Tony Cliff

Stafford Cripps: Another tale of betrayal

(June 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986, pp. 20–22.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the 1930s Stafford Cripps became the most prominent spokesman for the far left of the Labour Party. His rhetoric was well to the left of Tony Benn’s in the 1980s. Yet in the 1945–51 Labour government he became ‘Mr Austerity’, congratulated by the Tories for his budgets. Tony Cliff looks at the career of Stafford Cripps.

HALF a century ago the left of the Labour Party was organised in the Socialist League. Its main leader was Stafford Cripps. His story is quite revealing of the weaknesses of the Labour left, not only in the 1930s, but also today.

Cripps was born into a very rich family and was educated at Winchester then at Oxford. His father was a Tory MP for some two decades, and then received a peerage to become Baron Parmoor. Stafford was not indifferent to his father’s political activities. One biographer writes: ‘Stafford took up the furtherance of his father’s cause as the Conservative candidate with all the ardour of a young man of drive and initiative.’

In 1913 he was called to the Bar, and a short time later was appointed Justice of the Peace. In 1927 he became King’s Counsel.

‘In the years from 1919 to 1926 Stafford Cripps had one other interest outside the law and the village of his adoption. He had become engaged in the affairs of the Church, and particularly in the affairs of the World Council of Churches.’

In 1924 when Ramsay MacDonald formed his first Labour government he hunted for talent outside the Labour Party, and got four Tories and Liberals to join his government: Lord Parmoor, Lord Haldane, Lord Chelmsford and H.P. Macmillan (later to become Lord Macmillan). ‘Macmillan, with the consent of the Conservative Party leaders, accepted the office from MacDonald on a non-political basis as a matter of public duty.’ In the 1929–31 Labour government Lord Parmoor served once again – as President of the Council and Labour’s leader in the House of Lords. (Stafford’s uncle, Sidney Webb, who became Lord Passfield, served as Secretary of State for the Colonies.)

As the 1929 general election approached Herbert Morrison tried to attract Stafford Cripps to the Labour Party. Morrison wrote to Stafford Cripps:

‘I am personally very anxious to have you in the Party. Please let me know if and when you would like to join the ranks of the Party and I shall be very happy to make the necessary arrangements.’

In May 1929 Cripps became a member of the Labour Party. Early in 1930 he became candidate for the West Woolwich division, and for the rest of that year he gave much time to that constituency. In October 1930 the Solicitor-General, Sir James Melville, resigned in ill health, and Ramsay MacDonald offered the position to Stafford Cripps. He at once accepted, though without a seat in Parliament. On the death of the Labour MP for East Bristol, Cripps was adopted as the Labour candidate and in January 1931 was duly elected.

In government Cripps did not evince any leftist tendencies. Quite the contrary. When he spoke on the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, imposed by the Tories after the defeat of the general strike, Cripps called not for its repeal, but only its amendment.

His speech angered the TUC leaders and they protested strongly.

When in August 1931 Ramsay MacDonald joined with Tories and Liberals to form a National government, Cripps’ reaction was by no means leftist either.

Cripps was abroad when the Labour government collapsed. He received a telegram from MacDonald inviting him to continue as Solicitor-General in the new government. What was his reaction?

‘It is with very great personal regret that I find myself unable to accept your kind offer.

‘May I be allowed – without being considered impertinent – to say that I admire immensely the courage and conviction which have led you and other Labour ministers associated with you to take the action you have taken. My own personal hope is that the rift in the Party may be quickly healed.’

The trauma of MacDonald’s betrayal led to a mass swing to the left in the Labour Party in the following couple of years. And Cripps now indulged in extreme revolutionary phraseology – far surpassing Tony Benn’s in the aftermath of the Callaghan government.

In October 1932 a group of left MPs and intellectuals, prominent among them Cripps, Strauss, Bevan, Mellor and Laski, founded a new organisation – the Socialist League.

The League was highly organised, with a clear formal structure. In March 1934 it claimed 74 branches with a total membership of about 3,000. It is clear from reading the League’s material that London, South Wales and Tyneside were the only areas which sustained Socialist League activity throughout the lifetime of the organisation. One historian of the League writes: ‘The elected leadership of the Socialist League was predominantly a public school and university educated group of people.’ Cripps was the dominant figure in the League, and acted as its chairman in the years 1933–36. He was also the main source of finance.

In the first two years of its existence the League was quite successful in getting its resolutions through the Labour Party conferences. Thus in the 1932 conference, Frank Wise of the League moved a resolution calling for the public ownership of the joint-stock banks as well as the Bank of England. The NEC recommended rejection of the resolution, but the conference overruled the NEC and the resolution passed by 1,141,000 votes to 984,000.

In 1933 the Socialist League submitted 13 amendments to the NEC policy document Socialism and the Condition of the People, all intent on ensuring the Labour Party’s general objective should be ‘to eliminate all private enterprise as quickly as possible ...’ The NEC declared its willingness to think again its economic policy. It also accepted a resolution emanating from the League pledging the Labour Party to resist war by means which included a general strike.

In the years 1932 and 1933 Cripps formulated the most extreme left wing policies. The lesson of the collapse of the Labour government in 1931, Cripps argued, was that the capitalists would use extra-parliamentary weapons to defend their power and privileges. In a pamphlet entitled Can Socialism Come by Constitutional Methods? he wrote:

‘The importance of these recent political events … is that they provide the clearest demonstration of the power of capitalism to overthrow a popularly elected government by extra-parliamentary means.

‘The ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat parliamentary action if the issue is the direct issue as to the continuance of their financial and political control. If the change to socialism is to be brought about peacefully a socialist party must be fully prepared to deal with every kind of opposition direct and indirect and with financial and political sabotage of the most thorough and ingenious kind.

‘The first requisite in bringing about a peaceful revolution is to obtain a parliamentary majority of adequate size to carry all necessary measures through the House of Commons.

‘The most critical period, however, for a socialist government will be the first few months of power.

‘The government’s first step will be to call parliament together at the earliest moment and place before it an Emergency Powers Bill to be passed through all its stages on the first day. This bill will be wide enough in its terms to allow all that will be immediately necessary to be done by ministerial orders. These orders must be incapable of challenge in the courts or in any way except in the House of Commons.’

If need be extra Labour peers should be created immediately. If the capitalist class threatened military dictatorship:

‘It would probably be better and more conducive to the general peace and welfare for the socialist government to make itself temporarily into a dictatorship until the matter could again be put to the test at the polls ...

‘The decisive blow at capitalism must be struck while the people’s mandate is fresh and strong. That blow can be delivered constitutionally; if unconstitutional means are used to resist it , those who use unconstitutional means must not complain if they are met with force.’

Cripps went all out to denounce reformism and advocate revolution. In a book entitled Why this Socialism? (1934) he attacks reformism with these words:

‘The reformist attitude is certain in the future, as in the past, to precipitate the crisis in the present system, and to lead, not to a great possibility of fundamental change, but to a greater certainty of reaction.’

Reformism leads inevitably to fascism, Cripps argues.

To prevent war a socialist revolution is needed: Permanent Peace Impossible Within Capitalism, is the heading of one chapter.

Even at this period of extreme radicalism, Cripps was still bounded by respectable bourgeois conventions.

In 1934 he stated at a meeting in Nottingham:

‘When the Labour Party comes to power we must act rapidly and it will be necessary to deal with the House of Lords and the influence of the City of London. There is no doubt that we shall have to overcome opposition from Buckingham Palace and other places as well.’

The phrase about Buckingham Palace provoked immediate disclaimers from other Labour leaders and strong comments from ministers and newspapers. When he was pressed by newspaper men to explain what he had meant, he said that he was ‘most certainly not referring to the crown’. He had used the words Buckingham Palace as ‘a well-known expression used to describe court circles and the officials and other people who surrounded the king’. A few days later at Glasgow he added:

‘I am in favour of a constitutional monarchy … in this country we must either have a monarch or a political president and I vastly prefer a constitutional monarch to a political president.’

Hitler’s victory in Germany and the increasing threat of fascism led Cripps to put forward the call for a united front of all workers’ parties. He called for a united front of the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party.

The call led to no tangible results.

First of all the leaderships of the Labour Party and the TUC were shell-shocked after MacDonald’s betrayal, regained their nerve and confidence in 1934 and went clearly on the offensive against the left. In 1934 the Socialist League’s amendment to the NEC document For Socialism and Peace was rejected overwhelmingly: by 2,146,000 votes to 206,000. The League’s suggestion of income allowance instead of full compensation to those whose property was taken into public ownership was rejected similarly.

Another fundamental factor undermined the League. It was by and large a parliamentary group, with no direct links with workers to speak of. Hence it depended on the Communist Party for those links. This dependence showed clearly in the uncritical support of the League for the monstrous Moscow Trials.

Pressure from the right on the one hand and from the CP on the other forced Cripps and the League to slide from the policy of the united front of workers’ organisations to that of the People’s Front of the Labour Party, ‘progressive’ Tories and Liberals.

In 1936 the League’s resolution calling for a united front was rejected at the Labour Party conference by 1,805,000 votes to 435,000.

On 27 January 1937 the League was disaffiliated from the Labour Party. On 24 March the NEC went even further and declared that membership of the League was not compatible with membership of the Labour Party. When this was challenged at the Labour Party conference by Cripps, Laski and Strauss, the NEC got the overwhelming support of the conference: 1,730,000 votes to 373,000.

Following this Cripps moved to propaganda for the Popular Front. On 9 January he sent the NEC a document that became known as the Cripps Memorandum, which was a call for a Popular Front. The Memorandum was rejected by seventeen votes to three. The three in favour were Ellen Wilkinson, D.N. Pritt and Cripps himself. Cripps claimed the right to issue his document to all Labour organisations and to get it before the conference of the Labour Party. He issued it to the press and made sure the world should know his views on the urgency of the times. That meant, to the executive, he had again begun the organisation of a rival centre of leadership. They were determined to put an end to the matter. He was asked to withdraw his Memorandum, ‘by circular to the persons and organisations to whom it was addressed’. He refused, and was promptly expelled from the party. The expulsion was confirmed by the 1939 Labour Party conference, by 2,100,000 votes to 402,000.

Out of the Labour Party, Cripps indulged in general politics: he tried to convince individual Tory leaders to join forces against Chamberlain, and establish a government of all parties. He approached Churchill, Baldwin and Halifax (at the time Foreign Secretary in the Chamberlain government).

Cripps’ voyage rightwards continued. In 1942 he was sent to India by Churchill to convince the leaders of the Indian Congress to support Britain’s war effort. He failed, and following his mission Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders were interned for the duration of the war.

After returning from India, Cripps joined the government, becoming Minister of Aircraft Production. One historian described his role in the ministry:

‘Sir Stafford Cripps is remembered for the development of Joint Production Committees in each factory, which, beginning principally in aircraft manufacture, spread through the whole of factory management. The Joint Production Committees were designed to break through the barrier between management and workers; to attack ideas of “they” and “we”.’

In March 1945 Cripps rejoined the Labour Party and a few months later started a new chapter in his life, becoming a part of the Labour government. Apart from Attlee the two leading figures in the government were Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary and Stafford Cripps, first as President of the Board of Trade, then Minister of State for Economic Affairs and, finally, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Cripps and Bevin, enemies in the 30s, now became very close collaborators. As one historian put it:

‘… the strongest link between Cripps and Bevin was now that they thought in terms of Britain as a whole and not as practised politicians looking to party advantage. They were British Ministers of the crown working in fields where they represented not the Labour Party but the whole nation, and they spoke and acted without the partisan bias that showed itself from time to time in the words and deeds of some of their colleagues.’

Cripps, in the five years he served in the Labour government, became ‘Mr Austerity’. He called on workers to tighten their belts: from wage restraint to wage freeze, and to collaborate with management in the ‘national interest’.

Cripps’ budgets were received more favourably by the Tories in the House of Commons than by the back bench Labour MPs. After his budget speech in 1949 Anthony Eden, leading for the Tories, congratulated Cripps’ speech.

One historian, very friendly to Cripps, summed up the debate thus:

‘It was a budget that was acceptable to the House of Commons as a whole; the only really hostile voices came from a minority of Cripps’ own party still pressing for concessions. One of these described it as a Tory budget which the Tories would not have dared to introduce.’

The trade union leaders loyal to the Attlee government to the end, found it more and more difficult to defend Cripps’ economic policy.

In February 1948 Cripps imposed a wage freeze. A conference of trade union executives, on 24 March, gave a comfortable majority to the policy (5,421,000 votes to 2,032,000).

After the devaluation of the pound, in September 1949, the TUC gave Cripps support but with a much smaller margin (4,263,000 votes to 3,606,000).

In September 1950 – after a further rise in prices – Cripps’ policy of wage freeze was rejected by the TUC.

To add to the freeze, in 1949 and 1950 Cripps insisted on cuts in government expenditure. He threatened to resign unless economies of nearly £300 million were agreed by the cabinet.

‘Cripps and Bevan … clashed. .. over the extent of inflationary pressure – and both hinted at resignation. Cripps was thinking of a shilling increase in National Insurance contributions; Bevan was “making it quite clear that he would have no interference with the Health Service” ... With its threats of resignations from Bevan if cuts were made in the Health Service and from the Chancellor if they were not, the 1949 Cabinet clash strikingly resembles the battle over the 1951 budget.’

One of Cripps’ main supporters in the cabinet was Hugh Gaitskell. Relations between the two were excellent, and Cripps groomed Gaitskell to become his successor (which duly happened when Cripps was too ill to continue in the job and Gaitskell became Chancellor of the Exchequer on 19 October 1950).

Cripps also participated in the strike breaking activities of the Attlee government. On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951 the government sent troops across picket lines to do strikers’ jobs. By 1948, it has been argued by two historians, ‘strike-breaking had become almost second nature to the Cabinet’.

Cripps’ share was not limited to being a member of the cabinet. On 8 October 1945 a meeting of ministers at Chequers decided to renew the Supply and Transport Organisation of the Emergency Powers Act of 1920 and of 1926 General Strike infamy. Among the members appointed to the committee was Cripps (as well as Nye Bevan).

The committee was later replaced by an Industrial Emergency Committee. Cripps served also on this body. Meeting on 15 January 1947 the committee faced a gloomy prospect. Large numbers of London dockers had struck against the use of troops: 20,000 men were out in the capital and 8,000 in the provinces. Cripps came with an ‘original’ suggestion: the large number of Polish ex-servicemen should be used instead of British servicemen to break the strike.

Cripps, then had come full circle – from career politician to idealist critic of the evils of capitalism and the shortcomings of reformism, to government minister and strike breaker. This ultimate betrayal by Cripps cannot be explained by any personality defects or psychological shortcomings, but must be seen in the context of his failure, even in his most left wing period, to break with Labour and parliamentarianism.

The story of Stafford Cripps should serve as a salutary warning to all those on the left who believe the Labour Party can be changed, or that socialism can be won through a combination of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary struggle.

Last updated on 26 October 2019