Sir Stafford Cripps

Black and white portrait of Sir Stafford Cripps, c. 1947 [Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO)] [Creative Commons CCO 1.0]

Sir Stafford Cripps by Yousuf Karsh, c. 1943 [Dutch National Archives] [Creative Commons CCO 1.0]

Today is the 132nd anniversary of the birth of the extraordinary British politician Sir Stafford Cripps, whose archive, and that of his wife Dame Isobel Cripps, has been made available online*.

Sir Richard Stafford Cripps (1889–1952), politician and lawyer, was the youngest child of successful barrister, Conservative MP and Labour cabinet minister Charles Cripps.

Stafford received a staunchly Christian but undogmatic education. His strong faith would be a feature of his life and work until he died. He studied chemistry at university and met his future wife Isobel Swithinbank while campaigning for his father in the 1910 general election. They married on 12 July 1911, and had four children. Cripps was called to the bar in 1913, and during World War I used his chemistry training to run a munitions factory in Queensferry. In 1916, aged only 27, this work caused a physical breakdown which sidelined him for the rest of the war. He was affected by ill-health his entire life.

Cripps was made Britain’s youngest king’s counsel in 1927 and in 1929, he joined Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government as solicitor-general, and was knighted. In January 1931, he won a by-election at Bristol East (which later became Bristol South East), where he remained an MP for the next 29 years.

His politics swung significantly to the left and he became a prominent member and then chairman of the newly formed Socialist League, and highly critical of the Labour Party. In 1939, this led to Cripps being expelled from Labour.

The Second World War changed everything.

Cripps was not immediately accepted for war service by the government so he embarked on a world tour,  visiting India with an unofficial remit from the India Office to explore pathways towards Indian self-government. In early 1940 he travelled to the Chinese nationalist headquarters in Chunking (Chongqing), spending time with General Chiang Kaishek and Madame Chiang. From there he moved to Moscow where he became the first British official to meet the foreign minister, Molotov, following the British ambassador’s withdrawal in 1939. His travel diaries and correspondence from this period are included in the archive.

Cripps returned to the UK in April 1940 and accepted the offer of a posting to the Soviet Union. He served as British ambassador from June 1940. His time in Moscow was rocky, both with the Soviet authorities and the UK government, but following Hitler’s 22 June 1941 attack on Russia, Cripps quickly agreed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet government. This was the high point of his diplomatic career. He was recalled to London in January 1942.

Cripps was publicly hailed as the man who brought Russia into the war and was appointed Lord Privy Seal and leader of the House of Commons in February 1942. In November 1942, Cripps took the job of minister of aircraft production. At the end of the war, he re-joined the Labour Party and was appointed president of the Board of Trade, focusing on building Britain’s economic recovery by promoting austerity.

He remained interested and involved in India, and between March and June 1946 tried unsuccessfully to broker an agreement for the peaceful transfer of power to an independent government.

Cripps continued at the Board of Trade until 1947 when the fuel and convertibility crises led to a weakening of the Labour government. Cripps attempted a political coup to replace Prime Minister Clement Attlee with Ernest Bevin which failed, and Attlee moved Cripps to the new post of Minister for Economic Affairs, responsible for economic planning. Six weeks later, following the resignation of Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cripps took on that role as well, which gave him an extraordinary amount of power in setting economic policy. His priorities were to boost exports and capital investment, with consumer needs a distant third. This gave Cripps an even stronger reputation for austerity, which was bolstered in the public mind by his unusual vegetarianism and teetotalism, which he practiced for health reasons.

On 20 October 1950, Cripps resigned as chancellor and as MP due to ill health. He spent the final two years of his life in and out of treatment centres in Switzerland, and died on 21 April 1952.

Dame Isobel Cripps (b. 1891) supported Stafford through every career-change and political u-turn. Isobel herself, however, was not partisan, and was an able leader in her own right. During the Second World War she served as president of the British United Aid to China Fund, and was appointed GBE for her service in June 1946. That same year, she went on an arduous 30,000 mile tour of China on behalf of the fund. She was initially the guest of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kaishek but then, after she pointed out that the fund was not restricted to Nationalist China, travelled on to Yenan as the guest of the Communist leader Mao Zedong. She remained interested in China, spending years as the chair of the Sino-British Fellowship Trust.

She also took an interest in Ghana following the marriage of her daughter Peggy to Joe Appiah, a Ghanaian lawyer and politician.

Dame Isobel Cripps died on 11 April 1979.

The archive is of particular value to people interested in British legal history; the political history of (among other countries) Britain, India, China and Russia from the 1920s-1940s; the British Labour Party and the Socialist League; British international relations and the end of the British empire; and internationalist and Christian organisations like the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches and the International Youth Council. The archive comprises diaries, working and personal correspondence, literary papers, a large number of speech drafts and texts, press clippings, and a few objects including trophies and official souvenirs. It also includes a large number of photographs, including of China and India from the 1930s-1950s.


*Much of this material, notably the speeches, was arranged, numbered and shelfmarked prior to arrival at the Bodleian Library, and we have largely retained that arrangement, with a few exceptions which are noted in the catalogue. Although the contents of the boxes are largely unchanged, the boxes themselves have been re-shelfmarked and ordered according to series (diaries, correspondence, speeches, photographs etc.) A conspectus of old shelfmarks to new is available upon request.

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