaluation of Cripps’s action at the time, and the results of his vain efforts as seen today with the benefit of hindsight. Thus on the failure of the proposed Jinnah-Nehru summit in May 1946:

Had some form of compromise between Congress and the Muslim League ultimately flowed from these exchanges, the vision of Indian unity through non-violence might not have perished through a deficiency in the political skills necessary to implement it.
It was a moment which we know, over half a century later, to have been delusive in its hopes. For Cripps personally, his negotiating tactics were not to be vindicated by success but branded with failure. […]
Cripps was largely responsible for prolonging the proceedings beyond this point of obvious deadlock, apparently unable to restrain himself from making long interjections in the already unprofitable wrangle that developed between Jinnah and Nehru. (Part Five: ‘Cripps versus Gandhi, 1946-7’)

This brings us to the question of Cripps’s psychological portrait, which is largely the object of Part One, ‘His Apprenticeship, 1889-1939’. Most successful politicians are very complicated characters: this is in the nature of their chosen trade, since they must be fiercely ambitious if they are to rise to the top, but must not be seen to be so by a naïve electorate wanting to be led by self-denying personalities who ‘serve’ for an altruistic ideal, not for the craving for power and prestige. The task is even harder for Left-wingers, since personal ambition has no place in a current of thought dominated by values of cooperation and solidarity. When the Left-wing politician also has strong Christian beliefs, like Cripps, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the inevitable machinations of high politics with a rigorous personal code of conduct. In Cripps’s case, things were made even more complicated by the glaring contrast between his Socialist commitments and his personal fortune, largely due to his marriage with an ‘heiress to a substantial fortune…the unsophisticated product of an upbringing which left her as bereft of academic attainments as of domestic skills’.

How then could a devout Christian from the haute bourgeoisie rise so high in the dirty world of politics, with a sometimes tempestuous relationship with the Labour Party? This is in fact the central question that any biographer of Cripps must address, and Clarke gives the most important data of the problem in his introductory chapter, though curiously there is no general conclusion to the book: the reader is left to follow the threads as the narrative develops and form his own final opinion on Cripps’s success or failure to overcome the contradictions inherent in his personality and background. The accusation of hypocrisy is magnificently summed by Churchill in a conversation with Stalin of August 1942, recorded by Lord Moran, which Clarke does not fail to cite: ‘His chest is a cage in which two squirrels are at war, his conscience and his career’.

For the average popular voter with no personal wealth, there seems to be a paradox in having plenty of money and refusing to use it to enjoy ‘the good things of life’: Cripps was a teetotaller, a vegetarian5 and he ‘ultimately gave up his only conventional “vice”, smoking, on doctor’s orders’. More than austerity, his image was one of asceticism, and his frequent professional contacts with Gandhi6 made it easy for cartoonists to depict him ‘as an English fakir, reclining with virtuous self-mortification on a bed of utility nails’. Hence the other accusation, that of being out of touch with lesser mortals, as exemplified in a portrait7 in the Sunday Times of 5 September 1949:

‘Vegetarian, teetotaller, early riser8, unremitting worker, he lacks, it often seems, the human sympathy to sense the real impact of his measures on ordinary people…His intellectual self-confidence seems to scorn not only the arguments of others, but their feelings too’.

How much of the image of him which has survived is due to the numerous attacks against his ‘hairshirt policies’ in the Conservative press in the late 1940s, when there could be no easier contrast between the lean Cripps and the rubicund Churchill?9 Clarke undertakes to show that there is no real justification for the fact that ‘the popular images that stuck were those that confirmed and reinforced a two-dimensional stereotype, rather than those suggesting a wider range of human sympathies’ by calling attention to the numerous favourable testimonies which have survived, notably in diaries and correspondence. Unsurprisingly, most of those who found some warmth in him were his close associates, like Woodrow Wyatt or Hugh Gaitskell (who, as a Dalton supporter, was at first extremely diffident), but more unlikely sources are tapped, like a letter by Dame Margot Fonteyn. This is scholarship at its best, and the reader can only imagine the hours of patient research behind this extremely impressive range of primary sources consulted: Clarke has obviously ‘read everything’ that was written on Cripps, including obscure private papers by (now) obscure individuals in obscure private collections.

The general image that emerges is one of consistency: Cripps never departed from his principles of rigour – in all its aspects. But when the exigencies of rigour were not incompatible with human warmth and the enjoyment of the arts, Cripps did not cultivate it per se. And even though it seems that he never read Marx or Keynes, he tried to combine the essence of both by propounding his own version of planning (a vogue notion at the time, which of course underlay the Labour Manifesto of 1945): ‘democratic planning [which] is so very much more difficult than totalitarian planning’, as he put it in November 1946. Planning in order to put the economy back on its feet, planning to finance the Welfare State and above all planning in order to combine the two. In a very convincing demonstration, Clarke shows that Cripps had understood that what was to become known as ‘private affluence’ and ‘welfarism’ could only be financed by a prosperous national economy, which in turn could only come from competitive British prices on export markets and ‘confidence’ on the part of those whom Harold Wilson later dismissed as ‘the gnomes of Zurich’, i.e. foreign investors ready (or not) to put their money in British industry.

With this we are back to the contrast in the legends surrounding, say, Bevan and Cripps. Bevan has the aura of the uncompromising Socialist, but Cripps made ‘realist’ speeches which ruined the hopes of a New Jerusalem (or Socialist dreamland) in which you could eat your cake and have it, as before a Labour Party audience in January 1949:

We know many people feel the pinch of difficulty in making ends meet. But as long as we are in this impoverished state our own consumption requirements have to be the last in the list of priorities. First are exports; second is capital investment in industry. Last are the comforts and amenities of the family.

When Cripps repeated the same arguments in his Budget Speech of April 1949, a supporter wrote in his diary: ‘Clearly the Government benches disliked the very plain statements that we had to pay for our social services, while the opposition applauded’. Well it might applaud since the argument had been put forward with little electoral success by a reticent Churchill in his Declaration of Policy to the Electors, the Conservative Manifesto of 1945.10 Indeed, Labour itself had warned in its own manifesto that ‘There is no good reason why Britain should not afford such programmes, but she will need full employment and the highest possible industrial efficiency in order to do so’. Cripps could therefore argue with good reason that there was a perfect consistency between his planning priorities and the promises made by Labour in 1945. Indeed, there was, as Clarke suggests, and as was perceived by many lucid observers whom he quotes.

But, even though all this defence of Cripps as a consistent, ‘principled’ politician with exceptional personal integrity is perfectly justified by public pronouncements and private diaries and letters, it seems to miss a capital point: all sources are élite sources. In his Preface, Clarke indicates that ‘What is needed is not refutation, which would be unconvincing, but contextualization’, but precisely his process of contextualization seems to neglect not only the particular mood of the times away from ‘controls’, as excellently recaptured for instance in Age of Austerity11, but more worryingly the insights into the popular rejection of ‘ethical Socialism’ given by the young generation of British historians12, notably in England Arise!13

In his recent review14 of The Cripps Version, David Marquand reproaches Clarke with not devoting enough space to ‘the domestic side of Cripps’s role in the 1945 Government’. The reason indirectly given by Clarke is that the innovative aspect of his biography is due to his use of Cripps’s diaries15, which he unfortunately did not keep ‘after his return from India in June 1946’. This explains why the relevant section is necessarily less substantial than the earlier ones, which featured many quotations from the diaries. We can also surmise that Clarke did not want to provide a mere repeat of what other biographers had already written, as is made clear by his reference to Burgess for details of the episode of the clash between Cripps and Churchill in the wake of the devaluation of September 194916. Thus we will not follow Professor Marquand in his criticism: instead we would perhaps reproach Professor Clarke with his failure to integrate the discussion on the popular rejection of ‘ethical Socialism’ in his contextualization of the contemporary reception of Cripps’s action, with its long-term consequences on (arguably) the negative image of Cripps’s Chancellorship.

But this is only one aspect of a magisterial biography which manages to explore all the complex aspects of the public career and private feelings (at least as recorded in his diaries) of a complicated man living in a period rich in domestic and international events. This is political biography at its best, and it has to be the ‘definitive’ biography for some time – i.e. until new private papers turn up, or until another author feels tempted by a fresh exploration of Attlee’s oxymoronic definition of Cripps’s character: ‘The egotism of the altruist’.17


1 The reader may be interested to know that Cripps has already attracted the attention of several biographers (some of whom are occasionally quoted in Clark’s narrative):
-Strauss, Patricia. Cripps: Advocate extraordinary. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942 (Cripps: Advocate and Rebel. London: Victor Gollancz, 1943).
-Estorick, Eric. Stafford Cripps: A Biography. London: Heinemann, 1949 (Stafford Cripps: Master Statesman. New York: Day, 1949).
-Cooke, Colin. The Life of Sir Richard Stafford Cripps. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957.
-Bryant, Chris. Stafford Cripps: The first modern Chancellor. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997

-Burgess, Simon. Stafford Cripps: A political Life. London: Victor Gollancz, 1999.

2 All we have on this lighter side of his life is Cripps’s entry in his Diary concerning the Suffragettes in July 1910, when he was 21: ‘These infernal sexless beasts make England a laughing stock and the whole lot ought to be shot’.

3 ‘Social history might be defined negatively as the history of a people with the politics left out’. Trevelyan, G.M., English Social History. London: Longman, 1944: Introduction.

4 Clarke’s magnanimity is at its most obvious in the opening sentence of his chapter entitled ‘Cripps’s moment’, when he writes: ‘Cripps is best remembered for his efforts to rebuild the British economy after the Second World War’. A Conservative critic would no doubt have written ‘his vain efforts’ or ‘his failure to rebuild’.

5 Curiously, Clarke does not give examples of parallels made by his numerous enemies in the Conservative press between Cripps the vegetarian teetotaller and Hitler, the other well-known vegetarian teetotaller. That press did not however refrain from making comparisons between Bevan the ‘totalitarian’ and Hitler, as documented in Michael Foot’s biography of Aneurin Bevan.

6 Lord Woolton, Minister of Food during the Second World War, and widely considered as very successful in ensuring fair shares in the wartime rationing process, was not above making unfair political capital of Cripps’s inevitable discussions with Gandhi: ‘Sir Stafford Cripps believes in austerity. He practises it himself almost as though it was a religious cult. That might be very good for him, but it is of no use to us. He knows nothing about the ordinary fun of life which you and I want, and I shudder for the condition of England when Sir Stafford comes back after spending three months with Gandhi. He is a bit of a saint, but we are not apostles of austerity’. (Speech in Manchester, reported in the Daily Mail, 23 February 1946 and quoted by Clarke.)

7 An anonymous portrait which Clarke attributes to H.V. Hodson.

8 This is how Clarke describes a typical morning at the Exchequer: ‘Stafford was generally reported to rise at 4 a.m. and to get down to work at once, breaking at 7 a.m. for a half-hour walk with Isobel [his wife], followed by a cold bath. Then there was breakfast of yoghurt, fruit, toast and marmalade, before he left [11] Downing Street for his office [at the Treasury] an hour before the first meeting’.

9 Their only common point being cigar-smoking, which as we saw Cripps was finally forced to abandon.

10 ‘There is no easy way of one section getting great benefits from the State at the expense of another. The nation can have the services it is prepared to pay for. Where all benefit, all will have to contribute’.

11 Sissons, Michael & French, Philip [Editors]. Age of Austerity, 1945-1951. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963.

12 With which Clarke seems to be perfectly familiar, since he quotes from Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina. Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939-1955. Oxford: University Press, 2000.

13 Fielding, Steven, Thompson, Peter & Tiratsoo, Nick. ‘England Arise!’: The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain. Manchester: University Press, 1995.

14 Marquand, David. ‘Ignoring the rocks’. Times Literary Supplement 5171 (10 May 2002): 9-11

15 This is the justification for the title of the biography given in the Preface.

16 Clarke has a note which reads: ‘For a full account of this incident see Burgess, Cripps, pp.294-302.’

17 Attlee, Clement. A Prime Minister Remembers: The War and Post-War Memoirs of the Right Honourable Earl Attlee. Conversations with Francis Williams. London: Heinemann, 1961, p.150, quoted by Clarke.