Magazine article The Spectator

There but for the Grace of God Goes God

Magazine article The Spectator

There but for the Grace of God Goes God

Article excerpt


by Christopher Bryant Hodder, L25, pp. 534

Stafford Cripps was one of the ablest men of his generation. A distinguished lawyer who took silk in record time, he had earlier shown great promise as a scientist. Science and law deal in certainties, as did the devout Anglicanism in which Cripps had been brought up, and to which he remained committed. A scion of the selfconfident late Victorian bourgeoisie, he was also a Wykehamist: the Winchester of that era was no seminary of scepticism.

There was yet another driving force in his character. From early childhood, his health was precarious and, as if to remind him that the mortal span is short, his mother died when he was only four. He almost seemed to have been born as an old man in a hurry; he remained one until his death at the age of 61. There was also a lot of lunacy in his family: `great wits to madness near allied.' In his case, any tendencies towards insanity were sublimated into intellectualism.

Cripps seemed wholly unsuited for political life. He was never an easy subordinate; he would make up his own mind on any political questions which arose without reference either to the feelings of his colleagues or to the needs of the party to which he belonged. At his political apogee, he belonged to no party, and seemed happier thus: no government minister has ever threatened to resign more often. His massive intellect, his powers of work and his unwavering courtesy always commended him to civil servants, but he stretched the patience of all the senior politicians with whom he worked closely. Attlee's tolerance of Cripps's repeated foibles emerges from these pages as almost saintly; Churchill, less saintly, had little choice.

In the first months of 1942, Cripps was the most potent force in British politics. He had returned from Moscow as the purveyor of the legend of Uncle Joe, appearing to be the strong man whom Britain needed, his strength forged by his association with our new heroic ally. During those bleak months from Singapore to Alamein, when Churchill's prestige was at its lowest, Cripps was his obvious successor, as even some Tories believed, among them Walter Monckton, another clever lawyer who had no political judgment. It was only fortunate that the one man who could perhaps have administered the coup de grace to Churchill and made Cripps Prime Minister could not stand him: Beaverbrook.

It was a fascinating life and deserved a first-rate biography, but this is not it. Mr Bryant has hacked out a humdrum narrative largely from secondary sources, which he has insufficiently mastered. There are some dreadful howlers; he seems to think that Lytton Strachey was once a Labour MP and that Ernest Hemingway wrote Homage to Catalonia. The author is at his weakest when discussing Cripps's mission to Moscow. At moments, he does seem to realise that it was Hitler who brought Russia into the war and not Stafford Cripps, but then we are informed that `without Stafford's dogged persistence Stalin might have chosen to appease Hitler rather than fight', as if Barbarossa had left Stalin with any other option.

Our author is hardly more illuminating on the subject of Cripps's Chancellorship. His subtitle is a quotation from Lord Plowden, who as a young man worked for Cripps; young civil servants who find themselves in the thick of great events are always inclined to believe that everything is happening for the first time. …

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