Chief UK Prosecutor at Nuremberg who took to, but then abandoned, politics
Friday 11 July 2003
Hartley William Shawcross, lawyer, politician and businessman: born Giessen, Germany 4 February 1902; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1925; Senior Law Lecturer, Liverpool University 1927-34; QC 1939; Chairman, Enemy Aliens Tribunal 1939-40; Recorder of Salford 1941-45; Regional Commissioner, North-Western Region 1942-45; Chairman, Catering Wages Commission 1943-45; OBE 1945, GBE 1974; Chief UK Prosecutor, International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg 1945-46; Kt 1945; MP (Labour) for St Helens 1945-58; Attorney General 1945-51; PC 1946; Recorder of Kingston-upon-Thames 1946-61; President, Board of Trade 1951; Chairman, Bar Council 1952-57; Chairman, Justice 1956-72; created 1959 Baron Shawcross; Pro-Chancellor, Sussex University 1960-65, Chairman 1965-85; Chairman, Royal Commission on the Press 1961-62; Chairman, MRC 1961-65; special adviser, Morgan Guaranty Trust of New York 1965-94, Chairman, International Advisory Council 1967-74; Chairman, Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers 1969-80; chairman, Thames Television 1969-74; chairman, Dominion Lincoln Assurance Co 1969-76; Chairman, Press Council 1974-78; married 1924 Alberta Shyvers (died 1943), 1944 Joan Mather (died 1974; two sons, one daughter), 1997 Monique Huiskamp; died Cowbeech, East Sussex 10 July 2003.
Hartley Shawcross was the chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War and Attorney General in the historic post-war Labour government. A lawyer of multiple talents, and chairman later of many commissions, companies and committees, he was offered the highest offices in the judiciary and was once mooted as a leader of the Labour Party. But he consistently rejected the "glittering prizes" proffered him.
He was born in Giessen, Germany, in 1902, the son of John and Hilda Shawcross. His father was a professor at the university there and the author of a metrical translation of Goethe's Faust. His mother was an early and ardent suffragette. It was a committed political household - one of his aunts married a son of John Bright.
Of Northern stock, Shawcross was brought up in Sussex and bicycled seven miles in the early morning to catch the train to take him to Dulwich College, in south-east London. It was there at the age of 16, while still a schoolboy, that he first displayed his political inclinations by being the Labour candidate's agent in the Tory stronghold of Wandsworth Central.
He had originally intended to become a doctor but in 1919, whilst in Geneva, improving his French before attending St Bartholomew's Hospital, he met J.H. Thomas, who, with Herbert Morrison and Ramsay MacDonald, was attending the Second Socialist International. Shawcross offered his services as interpreter and, in return, on a steamer trip around the lake, Thomas gave him the advice that if he wished to enter politics he should first be called to the Bar.
Shawcross cabled his parents with his decision, and went on to obtain the Certificate of Honour for first place (out of an entry of 220) in the Bar finals. He joined Gray's Inn and the Northern Circuit. Without adequate private means, he found his first years at the Bar in London difficult, but in 1927 he was offered two academic posts: the first as an Oxford don and the second at Liverpool University. He chose the latter and was Senior Lecturer in Law there from 1927 to 1934.
The year of his appointment he joined the chambers of Mr Justice Lynskey, of which Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe was head, in Harrington Street, Liverpool, and established the leading junior practice on the Northern Circuit. He obtained an acquittal in his first murder case and local popularity when he appeared successfully for a maidservant. She had named the father of her child as the son of a canon noted for his crusades against immorality. He represented the owners in the inquiry into the Gresford colliery disaster, earning his first substantial fee (Sir Stafford Cripps appeared without a fee for the miners), and he was junior counsel for the Crown in the 1936 Buck Ruxton murder trial.
A man of some élan, with wavy dark hair, Shawcross would appear in chambers on a Saturday morning wearing tweeds, a canary-coloured pullover and (for that time and in the provinces especially) socially daring suede shoes. In tow was a vast St Bernard. In 1939, the same year that he was appointed a Bencher of Gray's Inn, he took silk, some seven years earlier than was usual in those days.
During his studies for his Bar finals he had worked as agent for Lewis Silkin and was a prospective Labour candidate for a Birmingham division but abandoned this when he found himself unable to afford the nursing of the constituency. For a time he was the secretary of the Howard League for Penal Reform. "From 1924 until the end of the war I wasn't interested in politics," he told one interviewer. By the beginning of the war he was being compared favourably with F.E. Smith.
He was appointed Chairman of the Enemy Aliens Tribunal for two years from 1939 until he left for his war service. He had already enrolled on the Emergency Reserve of Officers and had hoped for a commission in the Navy; now he was rejected on the medical grounds of a spinal injury, the result of a climbing accident in his youth. Nevertheless, he did not return to the Bar for the duration of the war. In 1940 he became legal adviser to the vital south-eastern Civil Defence region and two years later was appointed Regional Commissioner for the north-west following the resignation of Lord Geddes, who was going blind.
He was appointed Assistant Chairman of East Sussex Quarter Sessions in 1941 and, the same year, Recorder of Salford, a position he held until 1945. The next year he was appointed Recorder of Kingston-upon-Thames.
Shawcross became the MP for St Helens in the 1945 Labour landslide victory. His brother, Christopher, who won Widnes in the same election, campaigned with Hartley as "the Shawcross Express". (At school they had produced a magazine, the Shawcross Journal, sold to friends and particularly relatives for twopence a copy.) Shawcross was appointed Attorney General, succeeding his friend Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, and knighted.
The same year he was offered the post of Lord Chief Justice in succession to Lord Caldecote. He declined it on two grounds. The first that he was on record that the idea of the Attorney's having a "right" of succession to the position of Lord Chief Justice was wrong. Secondly, he was, by now, far more interested in politics than the law. Shawcross recommended Rayner Goddard for the post. Later in his career Shawcross was offered the positions of Master of the Rolls and of Lord Chancellor. He declined both.
After the war Shawcross was Chief Prosecutor for the United Kingdom before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, following which he always maintained a sneaking regard for Hermann Goering. There are conflicting reports of his performance. The majority praised his intellectual mastery and the way in which "with his slight nasal drawl he scathingly trounced the Nazi warlords". But others believed the court snubbed Shawcross for making unsubstantiated statements and rated Maxwell-Fyfe, now his junior, the more highly.
In 1948 Shawcross appeared successfully at the Lynskey Tribunal hearing set up to probe allegations involving Ministers of the Crown. It was then that the principal witness, the rascal Sydney Stanley, said, "You're trying to trick me into telling the truth."
He also prosecuted the Irishman William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, hanged for treason following his wartime broadcasts. In 1950 he prosecuted Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment for passing secrets to the Russians. It was traditional that the Attorney General personally conducted cases involving death by poison and in 1948 he prosecuted the acid-bath murderer John George Haig, who was defended by Maxwell-Fyfe.
By now, Shawcross was regarded as one of the high-flyers of both the Bar and politics. He was a principal delegate for the United Kingdom to the Assemblies of the United Nations from 1945 to 1949. True, he had had difficulties with the press, with which he maintained a love-hate relationship throughout his life. He attacked the News of the World and then admitted he had never read it. More unfortunately he described Lord Kemsley's newspapers as the "gutter press", and had to apologise under the threat of a writ. He was widely quoted as saying "We are the masters now" after the 1945 election. In fact he had added "for the moment", but he accepted that it was one of the most foolish things he ever said.
He admitted his gaffes, joking that he feared to read the Monday-morning papers to see what faux pas he had committed over the weekend. Years later in a rent tribunal case he referred to certain workers as "six black niggers". At the time he denied making the remark but the transcript showed otherwise. At the end of 1949 it was said that he was both the "luckiest man at the Bar" and "eminent among lawyer-politicians of the century". He was a success for his short period as President of the Board of Trade, to which office he was appointed in 1951 and where he largely kept clear of the bitter struggles between the Bevanites and the rest.
Yet, within the year, it all began to go wrong. The Labour Party was defeated in the 1951 election and Shawcross disliked being in opposition. "Getting up and criticising the other fellow because he's in and you are not seems to me a futile waste of time. Especially as you know in your heart that you would be doing more or less the same thing if you were in his place," he told Tom Stacey in an interview for the Daily Express. His appearances in the House became less frequent and he was under fire from the left wing of the Labour Party because he had returned to the Bar and was undertaking the highly paid cases of men and companies - the Rank Organisation and Sir Bernard Docker, accused of currency offences, among them - whose beliefs were not in accord with the socialist dogmas of the day.
He did not endear himself to his colleagues when he explained, "As my political expenses considerably exceed my parliamentary salary I am compelled to earn a living outside politics." Nor were his constituents too happy with their absentee member, who had made his home in Sussex.
In March 1957 he announced his retirement from the Bar, of whose Council he had been Chairman. He was not ill but he had been told he would become so if he continued to work as he had been doing. Now he would be able to spend more time with his constituents. Immediately there was press speculation that he might run for the leadership of the Labour Party. He was, however, increasingly ill at ease with his colleagues and there were rumblings about the lucrative directorships including Shell he was offered and accepted. He explained this by saying that he had to make provisions for his family. It was suspected he would formally embrace Toryism and the wits began to label him "Sir Shortly Floorcross". They were wrong. On 1 April 1958 he was appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. In 1959 he was created a life peer, sitting, apart from a flirtation with the SDP, as a cross-bencher. His third career, as a company director, began.
The Labour Party became further disenchanted with Shawcross when he accepted an invitation to serve as a member of the Monckton Commission set up to investigate the constitutional future of the Federation of Central Africa. Hugh Gaitskell had refused to nominate members and the appointment of, and acceptance by, Shawcross was seen as being less than that of a less than free agent. In the event his back injury recurred and he was flown home for an operation. He resigned his membership in 1960.
Although he served as Chairman of the Press Council from 1974 to 1978, and of Justice for 16 years, as well as of numerous other lesser associations including the British Hotels and Restaurants Association, and was on the boards of numerous public companies (his tenure at Morgan Guaranty was extended by five years on his 90th birthday), he faded from public view. From time to time he emerged to comment on such diverse topics as the economy, the state of the judicial system (anticipating by 30 years the recommendations of the 1993 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice on disclosure of the defence case), war crimes trials (he passionately believed that Britain should not have show trials), and the prosecution of Saddam Hussein; and to criticise the press over, and champion the judge in, the 1987 Jeffrey Archer libel action.
It was said of Hartley Shawcross that he was too adult for politics and he said of himself that perhaps he wished he had read medicine rather than the law. When asked the object of life he agreed with the observation of the doctor at the end of David Lean's film The Bridge on the River Kwai: "Madness. Bloody madness."
He married first in 1924 Alberta Shyvers, who almost immediately after the wedding became invalided with multiple sclerosis and whom he nursed devotedly. After her suicide in 1943 he married Joan Mather, who was a niece of Sir Malcolm Campbell, and had been Shawcross's driver during the war. Shortly after the death of his brother Christopher she too was killed in an accident in 1974, while riding on the Downs near the family house at Friston, in Sussex. He had two sons, William, the writer and journalist, and Hume, and a daughter, Joanna, who is a doctor.
A man of diverse interests, Hartley Shawcross listed his principal recreation as sailing. Others included photography, gardening, a good detective story and, for a time, pig breeding.
In an interview with Naim Attallah in 1992 he remarked that he thought he had shirked public responsibilities in favour of his family. "I feel that I've had a happy life, not a very useful life, but a happy one."
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