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London, Friday, July 11, 2003


Hartley ShawcrossObituaries

Lord Shawcross

Prosecutor at Nuremberg whose brilliant exposition of the evidence was decisive in bringing Nazi war criminals to the gallows

HARTLEY Shawcross was a man of commanding intellectual stature, whose brilliance led him nearly to the top of a number of different professions - legal, political, administrative and commercial.

There were those who regretted that he never quite reached the summit of any of them. Had his talents been less varied, or his ambitions more concentrated, he might well have become - as he was not above hinting in his memoirs - Lord Chief Justice, Lord Chancellor or even Prime Minister. But as he himself wrote, "all my moves were designed to promote the happiness and wellbeing of my family, rather than fame."

Nevertheless, as Attorney-General in the postwar Labour Government, he has his place in history as Britain's chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials of 1945-46. It was there that his remarkable powers of advocacy were first displayed to an international public.

The grim, hardly precedented interest of the trials lay in the spectacle of such men as Goering, Ribbentrop and Streicher - who had for so long been talismans of evil, executants of crime on a massive scale, yet who had lived surrounded by power and beyond the reach of retribution - suddenly being summoned before the bar of justice by (in the case of Britain, the United States and France) the democratic processes of law.

Robert H JacksonOf the Allied chief prosecutors, Shawcross was adjudged to have performed much the most effectively. The Russian prosecutor was continually on the end of the phone being briefed by his political masters in Moscow. The American [Robert H Jackson, left] was really a civil lawyer, relatively new to criminal proceedings and thoroughly out of his depth. And the French chief prosecutor was changed after two months, so the French contribution was inevitably reduced.

It was left to Shawcross to demolish the defence that the proceedings were merely "victor's justice". In measured tones, the more effective for being entirely without histrionics or anger, he relentlessly built up the indictment against the accused of waging aggressive war in breach of treaty obligations. The very calmness of Shawcross's exposition made it the more terrible. He let the appalling history of Nazi oppression unfold itself to the courtroom through a dispassionate relation of facts which told their own awful story. It was a performance which gave him an international reputation.


HARTLEY WILLIAM SHAWCROSS was born in Germany in 1902, the son of John and Hilda Shawcross. John, then a lecturer in English at Giessen University, had been nurtured on the pure milk of Victorian Liberalism (his sister married a son of John Bright); Hilda was a pioneer in the suffragette and socialist movements. Shortly after their son's birth the family returned to England, and in due course Hartley went to Dulwich College as a day boy.

At the age of 16 he spoke and worked for the local Labour candidate throughout the notorious Lloyd George "khaki" election of 1918. After leaving school, he went to Geneva University with the intention of becoming a doctor, but he switched from medicine to law when J. H. Thomas persuaded him that the latter discipline was a more convenient stepping stone to politics. He was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1925, having come first out of 220 candidates in the Bar final examinations.

In those distant days, getting started at the Bar was a difficult task for a young man without influence or private means, and Shawcross's earnings in his first few years were as exiguous as those of most of his contemporaries. In 1927 he accepted a post as a part-time lecturer in law at Liverpool University, and at the same time joined David Maxwell-Fyfe in his chambers in that city. There he prospered; he acquired a good mixed practice on the Northern Circuit, and so was able to give up his academic work (which was only a secondary interest) in 1934. In 1939 he took silk, and in the same year he was elected a Bencher of his Inn.

When war came, Shawcross, although enrolled in the Emergency Reserve of Officers, was unable to join the Forces, owing to a spinal injury which he had suffered in a climbing accident many years before. But he gave up his practice for the duration, and filled a succession of public wartime appointments, of which the last and most important was that of Regional Commissioner for the North-West. Here he provided convincing evidence of his administrative skill and efficiency.

Until he was over 40 Shawcross allowed his political interest and ambition to lie fallow; he was too busy earning a living, and then helping the country's war effort. But in 1945 he contested St Helens for Labour, while his younger brother Christopher took on the neighbouring seat of Widnes. The brothers fought a colourful joint campaign, and the lively Shawcross Express circulated widely over their section of south Lancashire. They were both elected with massive majorities, and arrived at Westminster as members of the huge block of Labour supporters who had been returned in the most sensational electoral upset of the century.

Clement Attlee proceeded to form his Government. The hallowed doctrine of "Buggins' turn" did not appeal to the resilient mind of the new Prime Minister, and when looking for an Attorney-General he passed over a number of elderly and rather dusty KCs who must have hoped for preferment, and chose instead the 43-year-old new MP for St Helens, who therefore went directly from the hustings to the front bench, acquiring the traditional knighthood on the way.

Shawcross had already earned a good reputation in the North West, but he was still virtually unknown in the capital. London liked what it saw, for he was handsome, charming, stimulating and elegant. It did not, to begin with, so much like what it heard: his name became famous overnight when he was reputed to have said "We are the masters now." In fact, he never uttered any such phrase - what he actually said in a debate repealing the Conservatives' vengeful Trade Disputes Act of 1927 was "We are the masters at the moment and shall be for some considerable time." However, even if in its authentic form it was intended as a factual description rather than a boast, it did Shawcross a good deal of harm. It was certainly uncharacteristic, for he was neither a bully nor a zealot; he had inherited from his parents a sense of compassion and of caring for the unhappy and the unlucky, but he was hardly a fierce party warrior.

It quickly became apparent that Shawcross was an advocate of quite exceptional calibre. He was cast more in the mould of Rufus Isaacs than Edward Marshall Hall. In conducting his cases he was amiable and even bland. He smiled readily, and gave the impression of thinking that everyone in court was really quite a good fellow, and that the other side was mistaken or misguided, rather than wicked. When his cross-examination was at its most disruptive, his beautifully modulated voice (often described as "golden") remained quiet and polite. He seldom became angry, and he never aped G. K. Chesterton's huckster, who, "mocking holy anger, painfully paints his face with rage".

To his exemplary court manner (and manners) Shawcross added the power of lucid exposition, an ability to winnow the essential from the peripheral, and tremendous reserves of concentration and endurance. With this combination of talents, it was not surprising that he was soon widely acknowledged as the finest advocate of his generation.


THE most important duty of the new Attorney-General was his heavy engagement in the large number of prosecutions which followed the Allied victory over Germany. These were in two categories: of British traitors and of Nazi war criminals. Among the former the names of William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"), Allan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs and John Amery loomed large in the demonology of the day. Rebecca West, who was present at all the major treason trials, was impressed equally by Shawcross's advocacy and by his character. "He has", she wrote, "the gentlest and most charitable of tempers; but he is fortunate, visibly fortunate. Had Pippa passed him she would have added him to the list of proofs that all's well with the world."

Between the earlier and later English cases, Shawcross went to Nuremberg to present the British prosecution's case against Goering, Hess and their colleagues. This he did in a five-hour speech which an experienced colleague described as the most brilliant he had ever heard, and which was a decisive element in securing the guilty verdicts. Although Shawcross was instinctively against capital punishment, he realised that at the end of such a trial, with its relation of such terrible events, any other sentence would be an anticlimax. Goering defeated justice by swallowing cyanide. Ribbentrop and nine others went to the gallows.

Notwithstanding this performance, many would say that it was in 1948 and 1949, as counsel for the Lynskey tribunal, that Shawcross scored his greatest forensic triumph. This tribunal was set up to investigate allegations of impropriety made against certain ministers and public officials. Shawcross announced that he would seek the truth "ruthlessly and relentlessly", and this he did, although the process necessarily involved much probing of the actions and motives of political colleagues and personal friends.

The effectiveness of his exposition and cross-examination was enhanced by his calmness: however tense the situation or however devious the witnesses, he never became excited or rude. In all his work he displayed an immense self-confidence which did not quite topple over into conceit; rather, it was pride in carrying out important and difficult duties supremely well.

By 1951 it was clear that Labour's notable postwar tenure of office was drawing towards its close. In a final Cabinet reconstruction in April, caused by Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson's resignations, Shawcross became President of the Board of Trade, but he had little time to make any impact in this position, as in the election in October the Conservatives were returned and he left office, never to return.


AFTER an absence of more than ten years he resumed his practice at the Bar, and was soon reputed to be the highest-paid barrister in the country. Inevitably, millionaires jostled for his services, occasioning a few sour comments from his former colleagues. He answered these criticisms with the standard analogy of the cab on the rank, available for hire by the first-comer, to which the reply was made that it was a pity that whenever his cab reached the front of the rank, the passenger who jumped in always wore a top hat.

Shawcross's days as a keen party man were over. Opposition did not appeal to him. "Criticising the other fellow because he's in and you are not," he said, "seems to me a futile waste of time." Parliament had no more enchantment for him, and he progressively spent less time there, and more in the courts, and as chairman of the Bar Council.

The nickname that was invented around this time, "Sir Shortly Floorcross", was amusing but not entirely apposite. He accurately described himself as having become a cross-bencher and, partly perhaps because there are no cross-benches in the House of Commons, in 1958 he relinquished his St Helens seat. In the same year he retired from practice at the Bar, and in 1959 he was made a life peer.

At the age of 56, therefore, Shawcross entered a new phase of his career. He became a director of Shell, and worked hard and travelled widely in the interests of that organisation. He also joined the board of many other companies, and for five years he was chairman of Thames Television.

But he did not entirely abandon his interest in his two original professions of politics and the law. In the House of Lords, in public speeches and in correspondence in the press, he adopted a non-party stance, but with a strong bias towards the maintenance of traditional values; in the measured and cautious tones of the elder statesman it was hard to recognise the ardent crusader who had fought and won St Helens in 1945. He maintained his contact with the legal world by his chairmanship for 16 years of the organisation Justice.

It was inevitable that a man of Shawcross's capacity and industry, who was not ostensibly doing a full-time job, should be asked to undertake various urgent public duties. Perhaps the most important of these was the chairmanship of the Royal Commission on the Press, which was set up in 1961 after parliamentary disquiet caused by the sudden and distressing collapse of the News Chronicle and Star. Shawcross guided its deliberations with vigour, skill and speed, and it was not his fault (or that of his colleagues) that no solution to the chronic economic problems of the industry emerged. When the commission's report appeared, The Times described it as "informative, sensible, taut and unanimous. If it produces no rabbits out of the hat, it has shot down some bats in the belfry."

In 1969 Shawcross took on another complex task, the chairmanship of the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers. He began by thinking that although the possibility of misuse of inside information for personal profit did exist, advantage was rarely taken of it. But intense study of the subject convinced him that stern action was needed to stamp out deals which involved misuse of privileged positions.

The new City Code, introduced in 1972, reflected in its main provisions the anxiety which followed recent controversial bid tactics. A major change was the formal introduction of the rule that the acquisition of 40 per cent of the voting rights of a company made necessary a bid to all of the shareholders. In explaining these recondite matters, Shawcross pointed out that the duty of the panel was the enforcement of good business standards, not the enforcement of law.

In 1974, the year that he was appointed GBE, Shawcross accepted the chairmanship of the Press Council. He was already 72, but he had always enjoyed influence and he hated idleness; it may also be that the death, not long before, of his second wife led him to seek solace in unremitting work. In the event he was to continue to work for a very long time. As late as 1993 he was regulary attending his office at Morgan Guarantee Trust in the City.

He had been one of the four national directors of Times Newspapers from the time the new company was formed in 1966. He resigned on becoming chairman of the Press Council, but in 1982, rather surprisingly (since he was clearly out of sympathy with its editorial policy), he became a director of The Observer, then owned by Lonrho.

Shawcross greatly enjoyed the outward and visible symbols of his success, including his beautiful period Sussex house, and, for many years, a capacious yacht. He was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club and the New York Yacht Club. He loved riding as well as sailing. He was a gracious and charming host, if a shy one. His abundant public self-confidence was matched by a certain reserve in his personal relationships, which were often based on friendliness rather than friendship, and companionship rather than intimacy.

He took an active part in the affairs of the much-loved county where he made his home. He was associated with Sussex University from its embryonic stage, and from 1965 was its Chancellor. He sat on the council of Eastbourne College (which was near his home). He was a JP for the county, and chairman of the Society of Sussex Downsmen from 1962 to 1975.

In his memoirs, Life Sentence, published in 1995, Shawcross could look back on a life of exceptionally wide experience and great achievement. He was grateful for his good fortune, but surprisingly harsh on himself. "I know that in my public life I fell below the standards that I had set myself," he wrote. "I have seen what is wrong but not done enough to put it right. I have been more critical than correct. I have had opportunities of great positions in the service of the state, but I have put them aside. I know that I have not devoted myself enough to promoting the good of others." Probably no one else would have been so stringent, but nearly 80 years later he was true to the ideals of the young campaigner of the 1918 election.

Hartley Shawcross was three times married. First, in 1924, he married Rosita Alberta Shyvers, who took her own life in 1943 while suffering from an incurable illness. In the following year, firmly advised by his friends to marry again, he married Joan Winifred Mather, by whom he had two sons and one daughter. She was killed in a riding accident in 1974. Thirdly, Shawcross married a longtime friend, Mrs Monique Huiskamp, in 1997. He is survived by her and by the daughter and two sons of his second marriage, one of whom is the writer and broadcaster William Shawcross.

Lord Shawcross, GBE, PC, QC, Attorney-General, 1945-51, and UK Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, was born on February 4, 1902. He died on July 10, 2003, aged 101.


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