Richard Stafford Cripps

Richard Stafford Cripps

Richard Stafford Cripps was born in London on 24th April, 1889. His mother, Theresa Cripps, was the sister of Beatrice Webb. After an education at Winchester and New College, one of the 39 constituent colleges of Oxford University, he became a research chemist. He also carried on studying law and was called to the bar in 1913.

Cripps was a pacifist and during the First World War served with the Red Cross in France. In 1918 Cripps returned to his work as a barrister. Specializing in company law, Cripps made a fortune in patent and compensation cases.

A Christian Socialist and member of the Labour Party, Cripps was elected to the House of Commons in 1931 at a by-election in East Bristol. The following year Ramsay MacDonald appointed Cripps as his solicitor-general. However, like most members of the party, Cripps refused to serve in MacDonald's National Government formed in 1931.

Stafford Cripps was converted to Marxism and became the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party. Other members of this group included Aneurin Bevan, William Mellor, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Betts, Frank Wise, Jennie Lee, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Barbara Betts and G. D. H. Cole. In 1932 the group established the Socialist League. Other members included Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Ellen Wilkinson, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh and Michael Foot. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.

According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.

G.D.H. Cole arranged for Ernest Bevin to be elected chairman of the Socialist League. However, the following year, the Independent Labour Party members insisted on Frank Wise becoming chairman. Cole wrote later, "as the outstanding Trade Union figure capable of rallying Trade Union opinion behind it I voted against... but I was outvoted and agreed to go with the majority". Cole attempted to persuade Bevin to join the Socialist League Executive, but he refused: "I do not believe the Socialist League will change very much from the old ILP attitude, whoever is in the Executive."

In April 1933 G.D.H. Cole, R. H. Tawney and Frank Wise, signed a letter urging the Labour Party to form a United Front against fascism, with political groups such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. However, the idea was rejected at that year's party conference.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, Stafford Cripps became convinced that the Labour Party should establish a United Front against fascism with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Independent Labour Party. In April 1934 William Mellor had a meeting with Fenner Brockway and Jimmy Maxton, two leaders of the ILP, "to talk over ways and means of securing working-class unity". He also had meetings with Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In 1936 the Conservative government in Britain feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government. Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.

In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Clement Attlee, Philip Noel-Baker and Arthur Greenwood argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be." Cole and Jack Murphy, the General Secretary of the Socialist League also called for help to be given to the Popular Front government.

Stafford Cripps was another advocate for an United Front: "Up till recent times it was the avowed object of the Communist Party to discredit and destroy the social democratic parties such as the British Labour Party, and so long as that policy remained in force, it was impossible to contemplate any real unity... The Communists had... disavowed any intention, for the present, of acting in opposition to the Labour Movement in the country, and certainly their action in many constituences during the last election gives earnest of their disavowal." Aneurin Bevan added: "It is of paramount importance that our immediate efforts and energies should be directed to organising a United Front and a definite programme of action."

In 1936 the Socialist League joined forces with the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party and various trades councils and trade union brances to organize a large-scale Hunger March. Aneurin Bevan argued: "Why should a first-class piece of work like the Hunger March have been left to the initiative of unofficial members of the Party, and to the Communists and the ILP... Consider what a mighty response the workers would have made if the whole machinery of the Labour Movement had been mobilised for the Hunger March and its attendant activities."

On 31st October, 1936 the Socialist League called an anti-fascist conference in Whitechapel and discussed the best ways of dealing with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Over the next few months meetings were held. The Socialist League was represented by Stafford Cripps and William Mellor, the Communist Party of Great Britain by Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt and the Independent Labour Party by James Maxton and Fenner Brockway.

Stafford Cripps was the main supporter of a United Front in the Socialist League: "The Communist Party and the ILP may not represent very large numbers, but all of us who have knowledge of militant working-class activities throughout the country are bound to admit that Communists and ILPers have played and are playing a very fine part in such activities... Just as unity has wrought wonders in Spain, inspiring and encouraging the Spanish workers with a heroism past all praise, so in our, as yet, less arduous struggle it can give new life and vitality."

Richard Crossman disagreed with Cripps and his followers: "The Socialist League... dilate on the need for Communist affiliation and a strong policy with regard to Spain, as though these items were of the slightest interest to any save the minority of politically conscious electors. Such critics frame their propaganda to satisfy their own tastes and neglect the simple fact that it is not they but the Tory voters who must be converted. Their busy activity is self-intoxicating, but millions of people still read the racing page, because, on the whole, conditions are not bad enough to drive them to politics, and they have not seen a Labour canvasser for five years, far less seen any signs of practical activity by the local Labour Party."

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Cripps campaigned for the formation of a Popular Front with other left-wing groups in Europe to prevent the spread of fascism. In January 1937 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss decided to launch a radical weekly, The Tribune, to "advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to Fascism at home and abroad." William Mellor was appointed editor and others such as Barbara Betts, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Harold Laski, Michael Foot and Noel Brailsford agreed to write for the paper.

William Mellor wrote in the first issue: "It is capitalism that has caused the world depression. It is capitalism that has created the vast army of the unemployed. It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our people into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it." Stafford Cripps wrote encouragingly after the first issue: "I have read the Tribune, every line of it (including the advertisements!) as objectively as I can and I must congratulate you upon a very first-rate production.''

Stafford Cripps declared that the mission of the Socialist League and The Tribune was to recreate the Labour Party as a truly socialist organization. This soon brought them into conflict with Clement Attlee and the leadership of the party. Hugh Dalton declared that "Cripps Chronicle" was "a rich man's toy".

The United Front agreement won only narrow majority at a Socialist League delegate conference in January, 1937 - 56 in favour, 38 against, with 23 abstentions. The United Front campaign opened officially with a large meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24th January. Three days later the Executive of the Labour Party decided to disaffiliated the Socialist League. They also began considering expelling members of the League. Cole and George Lansbury responded by urging the party not to start a "heresy hunt".

Arthur Greenwood was one of those who argued that Stafford Cripps should be immediately expelled. Ernest Bevin agreed: "I saw Mosley come into the Labour Movement and I see no difference in the tactics of Mosley and Cripps." On 24th March, 1937, the National Executive Committee declared that members of the Socialist League would be ineligible for Labour Party membership from 1st June. Over the next few weeks membership fell from 3,000 to 1,600. In May, G.D.H. Cole and other leading members decided to dissolve the Socialist League.

By 1938 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss had lost £20,000 in publishing The Tribune. The successful publisher, Victor Gollancz, agreed to help support the newspaper as long as it dropped the United Front campaign. When William Mellor refused to change the editorial line, Cripps sacked him and invited Michael Foot to take his place. However, as Mervyn Jones has pointed out: "It was a tempting opportunity for a 25-year-old, but Foot declined to succeed an editor who had been treated unfairly."

Cripps and Aneurin Bevan were also involved in the campaign against appeasement. This included speaking on the same platform with members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In his autobiography, Very Little Luggage, his friend, Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, explained what happened: "The result was that Cripps, Bevan and myself (midget though I was beside such men) received a letter of anathema from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. We were told that we would be expelled from the Labour Party if we continued to appear on platforms that included Communists.... So I found myself sitting in an office in Chancery Lane with Cripps and Bevan while Cripps held up the letter to re-read the National Executive's terms for our rehabilitation. Cripps treated it as though it were a document replete with indecent details in a carnal knowledge case. Bevan said something about preferring to be out than in. The way things were going, so he said, it was no time to be mealy-mouthed. So they refused to assure the National Executive that they would in future keep more right-wing company."

Stafford Cripps (1943)
Stafford Cripps (1943)

Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss and Charles Trevelyan were readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party."

For the first two years of the Second World War Cripps and Bevan provided the main opposition to Britain's coalition government. In a survey carried out in 1941, the public was asked who should be prime minister if anything should happen to Winston Churchill. Of those who replied, 37% said Anthony Eden and a surprising 34% selected Cripps.

Churchill now became concerned about having one of his main critics so high in the polls. In 1942 Churchill appointed Cripps as Lord Privy Seal in his government and put him in the War Cabinet. However, Cripps continued to question Churchill's war strategy and in October 1942 he was removed from the War Cabinet. He remained in the government and now became Minister of Aircraft Production.

On Cripps removal from the War Cabinet, Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary: "He has, I think, been very skilfully played by the P.M. 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."

In 1945 Cripps published his book Towards a Christian Democracy and his readmittance to the Labour Party. Following the 1945 General Election, the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Cripps as Minister of Trade. Two years later Cripps replaced Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His policy of high taxation, tight public spending and a voluntary wage freeze, helped to keep inflation in Britain under control.

In October 1950 poor health forced him to resign from the government. The following year was elected as President of the Fabian Society.

Richard Stafford Cripps died ion 21st April 1952.

Primary Sources

(1) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

Stafford Cripps had entered the House as Solicitor-General, and had displayed immediately his great Parliamentary gifts in helping to pilot through the House the land clauses of Snowden's Budget. Many great lawyers have failed to adapt themselves to the House of Commons, but from the start Cripps showed that he was the exception. He brought to our ranks wide knowledge, fine debating powers and a first-class mind. His only weakness was a lack of practical acquaintance with the Movement. He was not always a good judge of men, nor had he very much experience with which to temper his enthusiasm. For a time, however, he was very content to follow Lansbury's lead, but it was not until the Second World War that he arrived at a balanced political judgment.

(2) Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)

Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneuryn Bevan led the radical Labour grouping that was unequivocal in its opposition to appeasement. The left's earlier pacifist tinge had withered under the heat of the Spanish Civil War. The bellicose, menacing, voices of Hitler and Mussolini needed to be met with a simple refusal to be intimidated. It was obvious that the Axis was playing for our surrender without a fight, which is exactly what Munich promised. The Holborn Constituency Labour Party, along with scores of others, was anti-appeasement and for a policy of standing up to the Dictators. This was also the position of the European Popular Fronts, and it involved accepting common cause with everyone who was of like mind, including, at that particular moment, the Communist Parties. The result was that Cripps, Bevan and myself (midget though I was beside such men) received a letter of anathema from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. We were told that we would be expelled from the Labour Party if we continued to appear on platforms that included Communists. The reason I was being grouped with the great for this call-to-order was that I had been doing a lot of speaking in London and had been billed with Cripps (who turned out to be a distant cousin) on a number of occasions. Though I was perfectly happy in Holborn and though I was not looking for a parliamentary career, there had been talk of finding me another constituency with better electoral prospects. So I found myself sitting in an office in Chancery Lane with Cripps and Bevan while Cripps held up the letter to re-read the National Executive's terms for our rehabilitation. Cripps treated it as though it were a document replete with indecent details in a carnal knowledge case. Bevan said something about preferring to be out than in. The way things were going, so he said, it was no time to be mealy-mouthed. So they refused to assure the National Executive that they would in future keep more right-wing company. Bevan turned to me and said that expelling me would do no one any good because it would not make the splash that his expulsion and that of Cripps would cause. "You can do more good by thanking them for their letter and simply saying that you have noted its contents. They will leave you alone for a bit and, before they get round to going after you again, we shall all be in this together. " Bevan was sure that Chamberlain had made war a certainty by giving Hitler the idea that he could walk over Britain.

This post-Munich meeting is especially interesting as Cripps, the cooler mind of the two, also thought that war was probable but that France, Britain and the Soviet Union could still unite in a last chance to call Hitler's bluff. They felt their own expulsion from the Labour Party would help to galvanise public opinion in the face of the real risk of appeasement sliding on towards a tolerant acceptance of fascism. "And that," said Cripps to me," is where you can help in leading the younger side of the Labour Movement." "Stay in but don't knuckle under," said Bevan. There was nothing starry-eyed about this. We now know that Chamberlain's Government was secretly informed by General Beck, Chief of the German General Staff, that Great Britain only had to take a decisive stand at the time of the Nazi attack on Czechoslovakia and then the German professional Army would have toppled Hitler. This was between the 18th and the 24th of August 1938, and we had another chance in June of 1939. Churchill himself wrote, when looking back at those years, "There never was a war more easy to stop.“ Had we done so Stalinism would never have lasted a further forty years.

(3) Walter Monckton wrote about Stafford Cripps in his unpublished memoirs.

I learned to respect him as far and away the best equipped and most formidable advocate of the day, and to love him for himself. It was good fun being against him as we never suspected each other of descending to the lower arts; we never tried to "catch" each other; we exchanged overnight the authorities we were going to quote next day; and we satisfactorily helped one another to avoid mistakes in fact or law.

(4) George Orwell, BBC radio broadcast (20th December 1941)

The most important event this week is not military but political. It is the appointment of Sir Stafford Cripps to proceed to India by air and there lay before the leaders of the Indian political parties the scheme which has been worked out by the British Government.

The Government has not yet announced what its plans are and it would be unwise to make a guess at them, but it is at least certain that no one now alive in Britain is more suited to conduct the negotiations. Sir Stafford Cripps has long been recognised as the ablest man in the British socialist movement, and he is respected for his absolute integrity even by those who are at the opposite pole from him politically. He has had a varied career, and possesses knowledge and

experience of a kind not often shared by professional politicians. During the last war he managed an explosives factory on behalf of the Government. After that for some years he practised as a barrister, and won for himself an enormous reputation for his skill in dealing with intricate: civil cases. In spite of this, he has always lived with extreme simplicity and has given away most of his earnings at the Bar to the cause of Socialism and to the support of his weekly socialist paper, the Tribune. He is a man of great personal austerity, a vegetarian, a teetotaller and a devout practising Christian. So simple are his manners that he is to be seen every morning having his breakfast in a cheap London eating house, among working men and office employees. In the last few years he has given up practising at the Bar in order to devote himself wholly to politics.

The outstanding thing about Sir Stafford Cripps, however, has always been his utter unwillingness to compromise his political principles. He has sometimes made mistakes, but his worst enemy has never suggested that he cared anything for money, popularity or personal power. About seven years ago, he became dissatisfied with the too cautious policy of the Labour Party, and founded the Socialist League, an organisation within the Labour Party, aiming at a more radical Socialist policy, and a firmer front against the Fascist aggression. Its main objectives were to form a Popular Front Government of the same type as then existed in France and Spain, and to bring Great Britain and the other peace-loving nations into closer association with Soviet Russia.

(5) Harold Nicholson, diary entry (9th September, 1942)

Guy Burgess has heard from his friends who are in close touch with Cripps that the latter is so discontented with the conduct of the war that he proposes to resign. He has already sounded The Times, and possibly Kemsley's papers, to see if they will give him press support. Guy and I agreed that Cripps' attitude was probably wholly disinterested and sincere. He really believes that Winston is incapable of dealing with the home front and that his handling of the minor problems of production and strategy is fumbling and imprecise. We agreed also that Cripps would find the atmosphere of Downing Street (with its late hours, casual talk, cigar smoke and endless whisky) unpalatable, while Winston never regards with affection a man of such inhuman austerity as Cripps, and cannot work easily with people unless his sentiment as well as his respect is aroused.

We also agree that Cripps, who in his way is a man of great innocence and narrow vision, might be seriously unaware that his resignation would shake Winston severely, that around him would gather all the elements of opposition, and that in the end he would create 'an alternative Government' and take Winston's place... I suggested to Guy that we should visit Violet (Bonham Carter) and tell her the whole story. She is the only outside person I know who is on terms of intimate friendship with Winston and also has the confidence of Stafford and Lady Cripps. We told her the story. She said she was in an awkward position, as Lady Cripps had taken her into her confidence and told her much the same. She could not betray this confidence, much as she agreed with our point of view. We arranged therefore that Violet would see Cripps or his wife, and ask whether she might say a word to Winston - a word of warning. Failing this, I should see Brendan Bracken.

(6) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (22nd October, 1942)

On Sunday night Cabinet changes are announced on the air. Morrison succeeds Cripps in the War Cabinet and the latter drops down to Minister of Aircraft Production, thus becoming a lodger downstairs in my own building. This hole is made by the appointment of Llewellin to Washington. Cranborne is to be Lord Privy Seal, and Oliver Stanley returns to the Government as Colonial Secretary. Eden is to lead the House of Commons.

I write at once to Morrison, "Congratulations! The War Cabinet is strengthened." Next morning the Daily Herald begins its leader with these same last five words. It is, indeed, a great improvement. Nearly all Cripps's 'mystique' is now gone, and he has missed all his chances - never really good - of resigning with credit. He has, I think, been very skilfully played by the P.M. 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. I add in my letter to Morrison that I would like soon to have a meeting and a talk, and I write also to Ellen Wilkinson summarizing my letter to Morrison.

(7) Winston Churchill to Joseph Stalin on Stafford Cripps (1942)

His chest is a cage in which two squirrels are at war, his conscience and his career.

(8) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

Cripps had been taking an interest in military strategy, and his interest led him to ideas different from that other enthusiast for military policies, the Prime Minister. Cripps was brash enough to give his views on what was wrong with the conduct of the war to those of his colleagues who were prepared to listen, and then to argue with Churchill on the changes which ought to be made.

It must be remembered that, his personal interest in and knowledge of strategy apart, Churchill was not merely Prime Minister. He was Minister of Defence and the whole subject of the conduct of the war was in his view ultimately his personal responsibility.

Churchill was, in fact, very patient with Cripps, even after it became obvious that he was trying to influence other ministers to adopt his own critical outlook. In due course he had a private talk with him, and Cripps resigned from the War Cabinet. It was to the latter's credit that he took the decision in a sportsmanlike manner; there was no fuss or bother, and he threw himself into his new job at the Minister of Aircraft Production with all the energy he could muster.