Britain’s Thin Man

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 15 1947

Britain’s Thin Man

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 15 1947

Britain’s Thin Man



THERE IS an old saying that personalities dominate events. That is partially true but events also have a habit of dominating personalities. For example, if the Munich Settlement of 1938 had resulted in real peace the career of Chamberlain’s archcritic, Mr. Churchill, would probably have faded out like a film coming to its end. Without the French Revolution Napoleon would have been no more than a tubby little general of artillery.

Today I want to discuss the riddle of my parliamentary colleague, Sir Stafford Cripps, who has been appointed commander-in-chief of British industry and is, therefore, entitled to be regarded as a man of destiny. He is undoubtedly going to have a considerable influence on events, but perhaps we shall be able to show that events have played some part in shaping both his career and his personality.

Cripps’ father was a Conservative lawyer who was made a peer by a Liberal Government. Lord Parmoor, that being the name he took, was blessed with three sons, but it was the second son, Colonel “Freddie,” whom we heard most about. Freddie was straight out of Dumas—an adventurer, a swashbuckler, a gallant, a sportsman, a director of a bank in Russia during the Czarist regime, and very much a man about town.

“The difference between Stafford and me,” he once said, “is that when he is called in the morning he springs out of bed and goes to work. 1 have a cup of tea brought to me and when 1 reach out my hand and find the cup is quite cold 1 think seriously of getting up.”

I met Freddie Cripps in Liverpool during the war dressed in the rough sheepskin uniform of a mine sweepers’ crew. I met him again affer a year of Socialist Government and he told me that he was going to emigrate. “Can’t breathe here!” he roared.

There is no law that compels brothers to be alike,

but while Stafford is lean and austere, and Freddie is thickset and flamboyant, I think there is a common sense of adventure which differs only in its manifestation. The story of Sir Stafford Cripps is certainly not without the element of recklessness.

He was sent to Winchester, a remarkable boarding establishment for young gentlemen which not only produced Sir Stafford, but Sir Oswald Mosley and Field Marshal Earl Wavell. Afterwards

Cripps went to London University, that bountiful breeding source of Socialism, and became a corporation lawyer. He possessed a remarkable memory and a deep musical voice which made a strong impression despite a wintry smile. He was soon in great demand and his earnings must have been between £15,000 and £20,000 a year.

To complete these preliminary touches to our portrait he married, when he was only 22, a young lady with the Dickensian name of Isobel Swithinbank, a union which was duly blessed by three daughters and a son.

The nation first became conscious of him when Mr. Ramsay MacDonald announced late in 1930 that he had appointed Cripps Solicitor-General in the second Socialist Government, a post which carries an automatic knighthood. But our hero was Solicitor-General for only a few months when the world financial crisis overwhelmed the Government and the Socialist Party was nearly annihilated in the 1931 general election. Cripps was one of the survivors and, although he returned to the bar and continued to earn huge fees, he did not neglect the House of Commons where he began to make some startling speeches.

It is always interesting to conjecture how far the body influences the mind and, therefore, we must note that Cripps had developed a stomach ulcer which reduced him to a diet of nuts, fruits and vegetables. Even now he never eats meat. Previous to entering Parliament he had been a moderate drinker, but having seen one or two of his friends drinking too much in the smoke room he decided to become a total abstainer. Thus robbed of beverage and substance he took on a lean and hungry look which he wears to this day. As a backbencher of the Socialist opposition Cripps became the thin man who made our flesh creep. He formed a close political friendship with the fiery young Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, and they burned the midnight oil, as well as consuming many nuts, plotting the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Cripps, trained in the cautious school of the law, made speeches which were indiscreet, disruptive and sometimes silly. He proudly proclaimed that he looked forward to the liquidation of the British Empire, an institution which he apparently regarded as antisocial. Later on he wrote his version of the shape of things to come when the Socialist Party would attain real power.

Ministers, he said, would no longer be responsible to the Crown but only to the Party. If it did not suit the legislative plans of the Government to hold a general election within the prescribed five years then by a special resolution the life of Parliament would be prolonged. Ministers

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Britain's Thin Man

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would be appointed and dismissed by the party caucus. And while Cripps was outlining his plan for British Communism, although it was not called that, he continued to earn huge fees from capitalistic concerns in the courts.

“Why not?” he once said. “I am out to destroy capitalism and make no bones about it. And if capitalism wants to finance me why should I refuse the money?”

At that stage Cripps was what might be called a Christian Communist. He and his wife were prominent in church work, they lived modestly and he undoubtedly helped many people who were in distress. No doubt he was influenced by the example of Tolstoy as a rich man who became a saint. There is no reason to doubt that he looked upon the Russian Revolution and the spread of Communism as a new dawn of civilization, although he chose to remain in the Labor Party rather than join the Communists outright.

However, in 1937 there began a drive for a United Left-wing Front in Britain, since it was generally accepted that the Socialists alone could never defeat the entrenched Tories. There were flirtations between the Liberals and the Socialists but Cripps declared that while two might be company, three would be a crowd—and a crowd was needed. Therefore he insisted that the Communists be included. The hatred of the Socialists for the Communists is like that of a full-blown brunette for a young blonde, and finally the Labor Party excommunicated him.

In 19-10 the rebel Tory Churchill became Prime Minister and with his generous nature, not unmixed with irony, he sent the rebel Cripps as Ambassador to Moscow. In more ways than one this was the turning point in Cripps’ career. At last he was to see Communism in practice, not merely in theory, and he was to spend anxious months in Moscow during that strange period when Russia and Germany were bound together by an unholy and unnatural pact of nonaggression.

Cripps had plenty of time to think,

for the Kremlin had little contact with the British Embassy, and so there began the first gnawing doubts about Communism as the road to paradise on earth. Finally came that fateful June morning in 1941 when Hitler hurled his armies at Russia and within a few days Cripps and Stalin signed the Anglo-Russian Treaty of Alliance. Those were hopeful, joyous days in Britain and with the irrationalism of popular exuberance the British public somehow convinced themselves that it was Cripps, and not Hitler, who had brought the Soviet into the war on our side. I do not doubt that Cripps had done everything possible, buteven his abilities could hardly have influenced Russian policy so vitally.

His work done, Cripps returned to London and was acclaimed on every hand. Churchill’s Government needed strengthening and to the astonishment of all parties he offered Cripps the post of Leader of the House. As the Socialists were already serving under Churchill it must be assumed that Attlee and Morrison were in favor of the prodigal’s return, and his expulsion from the Labor Party was conveniently forgotten.

But Cripps was serving under a martinet who delegated little power to his subordinates, ar.d he began to find that he was nothing much more than a wax figure in the front window. The cynics said that Churchill had shanghaied him so as to prick the bubble. Certainly Cripps would have been much wiser to have refused office and become instead a powerful, benevolent critic of the Government; but no doubt Churchill mesmerized him as he did nearly everyone else. Robbed by his office of the chance of speaking openly either in the House or on the public platform his stature began to dwindle and the public soon found another idol, as is the habit of mankind.

Then Churchill acted again. He deposed Cripps as Leader of the House and sent him to India to offer Dominion status to Messrs. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and company. The wits laughed loudly. “This will finish Cripps,” they said. “What a wise old bird Winston is and what an innocent Cripps has turned out to be!”

Failure In India

Probably if we could have examined Cripps’ heart during this part of his story we would have found that he was saying to himself: “I am going to India on what is probably a hopeless quest, but perhaps 1 shall make it easier for those who follow me to solve this heartbreak problem.”

Few men’s motives are completely simple and I do not rule out the matter of human vanity among the elements affecting Cripps’ judgment at that time, but I am convinced that the deciding factor was his sincere desire to serve the nation. At any rate he went to India and he failed. When he returned, Churchill made him Minister of Aircraft Production, the job which Lord Beaverbrook had created so effectively in 1940, and Cripps disappeared from the political scene. Bombers, more bombers and still more bombers constituted his one concern. As far as the public mattered, and to some extent Parliament as well, he was a forgotten man.

So the war came to its cruel close and in 1945 a tidal wave carried the Socialists to triumph. When the Government was formed Cripps was given the important post of President of the Board of Trade. To him was assigned the task of telling the nation that having won the war it would now have to endure shortages of almost all essentials.

I doubt if there was ever a minister who maintained such a daily timetable. Five or six hours of sleep are all that he needs and he would frequently work for three hours at home before reaching his office at 9 a.m. Except when on duty in the Commons he would remain at his desk until seven in the evening and would then travel to all parts of the country to discuss problems of production with manufacturers.

At first they met him with suspicion and even resentment, but to their surprise they found him reasonable and realistic. What is perhaps just as important, he began to discover that businessmen were not the archaic, selfish, unnecessary drones that he had pictured them in the days of his political adolescence. His time in Russia had opened one eye and his contact with industrialists opened the other.

Never lacking courage, he made a public pronouncement that a man might be a good trade unionist and an excellent craftsman without necessarily possessing the qualities required for management. The trade unions were furious, so were many of the Socialist M.P.’s who had for so long preached the gospel that employers were mere passengers carried on the shoulders of the workers.

Last winter when Shinwell failed to produce the coal to keep industry moving Cripps did not try to hide his anger. When the zealots shouted for more and more nationalization Cripps answered: “What I want is more and more production.” Then came the eventful day at the Trade Union Conference when Ernest Bovin, saying that he represented only himself, urged the formation of an Empire Customs Union.

One week later Sir Stafford Cripps said identically the same thing. That speech exploded in political circles like a bomb. Not only did it foreshadow a Bevin-Cripps-Morrison alignment but it showed that Cripps had turned a full circle from the days when he declared that he looked forward to the liquidation of the British Empire. Nor did the excitement die down when he was made virtual dictator of the industrial front, and Churchill, at the Brighton Tory Conference, praised him as the one successful minister on the Government Front Bench.

But only last night a Liberal politician said to me: “I tell you that Cripps is a Communist and that he is leading you up the garden path. He is cunning and without any political conscience whatever.”

Since I cannot see into Cripps’ heart I am in no position to say that my Liberal friend is wrong. But I just do not believe what he says. Cripps may be ambitious for high place—and why not?—but I sincerely believe that he is even more ambitious to serve his generation. For what it is worth he has my good wishes and support.

* * *

Occasionally at week ends Stafford Cripps gets away for a few hours to the Cotswold Hills where he has a little six-roomed grey stone house. The garden is rough and largely uncultivated but there is a shed where the economic chief of the nation forgets his problems in the ancient art of the carpenter. He likes to make things, to see them take farm.

His wife as his partner in everything he does, is so sympathetic that she too has become a vegetarian—and devotion can hardly go further.

“You can’t have a Prime Minister who eats nuts,” brother Freddie would probably say, but I am not so sure. Potentially, and perhaps actually, Cripps of the lean figure and the wintry smile is the most powerful figure in British politics today. ic