NS Man of the year - William Shawcross</B>

Once a model progressive, he is now the royal choice to write the Queen Mother's life and an apologi

In the late summer of 1968, a tall, self-assured young man recently down from Oxford turned up at the offices of the Sunday Times on Gray's Inn Road in London. He was William Shawcross, the son of Hartley Shawcross, the former Labour minister and chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg, and he was looking for a smooth, accelerated route into journalism. The young Shawcross was ambitious and articulate; he had an aristocratic hauteur befitting an old Etonian and had acquired something of a glamorous reputation while at Oxford, among both men and women. Like many of his class and background, he was restless for adventure. Privilege had liberated him into great expectations. He knew what he wanted but was unsure how to achieve it.

"He had left Oxford with a well-polished degree," recalls the journalist Bruce Page, who was then a senior executive on the Sunday Times. "His father wanted him to work at the Foreign Office, and no doubt pulled a million strings; but William wanted to be a journalist. Back then, because of NUJ rules, you could not go straight on to a national newspaper from university. I thought this rule was stupid and had been campaigning against it. I also wanted to give William a chance. Enoch Powell had just sued the Sunday Times for libel, after the paper accused him of spreading racial hatred, and I was in charge of collecting defence evidence. I thought it would be a good idea to speak to some Pakistanis and other ethnic minorities, in pubs and elsewhere, to find out if they had been racially abused as a result of Powell's speech. So I hired William and his then girlfriend, Caroline Ritchie, who had a perfect cut-glass accent, to do some freelance research. I knew that the Pakistanis would trust them. They were very diligent and collected a lot of stuff which helped in repulsing Powell."

But the doors of the Sunday Times remained locked to Shawcross, so he went off to write a book on Alexander Dubcek, the fallen leader of Czechoslovakia who was something of a hero to the anti-Soviet left - a work that the writer Richard Gott remembers even today as "profound and important". Soon afterwards Shawcross returned to the Sunday Times, the doors opened for him, and he progressed quickly to become a foreign correspondent, reporting with bravery and distinction from south-east Asia.

From the beginning Shawcross, who in 1971 married the writer Marina Warner, was interested in US power and the role and influence of that power in the world. He was a liberal internationalist; he wanted the United Nations to be strong so that it could act as a check and balance to US power, and to spread human rights and democracy. As a reporter, he witnessed the catastrophe in Vietnam, he understood how south-east Asia had the potential to become a laboratory for world destruction, and he wrote from Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He particularly despised the cynicism of Henry Kissinger. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of Cambodia (1979), in which he highlighted the secret US bombing of Cambodia, is a fierce indictment of both Richard Nixon and Kissinger, whom he blamed for the American invasion of peaceful, agrarian Cambodia, the removal of Prince Sihanouk and, later, the murderous excesses of the Khmer Rouge. "Cambodia was not a mistake," he wrote. "It was a crime."

Page remembers how Shawcross became disaffected from the Sunday Times when the then editor, Harry Evans, agreed to edit Kissinger's memoirs. "Kissinger is subliterate and William, like many others, thought that Harry, who is a good writer, was wrong to lend a war criminal like Kissinger such grace."

In a later book, The Quality of Mercy (1984), Shawcross returned to the subject of Cambodia, writing of how, because we are preoccupied by the Second World War and the conflicts of the recent past, we too often ignore the atrocities of our own time, unable and unwilling to act until it is too late. (The civil war in Bosnia and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are more recent examples of what he sees as a wilful blindness to present atrocity.)

"I was very influenced by William's reporting," remembers Margaret Drabble, whose novel The Gates of Ivory features a Shawcross-like journalist who travels to Cambodia in search of the truth about that stricken country, only to be destroyed by a reality he had refused to believe. "The Quality of Mercy," she says, "was an important influence on my fiction. Whenever I used to meet William, I always found him engaging, quick-witted and very interesting. I've only met him once since his conversion. It's very depressing what's happened to him."

The conversion to which Drabble refers is not religious, but political. Like his father - whose eventual alienation from the Labour Party earned him the sobriquet Sir Shortly Floorcross - Shawcross has journeyed from youthful rebellion to late-middle-age reaction. Once a model progressive, he is today a fellow- traveller of US imperialism, a committed Eurosceptic, a powerful advocate of pre-emptive war and an apologist for monarchy and inherited privilege who, following the success of his television series about the royal family, is being paid £1m to write the authorised biography of the Queen Mother.

To read his latest book, Allies: the United States, Britain, Europe and the war in Iraq (Atlantic Books), is to be startled by the crude simplicity of so much of his thinking - especially when you consider that as recently as 2000, when he published Deliver Us From Evil, a study of post-cold war conflicts in East Timor, Somalia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Kosovo, he was still capable of commenting on world events with great subtlety. Shawcross is a polemicist; he seeks culprits and attributes blame. Even so, the tone of his new book is wearisomely strident, bellicose, accusatory. If you are not for the Allies, you are automatically against them. There is no place in between, no place for doubt or scepticism. The enemies - France, Germany, Palestine, militant Islam - are clear and distinct.

Shawcross is a robust Manichaean: he divides the world between our light and their darkness, between good and evil. He never pauses to question his own prejudices - about Israel, whose illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza he never mentions; about American imperialism, which he now considers to be at worst benign; or about Islam and the Arab states, where he ignores the divisions between modernisers and reactionaries, reformers and fundamentalists. Nor does he doubt that liberal democracy will one day soon emerge from the rubble of Iraq's cities, that the death and destruction of recent times are a prelude not to greater anarchy, but to true freedom from tyranny. Shawcross, it seems, knows what he knows, and no one can persuade him otherwise.

The home of the Shawcross family, an Elizabethan mansion called Friston Place, is at East Dean in East Sussex. It is there, with his third wife, the society heiress Olga Polizzi (of the Forte dynasty), that Shawcross regularly entertains Christopher Hitchens, John le Carre, assorted Saatchis, Richard Perle, the restaurateur Oliver Peyton, Tory grandees and other right-wing establishment figures. "I remember going to Friston for a lunch party old Hartley was hosting for Margaret Thatcher," says his friend and Sussex neighbour, the writer and academic Robert Skidelsky. "Thatcher was on her way to Glyndebourne, and I remember that every time she wanted to make a point, she stamped her foot on the ground. And every time she stamped her foot, she unwittingly pressed a bell under the table, which sent the servants rushing into the room. William was there that day, and he is very good in that kind of company, because he's so charming. But I don't think he's serious in his work about the things I'm serious about, especially the search for truth . . . You begin by rebelling against pomp and power and end up by identifying with them."

Others are less generous. "Shawcross is a vintage product of the Eton/Oxford/Foreign Office elite," says John Pilger. "His coming hagiography on the Queen Mother is entirely understandable, as is his hagiography of Rupert Murdoch, whose rapacious power he admires. He was once thought by some to be a progressive, which was useful social currency then; we now understand better the kind of liberalism that wears a mask for great power."

Pilger suggests that Sideshow, about the secret bombing of Cambodia, was never an anti-war book, but "the product of Kissinger- and Nixon-haters within Washington". Following its publication, he says, "Shawcross was deeply embarrassed by the attacks on him from the American right, and worked assiduously to redeem himself, pointing out in a later edition that the book was never meant as an assault on American imperial power, which he lauded as benign. Still, Sideshow was a valuable book, drawing attention to the bombing of Cambodia which the great American reporter Seymour Hersh had exposed. Shawcross's subsequent books were, at best, exercises in obfuscating the true role of western power in the third world; at worst, they were crude apologies for great power. Today he is on the extreme right, the English equivalent of an American neoconservative. He is basically a propagandist and facilitator, a throwback to the cold war, and that always begs the question: whose power agenda is he pushing? His enduring contacts are with imperial planners among Anglo-American government officials, and the intelligence world. The Queen Mother hagiography will fittingly earn him a knighthood."

For Noam Chomsky, it is less a question of whether Shawcross is "on the right or left", or whether he has betrayed his former liberal positions, than a question of his use of evidence. Shawcross, according to Chomsky, makes summary judgements about people and situations. He specialises in grand generalisations and ex cathedra denunciation. Allies, which has no footnotes, is certainly propelled by the force of his accusations - against anyone from Jacques Chirac to the dead sons of Saddam Hussein - none of which is directly sourced. So reading the book is a bit like being in the company of a badly prepared prosecuting lawyer: he hopes to persuade you through bombast and force of personality rather than through evidence.

And there is indeed something forceful about his personality. His voice is deep and rhythmic, and he doesn't speak so much as boom, as if he is about to deliver a long and difficult soliloquy. "He speaks to nearly everyone as if he is addressing the servants," says one of his friends. "Unless they are royalty . . ."

Friends of Shawcross say that he began to change when writing his biography of Rupert Murdoch. "I advised him against writing it," says Page, himself the author of a recent book on the media tycoon. "I didn't really think it was his subject. There is a good deal in William of his father. He needs a clear target showing both ears. Murdoch is not that kind of target; his crimes are much less direct than those of Kissinger. And what started out as a prosecutor's brief became its reverse: the next best thing to an authorised biography, with Rupert's henchman Woodrow Wyatt lending a hand on the text.

"The whole thing was a bad experience for William, and the book received some savage criticism from liberal-left people who had once been great admirers of his. From there, I think, you can trace his disappointment with liberal positions - that and his marriage to Olga Polizzi [in 1993], who is very rich and fiercely right-wing. Today I'm tremendously saddened to see William preaching jihad and adopting preposterous political positions. He's arrived at exactly the position he once criticised Harry Evans for - excessively. It's a wretched business."

There is something poignant about the narrative of Shawcross's life, something privately bound up with his complicated relationship with his father, who died in July this year at the age of 101, and, more publicly, with the wider failure of the left-liberal project. Like many of his generation who were radicalised and changed by the turmoil and exuberance of the 1960s, Shawcross, now 57, believed profoundly in progress. He believed in a more egalitarian future, that power could be controlled and the world remade through treaties and collaboration, and that the engine of change would be the rule of international law and the UN. He does not believe that any more. He believes only in the right of the powerful to protect their interests; he believes that democracy and free markets must be imposed by, as Nixon once put it in another context, "bombing the bastards off the earth".

There is little doubt that Shawcross was hardened by writing Deliver Us From Evil - for which he travelled with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, through the war zones of the post-cold war world - as well as by the events of 11 September 2001. His liberal optimism vaporised; it was foolish, he realised, to seek consistency in the international community's response to conflicts in, say, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor and Ethiopia. The members of the UN Security Council were motivated less by moral outrage than by pragmatism and self-interest, which was why the world allowed more than half a million people to be slaughtered in Rwanda and why so little is being done to end the perpetual war in the Congo.

"In a more religious time," Shawcross wrote in Deliver Us From Evil, "it was only God whom we asked to deliver us from evil. Now we call upon our own man-made institutions for such deliverance." But such deliverance seldom arrives on time, if at all.

Each morning, before beginning work on his royal biography, Shawcross must peer from the windows of his ancestral mansion and be soothed by the tranquillity of its surrounding gardens. But beyond those gardens and the harmonious Sussex countryside, out there in the wider world, he must see only chaos - collapsed states, the seething resentment of suicide bombers, the murder of innocents and the inevitability of an American-led war without end. In retreat from that chaos, which he has witnessed at first hand, he cocoons himself in privilege - and seeks solace in institutions. "I believe the bottom line is this," he writes in the penultimate paragraph of Allies, ". . . American commitment and American sacrifice are essential to the world. As in the 20th century, so in the 21st, only America has both the power and the optimism to defend the international community against what really are the forces of darkness."

On a recent edition of BBC1's Question Time, Shawcross accused the Labour minister Margaret Hodge, who was sitting alongside him, of being "too pleased with herself". This would do as an adequate description of Shawcross himself, because it is hard at the moment to think of a grander or more self-congratulatory public figure than the new, remade William Shawcross.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the peacemakers (and probably Norwegians)

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.


The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.


The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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