Cripps, Sir Richard Stafford

views updated


CRIPPS, SIR RICHARD STAFFORD (1889–1952), British politician and diplomat. Stafford Cripps, socialist leader of Britain's Labour Party, undertook two impossible Constitutional "missions" to India in the last painful decade of his life. A nondogmatic Christian Socialist, Stafford initially focused his brilliant mind on chemical science at Winchester and Oxford, but later turned his creative powers toward devising formulas to help resolve thorny issues of international law and diplomacy. Cripps was called to the Bar from London's Middle Temple in 1913, elevated to King's Counsel in 1927, and was knighted in 1930. He joined J. Ramsay MacDonald's first Labour Cabinet in 1929, but refused to serve on MacDonald's subsequent national coalition ministry, preferring to start Labour's radical Socialist League in 1932, advocating a united front with Communists in 1936.

In May 1940, Cripps went as Britain's ambassador to Moscow, where he remained until January 1942. A month later, Prime Minister Winston Churchill invited him to join his War Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. Then, the shocking fall of Singapore to Japanese invaders induced Churchill's Cabinet to ask Cripps to fly to India to try winning the support of India's National Congress for Britain's global war effort. Cripps had met and befriended Jawaharlal Nehru during one of Nehru's prewar visits to England, and he admired Mahatma Gandhi's emphasis on truth and nonviolence as the greatest twin forces for good. Churchill and Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee agreed that if any Englishman could convince India's nationalist leaders that their decision to oppose the war effort was ethically wrong, as well as contrary to India's own best interests, Cripps was the man to do so.

Cripps flew to India in late March 1942 and flew home from Delhi on 12 April, confessing that he had "failed" in his most important mission. His failure, however, was written into the "nonnegotiable" terms of the Cabinet's offer to India's leaders. India was promised "Dominion Status" after the war ended, but any province of British India that preferred to "opt out" of independent India's Commonwealth Dominion would be free to do so. That option paved the way for M. A. Jinnah's Muslim League to demand a separate Muslim "Pakistan." To Nehru's Congress, that League demand was "madness," and Cripps's offer was viewed as nothing less than "treachery," or, as Gandhi called it, "a post-dated cheque on a bank that is failing!" When he met Cripps, in fact, the Mahatma asked, "If you had nothing better to offer, why have you come so far?" None of Sir Stafford's answers could dispel the Congress leaders' outrage and sense of betrayal at Cripps's "duplicity" in bringing them the British Cabinet's offer.

In 1946, after the end of the war, Cripps returned with Labour's three-member Cabinet Mission, nominally led by the elderly secretary of state for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, but intellectually Cripps's own brainchild. A year before the British Indian Empire expired, Cripps made this last brilliant effort to save South Asia from the dreadful tragedy of partition, which would cost India and Pakistan no fewer than a million innocent refugee lives in 1947, and more than half a century of no fewer than three wars. This time the formula he devised was an independent Confederation of India, comprised of three powerful "clusters" of provinces (which are now essentially the independent nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), all of South Asia held together by a weak "center" with an almost equal number of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh ministers to keep the peace, guarding the borders and communication networks. It almost worked. Both Congress and the League initially agreed to Cripps's remarkable constitutional formula, but human weakness, mistrust, and ancient fears swiftly shattered the fragile agreement, and for India and Pakistan tragic chaos ensued.

Cripps returned home to serve as Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1947 to 1950, forced to resign soon after launching his rigid austerity program, devaluing the pound. His health broken, he died two years later.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoGandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Jinnah, Mohammad Ali


Azad, A. K. India Wins Freedom. Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1959.

Coupland, Reginald. The Cripps Mission. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1942.

Mansergh, N., and E. W. R. Lumby, eds. The Transfer of Power, 1942–47, vol. I: Cripps Mission, January–April 1942,and vol. VII: The Cabinet Mission, 23 March–29 June 1946. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970, 1977.

Rajput, A. B. The Cabinet Mission. Lahore: Lion Press, 1946. Wolpert, Stanley. Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.