Prudence, no purpose

Stafford Cripps: a political life

Simon Burgess <em>Victor Gollancz, 316pp, £25</em>

ISBN 057506

While Nye Bevan is canonised today for the creation of the health service, Stafford Cripps, whose economic stewardship helped keep Britain afloat during the birth of the NHS, is largely forgotten. What emerges from Simon Burgess's scholarly account is a picture of someone of great intelligence but whose central weakness as a political reformer was that he lacked a consistent ideological framework for his politics.

Edmund Dell, in his book The Chancellors, suggested that Cripps was stymied through having had "no star by which to steer". More accurately, Cripps steered by many different stars, making him an enigmatic and frustrating figure. Christian peace campaigner, pro-Soviet nationaliser, technocratic planner and, finally, the champion of austerity - all were points in the complex ideological journey of Stafford Cripps. His political roots were not in the Labour Party, but in the Christian anti-war movement of the 1920s, and he only joined the party shortly before his appointment as solicitor-general in 1930 - a post gained through the sponsorship of senior figures such as Herbert Morrison, as well as a distinguished record as a barrister.

When Ramsay MacDonald's National Coalition routed Labour in the 1931 general election, Cripps had been in parliament for just nine months. Yet, following the departure of many of the party's leading figures, either through defection to the National government or parliamentary defeat, Cripps, by virtue of his brief tenure as solicitor-general, became the party's third most senior parliamentary figure after George Lansbury and Clement Attlee. Seldom has anyone shot to prominence in the Labour Party quite so quickly and been so poorly equipped to use his position.

There is no doubting Cripps's deeply held values of social justice - he made a principled decision not to serve in MacDonald's National government. Still, there is something in Hugh Dalton's harsh view that the 1930s Cripps had the "political judgement of a flea".

As Burgess's biography makes clear, Cripps had entered politics with little understanding of the Labour movement. Yet he did not act with the caution of a man on a political learning curve. Instead, he helped found a left-wing caucus within the Labour Party, the Socialist League, and he frequently spoke out on the most controversial topics. He defended a future Labour government using non-constitutional means to suppress opposition and, in the most intemperate terms, initially opposed rearmament against Germany.

Cripps ended the 1930s in the political wilderness after a series of bitter conflicts with the Labour hierarchy, culminating in his expulsion for supporting a popular front with communists and others in 1939. But with the onset of war all this would change, as would Cripps himself. As the front-line politician most sympathetic to the Soviet Union and with Labour members of the wartime coalition keen to get him out of the way, he was made ambassador to Moscow in Churchill's government. Burgess provides a lucid account of Cripps's diplomatic role in the months leading up to the end of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

His perceived contribution in bringing Russia on to the side of the Allies and resulting political popularity at home, brought him the job of running the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP). In his two and a half years at MAP, Burgess shows that Cripps took on a new credo of "the progressive-minded technocrat" - with a belief in state planning of private industry rather than public ownership, and co-operation, not conflict, between capital and labour.

Readmitted to the Labour Party in early 1945, Cripps became president of the board of trade in the Attlee government in the shadow of postwar economic crisis. Recognising the need to address Britain's dire balance of payment problems, he became the champion of exports, deploying all his intelligence, meticulousness and tireless energy - winning respect if not enthusiasm from press, public and industry for the honesty of his message and his determination.

While in internal party politics he was maladroit (plotting unsuccessfully against Attlee), his domestic standing meant he was rewarded with promotion, eventually replacing Dalton as chancellor in late 1947. Chris Bryant, in an excellent biography published in 1997, dubbed him "the First Modern Chancellor". Cripps's innovation was to use the Budget not merely as a means of balancing income and expenditure, but also as a tool of wider economic policy, specifically dealing with the continuing problem of the "dollar gap".

To curtail the demand for imports, he presented three austere Budgets based on running significant Budget surpluses. But, by September 1949, he could no longer stave off the devaluation that his policy had been specifically designed to prevent. On this issue, as on others, Burgess tends to provide too little commentary on Cripps's conduct. Did he tie himself too closely to a policy that could not hold, or did he have no choice? What is clear is that Cripps's reputation, in contrast to future devaluers, survived because he was seen as an otherwise honest, competent and economically successful chancellor.

When Cripps resigned less than a year later, through debilitating illness, Burgess writes that "he bowed out to a chorus of acclaim, to this day, the one and only postwar chancellor to depart at the time of his own choosing and with his reputation still in one piece".

So why is Cripps a relatively neglected figure in the labour movement? The reasons lie in his weaknesses as a politician. He had the rhetorical skills to persuade and the intelligence to govern, but he did not have the capacity to formulate a coherent ideology that could stand the test of time. He was too quixotic, too inconsistent in his guiding ideals to survive as a Labour hero. Furthermore, at the end, Cripps's fixed point was austerity. And he has paid a heavy price for this, seen as the advocate of prudence without a purpose - the dominating image that survives today.

Edward Miliband is a special adviser at the Treasury