P31. Sir Stafford Cripps's Campaign. The Clear Duty of Labour Associations

[Letter to the Manchester Guardian , 19 January 1939, p. 20]

19 January 1939

To the Editor of the Manchester Guardian

Sir,--May I be permitted to use your columns to applaud the splendid common sense and courage of Sir Stafford Cripps's recent memorandum? [1] His logic is invincible. We know in advance the arguments which the Labour executive will use in reply, and we know that they will not avail against him.

In fairness it is necessary to recognise the great difficulties in the way of the Labour party adopting the course he recommends. Its long history of dogged perseverance, and still more the earlier history of the trade unions, from which it derives its strength, its traditions of fidelity to principle, loyalty, and insistence on membership, its vexations and humiliations when it attempted compromise in 1924 and 1929-31, and the great betrayal of 1931 all point to persistence in its chosen course. [2] It may boast of great achievements and success. It naturally argues that it should abide by its tradition and the lessons of its experience.

Yet there is one fact which reduces these arguments to nullity, and that is the present state of the nation. It is not the Labour party alone whose best and most natural development was conditioned by the fact that the safety and integrity of the country could be taken as an unquestionable assumption, and upon whom it is incumbent to adopt new ways in this hour of peril. The same is true of the traditions and procedure of the British Civil Service. Swift adaptation to a swiftly moving environment has become an urgent necessity when events move quickly and old-established institutions, built up by generations of endeavour, are swept away over night. The British Labour movement is not exempt from liability to this painful fate, whether it be through war or through peaceful surrender to the demands of a superior force.

Statesmanship implies the power of adaptation to changing circumstances, and this, therefore, is a testing-time for Labour leadership. The test is especially crucial for Labour. Having most of their contacts with loyal supporters--save on occasion with outright opponents,--Labour leaders may not know how widely it is said by potential supporters among ordinary people that they may be quite efficient in the day-to-day matters of labour conditions but lack the imagination and scope of mind to execute a national policy. If they persist in hardening their hearts against Sir Stafford's plan, they will abundantly confirm that suspicion and forfeit for ever their prospect of obtaining power.

Sir Stafford is no doubt right to emphasise the lack of political consciousness of many voters [3] --from one point of view. But there are certain matters which the average man well understands from his ordinary experiences in private life or trade. He knows that there are times for dogged perseverance and others for striking out, times for isolation and times for seeking the support of friends. It is the power of applying the wisdom so gained to public matters which makes up the peculiar political instinct of the Englishman. That power enables him to judge that there is something wrong with Chamberlain's treatment of Hitler. [4] And by that power he will assuredly know that if the Labour party persists in isolation to-day it lacks some essential fibre necessary for national leadership.

And the greatest tragedy is that weak institutions drag down with them the ideas with which they are associated. Just as the failure of the League discredited the idea of collective security, [5] so will the failure of Labour to rise to this occasion discredit those ideas of social reconstruction for which it stands, the idea of self-help, and even of democracy itself.

The great sagacity and statesmanship of Sir Stafford Cripps's document should be consoling to those who have been worried about personnel. Here at least is the stuff of leadership. Many who, like myself, if I may say so, judged some of his pronouncements in the years following 1931 unwise [6] will take heart again.

Meanwhile it is the clear duty of every Labour association or organisation to send in its support of his proposals to headquarters. [7] If any branch fears that it may thereby incur the extreme displeasure of Transport House, let it remember that many others are in like situation and that, if each has the courage of its convictions, it will be impossible to apply sanctions to the great multitude of offenders.

In fairness I should add that I have no party attachment, but I worked for the Labour party in its darkest hour in 1931, as well as at other times, and I should welcome its leadership now in the predominant rôle which Sir Stafford assigns to it.--Yours, &c.,

R. F. Harrod.

Christ Church, Oxford, January 17.

  1. 1. On 9 January 1939, Stafford Cripps wrote a memorandum to the Labour Party in which he pointed out that a large but indeterminate anti-government feeling was growing throughout the country and that there was a "very large body of agitation for some form of combined opposition". However, the Labour Party was refusing to permit any members to co-operate with other anti-fascist movements. Stafford Cripps calculated the chances of electoral success of a divided and of a united opposition, and concluded that "the only alternative to the disastrous continuance in power of the National Government [...] is the use temporarily of some tactic which will enable the essential extra electoral strength to be mobilised". In his view, the Labour Party should be the leader of a united opposition, which should not however include forces so heterogeneous as to make impossible to work with them (Harrod's copies of Cripps's memorandum and other related documents, as reprinted in the supplement to the Tribune of 20 January 1939, are in HP VI-176; a cutting of the text of Cripps's memorandum as printed in the Manchester Guardian on 16 January 1939, p. 13, as "Plan for a Progressive Government. Election Programme for Combination of Opposition Parties", is in HP VI-162).

    The Labour Party headquarters reacted to Cripps's memorandum a few days after the publication of this letter from Harrod supporting Cripps's proposal. Transport House rejected it, and reaffirmed its opposition to any arrangement with other forces of the opposition and "to watering down its Immediate Programme for electoral purposes" (Labour Party's executive's statement to the press, 14 January 1939 (copy in HP VI-176). On 25 January, having refused to give up his advocacy of the Popular Front, Cripps was expelled from the party (on Cripps's memorandum in the context of the popular front campaign see for instance D. Blaazer, The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition. Socialists, Liberals, and the Quest for Unity, 1884-1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 188-90).

    Cripps gratefully acknowledged Harrod's support: see letter 889 R of 19 January 1939.

    2. Refers to the 1924 and 1929 Labour minority governments, and to the 1931 National Government under the former Labour prime minister Ramsey MacDonald.

    3. In his memorandum, Cripps argued that a combined opposition would "appeal to the unpolitically-minded electorate from the fact that the political leaders have shown themselves prepared to drop their particular party aims in view of their urgent determination to meet and deal with the very apparent national dangers."

    4. On Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy and the Munich agreement see note 1 to press item 28 .

    5. Refers to the League of Nations' failure to prevent aggression in Manchuria, the Chaco, Abyssinia and Spain. Harrod nevertheless believed in the possibility of re-establishing a system of collective security: see the political manifesto reproduced as essay 21 , [jump to page] .

    6. Cripps was elected to the House of Commons in January 1931, and soon expounded his radical views, advocating for instance the abolition of the House of Lords and warning that the Labour Party should be prepared to overcome the influence of the City and the opposition of Buckingham Palace (see, for instance, C. Bryant, Stafford Cripps. The First Modern Chancellor, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997, chapter 9).

    7. The Popular Front committees organized by Harrod and Lindsay in the constituencies neighboring Oxford took part in the campaign for the reinstatement of Cripps: see note 1 to essay 21 , and Lindsay to Harrod, 21 April 1939, letter 904 R. Harrod's proposed political program actually echoed Cripps's platform: see note 4 to the "[Sketch of Political Manifesto]", here as essay 21 .

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