(Allen Lane, £25)

The Cripps Version: the life of Sir Stafford Cripps, by Peter Clarke

Faded but not forgotten mark of yesterday's man

Stafford Cripps is Old Labour's forgotten man. Yet his impact in war and peace was immense. As ambassador to Moscow, he was a vital go-between with Stalin. As Chancellor, he launched the Keynesian one-nation consensus. His ethos of disciplined austerity defined an era. Above all, he played a unique part in the independence of India.

But Cripps has remained in the shadows. Because his papers were sat on for years, the career of this patrician eccentric had been inaccessible: teetotaller, vegetarian, ascetic; High Anglican KC who championed the Popular Front; land-owning class warrior; lover of India who broke with Nehru and Gandhi at key moments.

Peter Clarke is the first historian to receive full access to Cripps's papers. Many stereotypes are challenged. The austere Cripps was a convivial host, not so iron a Chancellor that he could not encourage more wine drinking or short skirts (admittedly to conserve textile supplies); not so super-Godly that he could not use spin doctors.

The three key relationships of Cripps's life are analysed. Cripps and Churchill had endless skirmishes marked by respect. Over the supposedly saintly Mahatma Gandhi, Cripps found himself frustrated by his Hindu partisanship. His friendship with Nehru, "the greatest privilege of my life", helped towards a settlement which changed the world.

Clarke states that he is not writing a conventional biography. The book is a kind of magnificent club sandwich, the beef coming from a massive filling of more than 200 pages on India, with relatively thin covering slices on Cripps's far-left phase in the Thirties, and the postwar Chancellorship. No great interest is shown in the history of the Labour Party. The 1945 election receives half a sentence, the two vital years at the Board of Trade (1945-7) one page.

However, the central sections, dealing with Russia, wartime politics and the two missions to India in 1942 and 1946, are utterly gripping. As a diplomat in Russia, Cripps operated with remarkable latitude. In India his achievement was more uncertain. The Offer of 1942, ambiguous on British sovereignty, defence and the autonomy of Muslim provinces, failed to satisfy either side.

In 1946, the divisions of a largely Hindu Congress and the Muslim League defeated Cripps's mediating efforts. Yet the transfer of power in August 1947, usually credited to Attlee, really owed more to Cripps. It was he who suggested Mountbatten as Viceroy.

Cripps did many foolish things. His uncritical pro-Sovietism in the Thirties reveals him as the "goose" Attlee called him. Yet there was a rare prophetic vision about him. At home he enabled Labour to weather postwar financial crises without losing its socialist objective. The devaluation of 1949 was an economic success: "democratic planning" worked.

Overseas, he showed a rare sensitivity for colonial nationalism and racial equality. (His daughter married a Ghanaian nationalist.) If Britain avoided in India the drawn-out tragedies of Indo-China, Algeria or Angola, Cripps was a major reason. New Labour, contemplating afresh its moral compass, could do worse than recall his memory.

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