Obituary: Sir John Cripps

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The Independent Online
John Stafford Cripps, journalist and campaigner; born 10 May 1912; Editor, the Countryman 1947-71; Filkins Parish Councillor 1946-87; Witney Rural District Councillor 1946-74; Chairman, Rural District Councils' Association 1967- 70; CBE 1968; Chairman, Countryside Commission 1970-77; Kt 1978; married 1936 Ursula Davy (three sons, two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1971), 1971 Ann Farwell; died 9 August 1993.

John Cripps was a self-effacing Quaker who made three distinguished careers in fields where shy violets rarely flourish - journalism, local government and the amenity business, at the rough interface of do-gooders and politicians.

After Winchester and Balliol (an outstanding first in PPE), he seemed set to follow his father (Stafford) into politics, the more so when he won a notably good Labour vote at Exeter in the 1935 election.

But some work for CS Orwin at the Oxford Agricultural Economics Research Institute and his contacts with JW Robertson Scott led him elsewhere. Scott was editing the Countryman magazine at Idbury, close to the Cripps family home at Filkins on the Cotswold fringe of Oxfordshire. John Cripps joined the magazine in 1938 and nine years later succeeded Scott as editor.

Cripps was not a journalist of the flashing phrase, but he was a meticulous craftsman and he had clear vision of the countryside he wanted - a place good for ordinary working folk to live in and practise their skills, and a place where townspeople would be welcome to enjoy the fieldpaths, commons and good air.

He saw sales of the Countryman reach an all-time high of 88,000 and one envies the time he had in which to sift old diaries and turgid contributions for the nuggets which made up the little green magazine's frequent but realistic looks at the rural past.

Thanks to the skilled and devoted assistance of a fellow Quaker, Faith Sharp, and a small staff, Cripps was also able to pursue a wider rural career. He was on his district council for 28 years and served as chairman of the Rural District Councils Association (1967-70); he was a long-standing member and chairman of the rural committee of the National Council of Social Service and he had a place on the Oxfordshire county council planning committee. At Filkins he succeeded his father as the most democratic of 'squires' - loved by the many, loathed by the few.

In 1971 Cripps made his second and very happy marriage to Ann Farwell, a member of the Countryman staff. In the same year he was appointed chairman of the Countryside Commission. Here he made a part-time post into a full-time one. No controversial site went unvisited. Candidates for national park authorities were individually vetted. He teamed surprisingly well with his director, Reg Hookway - the latter ebullient and endearingly conspiratorial where Cripps was reticent and transparently straightforward.

But John Cripps was nobody's fool. On the Gosling committee, shortly before he went to the Commission, he had seen through the weasel words of farmers and landowners seeking to legalise 'rationalisation' of public paths. In dealing with the ministries he was not above using a calculated leak to further the cause of the countryside - to the pained surprise of any who took him for a pious sucker.

The Cripps-Hookway regime, seen now across years dominated by people of lesser talents and flawed visions, looks to have been a golden age, when country parks sprang up by the score and when the 1972 settlement (a disappointment at the time) nevertheless secured more money, better staff and more autonomy for the national parks.

On leaving the Commission Cripps continued to give himself energetically to the prosperity of country people and the townspeople's access to the country. And in the last decade of his life the death of his son (from his first marriage) in a car smash led to a final burst of creative energy. David had been running the family's farm at Filkins. John now took over direction and turned the 500 acres into a good working example of low-input non- intensive agriculture. In these years too his Quakerism flourished more than ever. He was a regular attender at the Burford meeting. As a conscientious objector himself, he had during the war helped to bring the meetinghouse back into use especially for local COs, some of whom worked with him on the Cripps market garden. Characteristically his reputation at meeting was for silence rather than speech.

Although he had long eschewed party politics he remained a very practical kind of socialist. He believed unfashionably that a decent and happy countryside is best achieved through public ownership of land, and he found much to value in the communal farming efforts he had inspected in China. Having such ideals at heart made John Cripps a better ambassador for the countryside and a more convincing exponent of its problems and needs than any more traditional landowner could hope to be.

At times his determination to find good in even his most hostile opponent was trying to mortals of coarser weave. But it was this belief that ensured that his underlying personal brand of socialism was never seen as ideology, only as love and respect for his fellows.

(Photograph omitted)