William Shawcross

  • Sussex , England


Writer and broadcaster William Shawcross was born on 28 May 1946 in Sussex, England, the son of Lord Shawcross.

He was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford, and has worked as a journalist for the Sunday Times. He is a regular contributor to newspapers and periodicals including the New Statesman and the Washington Post.

He is the author of biographies of the Shah of Iran and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and of Deliver Us From Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict (2000), which addresses the complex moral and political arguments surrounding humanitarian intervention.

In 2004 he published Allies, an analysis of the alliance between Britian and the USA in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. His latest publication is Queen Elizabeth: The Official Biography of the Queen Mother (2009).

Critical perspective

Throughout a controversial journalistic career that spans five decades, William Shawcross has crossed the entire political spectrum.

He has changed his status from that of left-wing critic of the American establishment during the years of the Cold War to that of official biographer of the Queen Mother, a commission that, together with the 2002 documentary Queen and Country, took him to the heart of the British Royal Family. In a shift that closely resembled that of his own father at the end of 1950s, Shawcross has increasingly moved towards the right and, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he has come to support the strategy of the War on Terror as well as Bush and Blair’s intervention in Iraq. His articles have appeared in leading British and American newspapers and magazines such as The Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, Time, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and the Washington Post. His books have been graced with the title of bestsellers and the documentaries he has scripted about the Royal Family have appeared on BBC television. Shawcross has also lectured in America and Europe on geopolitics and the rights of refugees.

The son of Baron Shawcross, a Labour MP under the leadership of Clemente Attlee who turned increasingly conservative with the years, William initially worked as a diplomat for the Foreign Office, but soon switched to a journalistic career as he observed the events of the Cold War. Shawcross’s literary debut was inspired by the Eastern European struggle against Soviet domination and the divisions that Russian military interventions caused within the Communist Bloc. In 1970 he published a biography of the overthrown Czech President Alexander Dubcek and, four years later, he followed up with Crime and Compromise: Janos Kadar and the Politics of Hungary Since Revolution (1974), a political study of Hungarian politician Janos Kadar. In both studies, Shawcross focuses on two Eastern European politicians who tried to negotiate with Communist dogmas to create more humane regimes. The 1990 update of the biography of Dubcek, written after the collapse of the Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, vindicates the politician’s courage and his foresight. Dubcek: Dubcek and Czechoslovakia 1918-1968 (1970) makes its subject not only the icon of the Prague Spring, but also the inspiration for the development of a democratic opposition to the dictatorship that was defeated by the Velvet Revolution of 1989. At first sight, Kadar would seem the opposite of Dubcek as he was part of the plot that ousted the reformist Hungarian President Imre Nagy in 1956, thus stopping his liberal and democratic reforms. Yet, Shawcross acknowledges that, after the betrayal of Nagy, the man who had contributed to his release from prison in the Stalinist purges of the early 1950s, Kadar worked to reunite Hungary and succeeded in making it one of the most advanced countries in the Warsaw Pact in both economic and democratic terms.

Shawcross continued to explore the dynamics of the Cold War with Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979), the book that brought him to international attention and earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. This time, however, his perspective changes to focus on the crimes of American, rather than Soviet, imperialism. Shawcross denounces the systematic destruction of Cambodia by the Nixon Administration as a consequence of the Vietnam War and for the sake of a mere strategic design. The study stresses how the decision to attack a neutral country was a patent violation of the American Constitution. As in his previous two books, Shawcross combines an interest in international policies with a private focus on the personal relationship between Nixon and Kissinger. The study argues that the President and his Secretary of State reproduced in their international relations the same pattern of falsehood that characterized their own personal association. The international policies of the Nixon Administration are also critiqued in the author’s study of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Story of the Exile, Misadventures and Death of the Emperor (1989), a scathing portrayal of Reza Palevi’s regime. The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience (1984) and Cambodia’s New Deal (1994) bring forward the investigation of war crimes in Cambodia and analyze how Western conscience reacts towards catastrophic events.

The publication of the controversial Rupert Murdoch: Ringmaster of the Information Circus (1992) marked a decisive shift towards the establishment and provoked accusations of excessive deference to the media tycoon. The heated debate involved vitriolic charges from Tina Brown’s New Yorker and an equally passionate defence of Shawcross by no less than John Le Carré. The same accusations were made against much of Shawcross’s later efforts, particularly his books and documentaries on the Royal Family. These works share a monumental research and detailed accounts of their subjects’ lives without obscuring their darker aspects. Yet, Shawcross often refuses to draw the obvious moral conclusions from his researches and, according to his critics, this reluctance leads him to paint a rather unproblematic picture of his subjects. While Shawcross’s earlier biographies strongly and explicitly link the private and the public spheres of the people he portrays, his books since Rupert Murdoch leave much of that work to the reader’s interpretation.

Once a critic of political institutions and their manipulation of media, Shawcross now finds himself at home within the political establishment; in addition, his defence of traditional institutions and his dismissal of left-wing intellectuals as snobs out of sync with the current times have made him a firm favourite for conservatives, as did his rejection of the European Union and its single currency. Bringing full circle his progressive detachment from the Left, Shawcross denounced the degradation of Britain operated by Gordon Brown’s government, arguing that its ineffective multicultural ideology has protected Islamic extremism to such an extent to turn London into ‘Londonistan’. Parallel to this development, Shawcross retracted some of his bitterest comments against American imperialism made at the time of the Vietnam War. Contrary to what he thought in the 1960s, Shawcross now finds that American military interventions are necessary to protect democracy from the threats of terrorism. In his articles written after 9/11 and his book Allies (2004), the author is a vocal supporter of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror and praises Blair’s interventionist policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, writing off criticism of the two leaders as hysterical.

Luca Prono, 2010


Queen Elizabeth: The Official Biography of the Queen Mother
Queen and Country
Deliver Us From Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict
Rupert Murdoch: Ringmaster of the Information Circus
The Shah's Last Ride: The Story of the Exile, Misadventures and Death of the Emperor
Kowtow!: After the Massacre - Peking, London and the Fate of Hong Kong
Great Journeys
The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience
Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia
Crime and Compromise: Janos Kadar and the Politics of Hungary Since Revolution
Dubcek: Dubcek and Czechoslovakia 1918-1968