Paul Anderson, review of Stafford Cripps: A Political Life by Simon Burgess (Gollancz, £25), New Times, January 2000
For nearly 20 years, Stafford Cripps, who lived from 1889 to 1952, played a crucial role in British left politics.
A successful barrister and country squire, married to an heiress, he came to socialism through Christianity and was head-hunted into the Labour Party by Herbert Morrison in 1929. His rise to political prominence was phenomenal: he was made solicitor general by Ramsay MacDonald even before he became an MP in an early 1931 by-election.
After the debacle of MacDonald’s decision to form a national government and Labour’s subsequent general election humiliation, Cripps turned sharply to the left. For the rest of the 1930s he was far and away the Labour left’s brightest star. He was the leading light in the Socialist League, the main left organisation within the Labour Party. In 1936-37, he played a key role in the Unity Campaign, in which Labour left-wingers joined the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party to urge left unity against fascism – the only lasting result of which was the founding of Tribune. Subsequently, Cripps was the most senior Labour advocate of an anti-Tory ‘popular front’ – for which he was expelled from the Labour Party in 1939.
Throughout the 1930s, Cripps was staunchly pro-Soviet – he even defended the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 – and largely because of this was chosen by Churchill in 1940 to act as British ambassador to Moscow.
The appointment resurrected his political career. When he returned to Britain in 1942, he was welcomed as the personification of the Anglo-Russian alliance against Hitler – and was in a strong enough position to force his way into the war cabinet as leader of the House of Commons (though not, as he hoped, to oust Churchill).
Cripps served successfully as minister for aircraft production from 1942 to 1945 and was allowed back into the Labour Party just before the 1945 election. In Clement Attlee’s government he was made president of the Board of Trade and then, in 1947, chancellor of the exchequer. In both roles, he proved a prudent pragmatist. When he resigned from the government in 1950, on grounds of ill health, he was widely praised even by erstwhile political enemies for his part in securing Britain’s postwar recovery.
Simon Burgess’s new biography is a competent piece of work, thoroughly researched and generally well written. It is certainly the best life of Cripps so far, particularly on his time in Moscow and his ministerial career.
The problem is that Burgess is so much more sympathetic to Cripps post-Moscow than Cripps pre-Moscow, and his commentary on the 1930s left is marked throughout with exasperation. Although Burgess makes it clear why much of the Labour establishment thought that Cripps was, as Hugh Dalton put it, a ‘dangerous political lunatic’, in his exasperation (understandable as it may be) he never really succeeds in explaining why so many on the left looked on Cripps as an inspirational leader.