A wealthy barrister by background, he entered Parliament at a by-election in 1931, and was one of a handful of Labour front-benchers to retain his seat in the general election that autumn. He became a leading spokesman for the left-wing and cooperation in a Popular Front with Communists before 1939, in which year he was expelled from the Labour Party. During World War II he served as Ambassador to the USSR (1940–42), during which time he grew wary of the Soviet Union, but achieved great public popularity because of the entry of the USSR into the war, causing him to be seen in 1942 as a potential rival to Churchill for the premiership. He became a member of the War Cabinet of the wartime coalition, but failed in his efforts (the "Cripps Mission") to resolve the wartime crisis in India, where his proposals were too radical for Churchill and the cabinet, and too conservative for Gandhi and other Indian leaders. He later served as Minister of Aircraft Production, an important post but outside the inner War Cabinet.
Rejoining the Labour Party in 1945, after the war he served in the Attlee Ministry, firstly as President of the Board of Trade and between 1947-50 as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the latter position, Cripps was responsible for laying the foundations of Britain’s post-war economic prosperity, and was, according to historian Kenneth O. Morgan, “the real architect of the rapidly improving economic picture and growing affluence from 1952 onwards.” The economy improved after 1947, benefiting from the American money given through the Marshall Plan, but was hurt by the forced devaluation of the pound in 1949. He kept rationing in place to hold down consumption during an "age of austerity," promoted exports, and maintained full employment with static wages. The public especially respected "his integrity, competence, and Christian principles."
Cripps was born in London, the son of Charles Cripps, a barrister and later Conservative MP, and the former Theresa Potter, the sister of Beatrice Webb and Catherine Courtney. Cripps grew up in a wealthy family and was educated at Winchester College, where the Headmaster described him as "a thoroughly good fellow" and at University College London, where he studied Chemistry. He left science for the law, and in 1913 was called to the bar by the Middle Temple. He served in the First World War as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France, and then managed a chemical factory producing armaments. He remained a barrister during the 1920s, where he specialised in patent cases, and was reported to be the highest paid lawyer in England.
He was intensely religious all his life, but belonged to no church. In the 1920s he became a leader in the World Alliance to Promote International Friendship through the Churches, as his father had been. In 1923 to 1929 Cripps was the group's treasurer and its most energetic lecturer.
At the end of the 1920s Cripps moved to the left in his political views, and in 1930 he joined the Labour Party. The next year, Cripps was appointed Solicitor-General in the second Labour government, and received the customary knighthood. In 1931, Cripps was elected in a by-election for Bristol East. During this time in parliament, he was a strong proponent of Marxist social and economic policies, although his strong faith in evangelical Christianity prevented him from subscribing to the Marxist rejection of religion.
In the 1931 general election, Cripps was one of only three former Labour ministers to hold their seats alongside the party leader George Lansbury and deputy leader Clement Attlee.
In 1932 he helped found and became the leader of the Socialist League, which was composed largely of intellectuals and teachers from the Independent Labour Party who rejected its decision to disaffiliate from Labour. The Socialist League put the case for an austere form of democratic socialism. He argued that on taking power the Labour Party should immediately enact an Emergency Powers Act, allowing it to rule by decree and thus "forestall any sabotage by financial interests,” and also immediately abolish the House of Lords.
In 1936, Labour's National Executive Committee dissociated itself from a speech in which Cripps said he did not "believe it would be a bad thing for the British working class if Germany defeated us". Cripps also opposed British rearmament:
"Money cannot make armaments. Armaments can only be made by the skill of the British working class, and it is the British working class who would be called upon to use them. To-day you have the most glorious opportunity that the workers have ever had if you will only use the necessity of capitalism in order to get power yourselves. The capitalists are in your hands. Refuse to make munitions, refuse to make armaments, and they are helpless. They would have to hand the control of the country over to you".
Cripps was an early advocate of a United Front against the rising threat of fascism and he opposed an appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany. In 1936 he was the moving force behind a Unity Campaign, involving the Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, designed to forge electoral unity against the right. Opposed by the Labour leadership, the Unity Campaign failed in its intentions. Rather than face expulsion from Labour, Cripps dissolved the Socialist League in 1937. Tribune, set up as the campaign's newspaper by Cripps and George Strauss, survived. In early 1939, however, Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party for his advocacy of a Popular Front with the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Liberal Party and anti-appeasement Conservatives.
When Winston Churchill formed his wartime coalition government in 1940 he appointed Cripps Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the view that Cripps, who had Marxist sympathies, could negotiate with Joseph Stalin who was at this time allied with Nazi Germany through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Cripps became a key figure in forging an alliance between the western powers and the Soviet Union.
In 1942 Cripps returned to Britain and made a broadcast about the Soviet war effort. The popular response was phenomenal, and Cripps rapidly became one of the most popular politicians in the country, despite having no party backing. He was appointed a member of the War Cabinet, with the jobs of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons, and was considered for a short period after his return from Moscow as a rival to Churchill in his hold on the country.
Churchill responded by sending Cripps to India on a mission ("the Cripps Mission") to negotiate an agreement with the nationalist leaders Gandhi, claiming to speak on behalf of all Indians and Jinnah claiming to speak on behalf of the Muslims, that would keep India loyal to the British war effort in exchange for self-government after the war, notionally promised by the Government of India Act, 1935. Cripps designed the specific proposals himself, but they were too radical for Churchill and the Viceroy, and too conservative for the Indians, and no middle way was found.
Later in 1942 Cripps stepped down from being Leader of the House of Commons and was appointed Minister of Aircraft Production, a position outside the War Cabinet in which he served with substantial success. In 1945 he rejoined the Labour Party.
Cripps was unhappy with the British black propaganda campaign against Germany. When Cripps discovered what Sefton Delmer was involved with (through the intervention of Richard Crossman) he wrote to Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary: "If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I'd rather lose it." Delmer was defended by Robert Bruce Lockhart who pointed out the need to reach the sadist in the German nature.
When Labour won the 1945 general election, Clement Attlee appointed Cripps President of the Board of Trade, the second most important economic post in the government. Although still a strong socialist, Cripps had modified his views sufficiently to be able to work with mainstream Labour ministers. In Britain's desperate post-war economic circumstances, Cripps became associated with the policy of "austerity." As an upper-class socialist he held a puritanical view of society, enforcing rationing with equal severity against all classes. Together with other individuals he was instrumental in the foundation of the original College of Aeronautics, now Cranfield University, in 1946. The Vice-Chancellor's building is known as "Stafford-Cripps".
In 1946 Soviet jet engine designers approached Stalin with a request to buy jet designs from Western sources to overcome design difficulties. Stalin is said to have replied: "What fool will sell us his secrets?" However, he gave his assent to the proposal, and Soviet scientists and designers travelled to the United Kingdom to meet Cripps and request the engines. To Stalin's amazement, Cripps and the Labour government were perfectly willing to provide technical information on the Rolls-Royce Nene centrifugal-flow jet engine designed by RAF officer Frank Whittle, along with discussions of a licence to manufacture Nene engines. The Nene engine was promptly reverse-engineered and produced in modified form as the Soviet Klimov VK-1 jet engine, later incorporated into the MiG-15 which flew in time to deploy in combat against UN forces in North Korea in 1950, causing the loss of several B-29 bombers and cancellation of their daylight bombing missions over North Korea.
Also in 1946, Cripps returned to India as part of the "Cabinet Mission", which proposed various formulae for independence to the Indian leaders. The other two members of the delegation were Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, and A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty. However, the solution devised by the three men, known as the Cabinet Mission Plan, was unsatisfactory to the Indian National Congress mainly its principal leaders, and instead of having to hold together the emerging one nation, Indian National Congress leaders travelled further down the road that eventually led to Partition.
In 1947, amid a growing economic and political crisis, Cripps tried to persuade Attlee to retire in favour of Ernest Bevin; however, Bevin was in favour of Attlee remaining. Cripps was instead appointed to the new post of Minister for Economic Affairs. Six weeks later Hugh Dalton resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Cripps succeeded him, with the position of Minister for Economic Affairs now merged into the Chancellorship. He increased taxes and forced a reduction in consumption in an effort to boost exports and stabilise the Pound Sterling so that Britain could trade its way out of its crisis. He strongly supported the nationalisation of strategic industries such as coal and steel.
Despite financial problems from 1948 to 1949, Cripps maintained a high level of social spending on housing, health, and other welfare services, while also maintaining the location of industry policy. In addition, levels of personal prosperity continued to rise, as characterised by cricket and football enjoying unprecedented booms, together with the holiday camps, the dance hall, and the cinema. In his last budget as chancellor (introduced in 1950), the housebuilding programme was restored to 200,000 per annum (after having previously been reduced due to government austerity measures), income tax was reduced for low-income earners as an overtime incentive, and spending on health, national insurance, and education was increased.
His name once induced an infamous Spoonerism when the BBC announcer McDonald Hobley introduced him as 'Sir Stifford Crapps'.
Cripps had suffered for many years from colitis, inflammation of the lower bowel, a condition aggravated by stress. In 1950 his health broke down and he was forced to resign his office in October. He resigned from Parliament the same month, and at the resulting by-election on 30 November he was succeeded as MP for Bristol South East by Tony Benn. Cripps died two years later of cancer.
Cripps was the sororal nephew of Beatrice Webb and Catherine Courtney. His mother died when he was four years old. His stepmother, Marian Ellis, had a profound influence on him. He was married to Isobel, Lady Cripps, better known as Dame Isobel Cripps (1891–1979), and had four childrenSir John Stafford Cripps (1912–1993) who was married in 1937 to Ursula Davy, and had four sons and two daughters. His oldest son, David Stafford Cripps, died in 1990. His second son, Francis Cripps, is an economist and lives in Thailand. His third son, Christopher Cripps, is an architect and lives in Ghana. His fourth son, Andrew Cripps, is a tenant on the family farm. His older daughter, Judith Heyer, is an economist, Emeritus Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford. His younger daughter, Rachel Rosedale, is married to Barney Rosedale.
Isobel Diana Cripps (1913–1985) who died unmarried
(Anne) Theresa Cripps (1919–1998), who was married 1945 to Sir Robert Cornwallis Gerald St. Leger Ricketts, 7th Bt, and had two sons and two daughters. The elder son Sir Tristram Ricketts, 8th Bt. succeeded his father, died in 2007, and has been succeeded by his own son, Sir Stephen Ricketts, 9th Bt.
Peggy Cripps, born Enid Margaret Cripps (1921–2006), children's author and philanthropist. Peggy Cripps shocked much British opinion by marrying the black African aristocrat Nana Joseph Emmanuel Appiah (1918–1990), a relative of the Ashanti king of Ghana, in June 1953. Peggy Appiah had one son and three daughters. Her son is the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (b. May 1954 London), the Laurance S. Rockefeller professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Her three daughters live in Namibia, Nigeria, and Ghana and have eight children among them.
Cripps was a vegetarian, certainly for health reasons and possibly also for ethical reasons. "Cripps suffered from recurring illness which was alleviated by nature cure and a vegetarian diet...".
Cripps is buried in the churchyard in Sapperton, Gloucestershire, and his wife is buried beside him.