Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps, 1889-1952
London: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 2002
£25.00.xviii-608 pages, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index.
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 Clarkes 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 out3,
but Clarke has written a warm book with the human dimension
of politics left in, and it is no less intellectually rewarding
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 Crippss
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
Crippss 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 Russias actions in Poland
and Finland seen as hostile to British interests) and when the alliance
with the devil (in Churchills terms) had been enthusiastically
concluded; his clash with Churchill in 1942, eventually solved to
the Prime Ministers advantage by victory at El Alamein; and
finally his association with austerity at the Exchequer (Clarkes
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 Crippss 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 Crippss 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 Crippss 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 Crippss
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
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 Crippss 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 doctors
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
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
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
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 Crippss 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 Crippss
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 Crippss
action, with its long-term consequences on (arguably) the negative
image of Crippss 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
Attlees oxymoronic definition of Crippss character: The
egotism of the altruist.17
The reader may be interested to know that Cripps has already
attracted the attention of several biographers (some of whom are occasionally
quoted in Clarks 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.
All we have on this lighter side of his life is Crippss
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.
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.
Clarkes magnanimity is at its most obvious in the opening
sentence of his chapter entitled Crippss 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.
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 Foots biography of Aneurin Bevan.
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 Crippss 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.)
An anonymous portrait which Clarke attributes to H.V. Hodson.
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  Downing
Street for his office [at the Treasury] an hour before the first meeting.
Their only common point being cigar-smoking, which as we saw
Cripps was finally forced to abandon.
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
Sissons, Michael & French, Philip [Editors].
Age of Austerity, 1945-1951. London: Hodder &
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
Fielding, Steven, Thompson, Peter & Tiratsoo, Nick. England
Arise!: The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain.
Manchester: University Press, 1995.
Marquand, David. Ignoring the rocks. Times Literary
Supplement 5171 (10 May 2002): 9-11
This is the justification for the title of the biography given
in the Preface.
Clarke has a note which reads: For a full account of
this incident see Burgess, Cripps, pp.294-302.
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.