Recent Articles

Profile by Ed Vulliamy
Sunday July 13, 2003
The Observer

William the conqueror

As a radical young writer, he took on the US establishment over Vietnam. Now he counts American hawks as friends and has been appointed biographer to the Queen Mother. What will he do with the House of Windsor's secrets?

In a twist of coincidence, the ebb and flow of magic and loss last week converged for one of the most controversial of British journalists. On one hand, William Shawcross was bestowed a royal blessing far outreaching any honour on the Queen's List. Then, on Thursday, came the death of the man Shawcross adored and whose name he sometimes found hard to wear: his father, Lord Hartley William Shawcross.

Laurels from Buckingham Palace came in the form of an official commission, sanctioned by Her Majesty, to write the authorised biography of her mother, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The assignment draws Shawcross into the bosom of the monarchy in a way rarely enjoyed by any layman, and hands him a key to the secret life of the House of Windsor that no lifelong royal-watcher could dreamed of turning.

Meanwhile, his father - remembered as the lawyer who led the prosecution of the rump Third Reich at Nuremberg, and whose summing up was one of the great encapsulations and closures of that era and its horror - died aged 101.

Before he opens a first box of the Queen Mother's papers, the bereaved Shawcross stands as one of the most dashing but unexpected darlings of British conservatism. For, beneath this bittersweet personal and family story, cuts an intriguing political riptide, and a generational parable of sorts.

Shawcross was until recently best known for a monumental book publishe in 1979, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia . It was a rigorous indictment of Kissinger and Nixon's personal instruction of the American bombing of that country - an atrocity that shocked the world and the crusading young reporter.

But Shawcross now mingles with and knows the former US Secretary of State. The one-time poster boy of the anti-Vietnamese war Left is now a friend of Richard Perle, an architects of George Bush's call to the colours in Iraq, and of the American hard Right.

One can call it maturity or one can call it selling out; the story of William Shawcross - with his inimitable charm and deep, dark hair - concerns that trajectory whereby brilliant minds on the Left in their youth mutate towards the Right with age.

The odd thing, in this case, is: like father, like son. As one of William Shawcross's main adversaries - writer and columnist Francis Wheen - puts it, Shawcross's career is 'genetically programmed'. Lord Hartley Shawcross came to be known as 'Sir Shortly Floorcross': after what had seemed to be a flourishing career as a socialist and potential Labour leader under Clement Attlee, he promptly crossed the divide of British politics to join the right-wing of the Conservative Party.

William Shawcross, 56, grew up only a few miles from the elite luxury hotel he now owns and manages in Cornwall with his third wife, the socialite heiress Olga Polizzi.

He attended Eton and Oxford, and was set for a career in the diplomatic service. But the handsome graduate persuaded the Foreign Office to give him leave to study sculpture at St Martin's College. It was as an art student that Shawcross discovered his first cause - Czechoslovakia's defiance of the USSR that culminated in the invasion of 1968.

After a visit to Prague, Shawcross ditched the foreign service and produced his first book, a biography of the ousted Czech President Alexander Dubcek. But his principles then alerted him to the aggressions by communism's enemy, the United States, in South East Asia; Sideshow was the result.

For all its prosecutorial rigour, the book was followed by Shawcross's bravest, most complicated and astute work, in 1984; ironically, this was the volume that paid tribute to the achievements of Ho Chi Minh's Vietcong. The little-known Quality of Mercy examined and challenged deficiencies in the international aid programme to Cambodia, which lavished assistance on the remnants of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, perpetuating the violence.

In 1971 Shawcross married the literary critic and philosopher Marina Warner, who bore him the first of his two children. But the marriage, along with Shawcross's youthful political gene, failed the test of time.

After further impassioned books on Hong Kong refugees and the Shah of Iran came the hinge in Shawcross's life and work: a commission for a life of Rupert Murdoch. Its publication in 1992 generated a ferocious feud. Francis Wheen led with a scathing article in the Literary Review. Shawcross picked up Wheen's gauntlet in the Evening Standard: 'British intellectuals are so blinded by snobbery and contempt they are unable to focus on the really important issues.'

Wheen countered in the New Yorker, then edited by Tina Brown, with his jibe about 'genetic programming', recalling Sir Hartley's political acrobatics. Shawcross this time delegated his response to none other than John le Carré, who said he had known the Murdoch biographer for many years, and accused Brown of printing 'one of the ugliest pieces of partisan journalism that I have ever witnessed'. Newsweek and the New York Times relished the duel, and even Sir Hartley entered the fray, denouncing Tina Brown's 'farrago of nonsense'.

Later, Shawcross appeared to retract, writing in the Sunday Telegraph 'I regret some of my comments on Vietnam', but insisting that he was merely one of those who had relinquished his Labour vote in favour of the Social Democrats.

Now he votes Conservative, he says and of late has stridently opposed Europe and the euro. He noisily supports Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq, with vitriol levelled at those who opposed the war.

Shawcross's trajectory is across well-trodden ground, Wheen wrote last week. He recalls the tradition of William Wordsworth's morph from opposition to reaction, but prefers for Shawcross the model of historian Paul Johnson, 'who made out that it was the Left and that dangerous socialist Jim Callaghan who had abandoned him, while he remained the same'.

Now, Shawcross is to take on the Queen Mother's life. 'There's a lot of murky stuff in there,' says Wheen 'and will Willie get into it? The experience of the Murdoch book is he just does not want to.'

Shawcross has fiercely loyal friends, among them Henry Porter of Vanity Fair . 'There was a lunch in Sussex; Willie was 50 and his father was 95, I think,' recalls Porter. 'And Willie made one of those great emotional speeches, telling his dad how much he loved him. It took some guts; his father was not an easy man, and that was not the kind of thing he necessarily wanted to hear in public.'

Porter, however, does not deny his friend's progression: 'It's the same route as [journalist and author] Christopher Hitchens, though I think the difference is that Hitch is now a real neo-conservative whereas Willie is an old fashioned patriot - a bit flaky on some things, loyal and royal.

'A lot of it,' says Porter, 'is the development of his surroundings, his charm and the people and beautiful women in his life that charm has won. From Marina Warner to Olga, all very beautiful and very brilliant. He is a charming man, a very emotional man, a good man...and he is now surrounded by the Establishment'.

Marriage to Olga Polizzi, daughter of the catering tycoon Lord Forte and Shawcross's partner in the ownership and management of the Hotel Tresanton, gave Shawcross the surroundings he needed to both 'gaze at the sea' and pen his treatment for last year's BBC series Queen and Country. It was three years in the making and denounced as 'sycophantic and fawning' to the Crown, but it became the collateral for his forthcoming book.

The marriage put the couple at the epicentre of Establishment entertaining: Prince Charles and Shawcross's old friend Camilla Parker Bowles (her father was a friend of Sir Hartley) are regular guests.

And it enabled the author of Sideshow to attain what he says, as a supposed joke, is his aim in life: to be 'a Basil Fawlty to my wife - one who writes a bit'.

William Shawcross

DoB: 28 May 1946 in Sussex

Education: Eton; Oxford

Family: Son of Baron Shawcross (who died last week); married to Olga Polizzi (one son and one daughter by previous marriages)

Interests: Walking, sailing