Hartley Shawcross

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William Hartley Shawcross was an MP and member of the House of Lords (he was knighted in 1945, and appointed GBE in 1974), but was best known as the chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg. He entered the Commons in 1945 and became Attorney-General in the Labour government of Clement Attlee. His later move to the political right earned him the soubriquet 'Sir Shortly Floorcross'.

Early life and education

Shawcross was born on 4 February 4 1902 at Giessen, Germany, where his father, the leading English authority on Goethe and Schiller, was Professor of English Literature. He was educated at Dulwich College and Geneva University.[1]

Early career

Shawcross developed an early interest in the Labour Party, becoming ward secretary of the party in Central Wandsworth at 16. He entered the legal profession after advice from Herbert Morrison that it was the best training for politics. Although he won first place in the bar examinations, he initially struggled to win briefs until 1927, when he took up a part-time lectureship at Liverpool University, and began to build up what became the leading practice on the Northern Circuit with David Maxwell Fyfe.[1]

Shawcross became a King's Counsel in 1939, and was elected a Bencher of Gray's Inn.[1]

Shawcross joined the Emergency Reserve of Officers in 1938, but was subsequently rejected due to an old spinal injury. In 1939 he was appointed chairman of an Enemy Aliens Tribunal, and posted to Hampstead.[1]

In 1941, he became Recorder of Salford, the youngest Recorder ever appointed, holding the position until 1945. From 1940, however, Shawcross concentrated on government service, becoming Regional Commissioner for the North-Western Region from 1942 to 1945, and chairman of the Catering Wages Commission from 1943 to 1945. In 1946 he was appointed Recorder of Kingston upon Thames, a position he held until 1961.[1]

Member of Parliament


Shawcross was appointed Attorney-General in the Attlee government on 4 August 1945.[2]

Shawcross made his name at the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Telegraph obituary reported:

Hartley Shawcross's five-hour opening speech at Nuremberg set out the legal justification for the proceedings. He showed that the Tribunal, far from being an instrument of vengeance set up by the victors, was administering rules of international law which had been established before the war, with the full concurrence of Germany. The writer Rebecca West described his final address as "full of living pity, which gave the men in the box their worst hour". Even the accused admired his intellectual grasp.[1]

After Gustav Krupp von Bohlen was judged too ill to stand trial, Shawcross opposed indicting his son Alfried, arguing that a trial was "not a football match in which we could field a substitute." The younger Krupp was later indicted and served five years for war crimes.[3]

Writers John Loftus and Mark Aarons have claimed that a friendship with Shawcross allowed Hermann Abs to escape prosecution after the war. The also charge that war crimes prosecutions petered out for lacking of funding during his tenure.[4]

Shawcross later argued that prosecutions had been suspended in 1948, because of attacks on British troops by the Jewish underground in Mandate Palestine, stating:

"In the atmosphere of those days it would have been impossible to continue war-crimes trials, wherever the criminals happened to be."[5]

After Nuremburg, Shawcross went on to become the principal British representative at the United Nations.[6]

Shawcross was not always sure-footed in purely political matters. The Conservatives charged him with having used the phrase "We are the masters now", in a speech during the Third Reading of a Bill of 1946. he claimed to have said "We are the masters at the moment", but acknowledged the episode as a slip.[7]

Shawcross led the prosecution in a number of other famous trials including those of the wartime traitor William Joyce and atomic spy Klaus Fuchs.[1]

In 1948, his investigation of bribery at the Board of Trade, then headed by Harold Wilson led to the resignation of Parliamentary Secretary John Belcher.[8]

Board of Trade

Shawcross was appointed President of the Board of Trade on 24 April 1951, following the resignation of his predecessor, Harold Wilson.[2][9]


Shawcross was prominent among members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet who threatened to resign in March 1955, if the parliamentary party did not back the expulsion of Aneurin Bevan.[10]

Bar Council

Shawcross served as chair of the Bar Council from 1952 to 1957. He came under pressure in 1957, for passing on the contents of tapped phone conversations to the Council in an epsisode known as the Marrinan case, but escaped censure because he did so with the authority of the Home Office.[1][11]

Later career


Shawcross resigned as an MP in 1958 and was made a life peer the following year, sitting as a crossbencher, a move which reflected his disillusionment with party politics.[12]

Abs-Shawcroft Draft Convention

From 1958, Shawcross, then a director with Shell Petroleum worked with Hermann Abs of Deutsche Bank to develop a draft convention on foreign investments.[13]

Monckton Commission

Shawcross was appointed an independent member of the Monckton Advisory Commission in Central Africa in 1959, but had to resign after a few months due to ill health.[1]


According to Seumas Milne, an approach from Shawcross in the early 1960s helped to secure funding for the Industrial Research and Information Service.[14]

Media regulator

Shawcross chaired a Royal Commission on the Press in 1961-2. From 1967 to 1974, he was a director of The Times. From 1974 to 1978, he was chairman of the Press Council.[1]

Wilson rumours

During the period around 1968, Harold Wilson believed that Shawcross was maneuvering alongside Cecil King and Lord Robens for a coalition government.[15]

In 1974, at the height of the smear campaign against Harold Wilson, hinted about high-level bribery at the Board of Trade in the 1940s, in allegations that were taken to refer to Wilson.[16] After writing a letter to The Times, Shawcross became a guest at Private Eye lunches, where he discussed Wilson's social connections during his time at the timber firm Montague Meyer.[17]

Take-overs panel

From 1969 to 1980, he was chairman of the Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers.

Family values activism

Shawcross was an early 'patron' of the Responsible Society founded in 1971 (later known as Family and Youth Concern).[18]


Shawcross joined the SDP in 1983.[19]

Countryside Alliance

Although he was not strong enough to take part in the Countryside Alliance's Liberty and Livelihood march in 2002, he made a point of signing its "Marching in Spirit" register.'[20]





  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  2. 2.0 2.1 David Butler and Gareth Butler, Twentieth Century British Political Facts 1900-2000, Macmillan, 2000, p.23.
  3. Paul Routledge, Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Elusive Life and Violent death of Airey Neave, Fourth Estate, 2003, p.165.
  4. John Loftus and Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews, 1994, St Martin's Press, p.67.
  5. Glenn Frankel, House of Lords stirs debate in defeating bill to try Nazis, Wahington Post, 6 June 1990, archived at www.chron.com.
  6. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  7. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  8. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  9. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  10. Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorril, Smear! Wilson and the Secret State, Fourth Estate Limited, 1991, p.14 .
  11. Report of the Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to inquire into the interception of communications, 1957, archived at the Foundation for Information Policy Research.
  12. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  13. Jan Ole Voss, The Impact of Investment Treaties on Contracts between Host States and Foreign Investors, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2010, p.225.
  14. Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners, Verso, 2004, p.386.
  15. Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorril, Smear! Wilson and the Secret State, Fourth Estate Limited, 1991, p.176.
  16. Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorril, Smear! Wilson and the Secret State, Fourth Estate Limited, 1991, p.10.
  17. David Leigh, The Wilson Plot, Mandarin, 1989, p.248.
  18. Valerie and Denis Riches Built on Love, Oxford: Family Publications, 2007, p. 73.
  19. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  20. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003
  21. Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003