Friday, April 24, 2009

The Marxist Stafford Cripps

It’s 120 years since the birth of Stafford Cripps, a controversial politician of the far left who became so popular during the Second World War that some thought he might even replace Churchill. His diaries and letters were only released in the 1990s, and those relating to his period as ambassador in Moscow have been published - though not to much acclaim.

Cripps was born in London on 24 April 1889, exactly 120 years ago today. His father was a Member of Parliament (later to become Lord Parmoor), and his mother was the sister of Beatrice Webb (a sociologist and reformer, but also a diarist of some note). Cripps studied at Winchester College and did chemistry at the University of London; later, though, he turned to the law and was called to the bar as a barrister in 1912. During the First World War, he served as an ambulance driver in France and managed a factory producing armaments. After the war, he returned to the law, specialising in patent and compensation cases.

By 1931, Cripps had joined the Labour Party, been appointed Solicitor General, and been elected to Parliament. But his political views moved to the far left, and he soon became an outspoken proponent of Marxist policies. In 1932 he helped found the Socialist League, although five years later he dissolved it rather than face expulsion from the party (Tribune, originally its mouthpiece, however, survives to this day as a respected journal). After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Cripps campaigned, alongside the Communist Party, for the formation of a Popular Front to prevent the spread of fascism, but his views eventually lead to him being expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 (along with Aneurin Bevan).

When Churchill formed his coalition government in 1940, Cripps was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union. He remained in Moscow for nearly two years, and then, on returning to England, he found his views on Russia strikingly popular, so much so that at one point he was considered a potential rival to Churchill, even without party backing. Churchill appointed him Lord Privy Seal and brought him into the War Cabinet. He didn’t stay long, though, and ended the war as Minister of Aircraft Production. 

On Cripps’s removal from the War Cabinet, the Spartacus website notes, Hugh Dalton, a Labour Party politician and future Chancellor of the Exchequer, recorded in his diary: ‘He has, I think, been very skilfully played by the PM. He may, of course, be quite good at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, but seldom has anyone’s political stock, having been so outrageously and unjustifiably overvalued, fallen so fast and so far.’

After the war, Cripps’s political views mellowed sufficiently for him to be brought back into the Labour Party and the government. In 1945 Attlee appointed him Minister of Trade, and two years later he replaced Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer where his harsh policies helped the country recover from its economic crisis. He resigned in 1950 suffering from ill health, and died in 1952. Considerably more detail about Cripps’s political life can be found on Wikipedia (and the International Vegetarian Union website also has information about Cripps, but focused mainly on his vegetarianism and ill health).

Cripps’s diaries and letters were not released for a long time, not until the 1990s, and Peter Clarke’s biography - The Cripps Version: The Life of Sir Stafford Cripps - published by Allen Lane in 2002, was the first to make use of them. Then, in 2007, Vallentine Mitchell published Stafford Cripps in Moscow 1940-1942: Diaries and Papers edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky. The publisher says the diary not only describes the metamorphosis in Cripps’s political fortune, but bears witness to the dramatic turnabouts of the war and ‘offers candid glimpses of diplomatic life in Moscow’.

An advertisement on the Cummings Centre website explains that the documents selected and annotated by Gorodetsky (a director of the Cummings Centre) are based in the first place on diary-letters written by Cripps while in Moscow (unveiled for the first time), as well on other documents such as excerpts from Lady Cripps’s diary, and a diary which Cripps kept of his fact-finding tour to the Far East and Moscow in winter 1939-40.

I cannot find any news reviews of the book online, but Christian Schlect says this on Amazon.com: ‘The real trouble with this book is that Cripps was a writer with few gifts and no sense of flare. He did not lower himself to make the interesting observation or aside about either people or his surroundings. Cripps complained incessantly about being unappreciated by headquarters. He was obsessed with a post-war world before the actual war being fought was near being won. And, he was the type of man who was easier on Stalin than on Churchill.’

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