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15 December 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

NS Man of the year – William Shawcross

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

By Jason Cowley

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.”

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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.)

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“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.