A pre-appointment hearing to decide whether William Shawcross is sufficiently politically independent to do the job as head of the Charity Commission. Three of us thought he was not. Four Tories thought he was. What do you think?
Uncorrected PASC committee; Tuesday 5th September
Q124 <Paul Flynn:> Welcome, Mr Shawcross. It is a pleasure to meet you in this Committee, as a distinguished biographer and the son of someone who is a hero in my political life: your distinguished father. Could we say something first of all about the pre‑appointment hearing? This Committee had a pioneering role in going to America, having a look at their system there and recommending it cautiously here. I believe this Committee has a record that establishes the worth of the pre‑appointment hearing, particularly recently. I think that all our decisions have been unanimous as a Committee in taking that final decision. Can I ask first of all: if the Committee decide that you are not a fit person for the job, what would you do then?
William Shawcross: Obviously I hope that that would not be the case. I would be very saddened if that were the case, and I would have to reflect very carefully on the reasons that led you to that decision.
Q125 <Paul Flynn:> Our main interest is to establish the independence of people like the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority and Ombudsman and so on, particularly their independence from Government and independence from influence from the Government. We see that as our role. What we want is someone who will be robustly independent. From reading your biography and your literary output, you seem not to be left‑wing but to be decidedly right‑wing. Is this a fair description of you?
William Shawcross: I hope that my writings show independence and have shown independent views throughout my career. They have not always been popular on either the left or the right. I grew up, as you kindly pointed out, in a Labour household and my father was a great hero to me too. He taught me the importance of this House as the cherished guardian of our liberties. So I am honoured to be speaking to you and, if you do see fit to approve me, I would look forward to a very close relationship with this Committee because I think this Committee is vital in helping to guard the independence of the Charity Commission, which, as you rightly point out, is essential.
Q126 <Paul Flynn:> My enthusiasm for his life is for his periods at Nuremberg and in Government but I am less enthusiastic for when he had the nickname of Sir Hartley Floorcross.
William Shawcross: He never actually did cross the floor.
Q127 <Paul Flynn:> Normally biographers write about people they admire; your principal ones are the Shah of Persia, Rupert Murdoch and the Queen Mother. Does this betray a right-wing tendency?
William Shawcross: I have also written about Alexander Dubček, the hero of the Czechoslovak Spring, and János Kádár, who rescued Hungary from the horrors of the revolution of 1956. The Murdoch biography was actually proposed to me by my American publishers. It had never occurred to me to write about Murdoch until the late 1980s when it was suggested to me. He was just becoming a big figure in the United States at that time. I was rather surprised that I enjoyed writing a business biography as much as I did. I thought that Murdoch had created an enormous change, particularly in this country in terms of the unionisation of newspapers and so on. As a journalist in the 1980s and 1990s, I was very conscious that, but for Wapping, many of us probably would not have jobs.
Q128 <Paul Flynn:> The Shah of Persia was so successful as a leader that—
<Chair:> Mr Flynn, can I just ask what bearing this has on independence?
<Paul Flynn:> It is establishing the independence of the candidate, which is what our job is. The Shah of Persia was so successful as a political leader that his country preferred the Ayatollahs to him.
William Shawcross: My book about the Shah concentrated on his journey into exile and death. It was called The Shah’s Last Ride and it looked at his relationship, in flashbacks, with the Western world and as a very important ally of the Western world in the Gulf throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, until he fell in 1979. His fall was obviously a reflection of his own misgovernment, to a certain extent. It is important also to recognise that in the 1960s the Shah was one of the most progressive leaders in the Middle East. I would also suggest to you that, whatever the errors and shortcomings—and they were very serious in the Shah’s Government—the Government that has followed has been a catastrophe for Iran, the Iranian people and indeed for the world.
Q129 <Paul Flynn:> A difficulty in this Committee is that the previous holder of your office was not attacked by this Committee at any time—one Member of the Committee did attack her—
<Chair:> Can you get on with it? We have limited time, Mr Flynn.
<Paul Flynn:> It is important to get this point out. It is the crucial point of this morning. She was attacked for political bias as being a Labour Party member. Now, could you tell us whether you are a supporter of the Conservative Party or a member of the Conservative Party?
William Shawcross: I have never been a member of the Conservative Party. When I was young I was, as my father was, a member of the Labour Party for a very short period. When the Social Democrat Party started, with David Owen and the Gang of Four, I certainly supported them at that time. I have never been a member of another party since then.
Q130 <Paul Flynn:> Before the last election you said, “Only a vote for the Conservatives offers any hope of drawing back from the abyss”.
William Shawcross: I do not remember the context in which I said or wrote that. If I wrote it, I stand by it.
Q131 <Charlie Elphicke:> Can I ask a quick supplementary on that point? Can you assure the Committee that your previous membership of the Labour Party will not make you biased towards the Labour Party or indeed any political party?
William Shawcross: I certainly would give you that assurance, and I believe it to be absolutely true.
Q132 <Paul Flynn:> When were you a member of the Labour Party?
William Shawcross: When I was a very young person in the 1960s.
Q133 <Paul Flynn:> In the 1960s? I think we can absolve you of any accusation that your membership of a party in the 1960s would have any involvement. However, going back two years, you said, “The disaster we now face now is thanks uniquely to Gordon Brown and the Labour Party’s postmodern authoritarianism”. Again, that is a strongly right‑wing view.
William Shawcross: It is a strong view; I am not sure that it is right‑wing necessarily but I was critical.
Q134 <Paul Flynn:> The Henry Jackson Society is a promoter of a particular view in this House, which is representing right‑wing American opinion.
<Robert Halfon:> I have a point of order, Chair. First of all, the Henry Jackson Society has a significant number of Labour MPs, including the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston.
<Chair:> I do not think that is a point of order.
<Robert Halfon:> Secondly, this is not a discussion about political biographies and the Henry Jackson Society. We should be discussing the role of the Charity Commission.
<Chair:> I think, Mr Flynn, that you are making a point perfectly legitimately but I would be very grateful if you could be as brief as possible because we have many other questions to ask.
<Paul Flynn:> Henry Jackson’s personality was rather more diverse than the Henry Jackson Society.
<Chair:> This is not about your views, Mr Flynn; this is about the candidate’s objectivity. Please ask about that.
<Paul Flynn:> I can understand your obstruction to this because you clearly have a partisan view on this, Chairman, not for the first time, may I say. If I may continue—as usual struggling again the bias of the Chairman on this—my role on this Committee is to introduce some impartiality and do the job that we should be doing, which is to ensure that you are not going to face accusations or suspicions from the charity bodies, who are bruised and battered at the moment, that they have someone who is going to do the political hatchet job that Maude is doing elsewhere. You would be an independent person: can you assure us of that?
William Shawcross: I can assure you of that. If you have any misgivings I would wish to come back at any stage and talk to this Committee, whenever you wish to do that. I am absolutely convinced, as you are, Mr Flynn, that the independence of the regulator is vital and it would be utterly wrong of me to infringe upon that independence in any way. I would not do so.
Q135 <Chair:> The outgoing Chairman did say that protecting the independence of the Commission was hugely important. She obviously valued that. Personally I think that was reflected in her personal conduct at the Commission. Are there any particular steps that you would take in order to reinforce that independence?
William Shawcross: Obviously I would wish to resign all my memberships of the Henry Jackson Society and other charities with which I am involved. I think the Henry Jackson Society is a great society and I am very pleased that they had you come to speak, Mr Flynn. Henry Jackson himself was a great American senator who stood not just for right‑wing views but for freedom and liberty everywhere. That is what the society stands for now. I would do everything necessary and speak to the chief executive of the Charity Commission to make sure I was seen to be always acting in an independent manner.
Q136 <Paul Flynn:> Won’t you be in an embarrassing position as a former pupil of Eton, the most privileged school in the country and which is a charity, which most people find difficult to understand?
William Shawcross: Many hundreds of schools in this country are charities. Education, like religion, has always been seen as one of the principal purposes of charitable organisations. I do not need to tell you, Mr Flynn, that the principal purposes are religion, education and the relief of poverty. I was very lucky to go to Eton. Eton, when I was there and still now, has a much larger charitable sector. It performs considerable public benefits. The difficulties will not be for schools like Eton but for smaller, much poorer, independent schools.
Q137 <Paul Flynn:> There is one public school that set out to provide education for the orphans of the Battle of Waterloo. The aims of some of the public schools are a bit remote from what is actually happening. Are you suggesting that one of the main aims of Eton is the relief of poverty among the very rich?
William Shawcross: I did not suggest that.
Q138 <Paul Flynn:> This is a nonsense, isn’t it? Most people with common sense would come before this Committee and say that of course public schools and privileged schools should not be regarded as charity. It damages the whole system if you have a sector for charities which are helping the relief of poverty and you have some that are helping the most privileged people in the country.
William Shawcross: Education has always been regarded as a charitable purpose.
Q139 <Paul Flynn:> Can I just ask: would you be embarrassed? You are taking over this job and you are a person who has had a very privileged background. Would you like to be criticised in your future decisions because of your background?
William Shawcross: You are absolutely correct; I have a very privileged background and I am not embarrassed about it. It would be foolish of me to be so.
Q140 <Paul Flynn:> Can we follow the logic of Mr Elphicke’s comments into the absurdity it creates? I do not know if you are aware of the controversy about Pastafarianism? Pastafarians believe in a supreme being who is a blob of spaghetti in the sky. When challenged by people saying that this is absurd, they say that the idea of a man with a beard in the sky is also absurd. The previous Charity Commission accepted Pastafarianism because their rules are the same as those which Mr Elphicke has put out and they do have a belief in a supreme being, which happens to be a blob of spaghetti in the sky. Do you think we should look again at your definitions of religion? Do you think that Pastafarians, who exist and, publish books and so on, should be regarded fully as a religion in the same way as Eton is regarded as a charity? Aren’t you in the field of absurdities?
William Shawcross: What, with the greatest respect, is the field of absurdities?
<Paul Flynn:> Pastafarianism.
William Shawcross: I am glad to say that I do not know about Pastafarianism. I should say that I am sorry to say.
<Paul Flynn:> In America, Pastafarians have the same tax breaks as other religions.
<Chair:> Mr Flynn, allow him to answer the question.
<Paul Flynn:> No, he was asking me a question.
<Chair:> Mr Shawcross?
William Shawcross: I apologise, Mr Flynn. I do not know about Pastafarianism, I apologise for not knowing that.
<Paul Flynn:> I am shocked.
William Shawcross: If I get this job, I will find out about it. It does not sound like a very well substantiated religious belief to me.
<Paul Flynn:> It is.
Q141 is<Paul Flynn:> Helena Bonham Carter delivered a critique of your book, which was admirably brief. She described the biography you did of the Queen Mother as “crap”. I think the criticism was based on the idea that it was sycophantic and some of the more interesting facets of the Queen Mother’s personality were absent from this very long book.
<Chair:> What is the relevance of this question?
<Paul Flynn:> It is about whether it was an independent book or whether—
<Chair:> We are not here to review Mr Shawcross’s books.
<Paul Flynn:> It is establishing his independence, Chairman. I am sorry we did not have a pre‑appointment hearing for you. We would not have chosen you if it was an independent Chairman, I am afraid.
<Robert Halfon:> I would have done.
<Paul Flynn:> But you must try to work on it and try to put your bias to one side when we are dealing with a witness.
William Shawcross: I think Helena Bonham Carter is a great actress.
Q142 <Paul Flynn:> She does not think you are a great writer, I am afraid.
William Shawcross: I am sorry about that; it is my loss.
Q143 <Paul Flynn:> Indeed. What of the book? The book was done as a flattering portrait of the Queen Mother. She was an interesting lady with an interesting personality, which was sadly absent from the book.
William Shawcross: This was the official biography—
<Paul Flynn:> Yes indeed, so you had to write what would please the family.
William Shawcross: That is not the case. The family imposed no censorship whatsoever upon me.
Q144 <Paul Flynn:> The union of biographers would take a different view.
Q145 <Paul Flynn:> Those of us who were in Parliament in 2003, when your position was the majority position, now know that a lot of MPs were bribed, bullied and bamboozled into supporting the war in Iraq.
<Chair:> I am sorry; I do not think this is relevant.
<Paul Flynn:> Do you really think now, in 2010, that it was worth the sacrifice of 179 British lives in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and to replace one rotten regime with what was likely to develop into another rotten regime in the future. Was it worth 179 British lives?
<Chair:> I think Mr Shawcross has made his views clear on this matter and I see no further relevance.
<Paul Flynn:> Can I ask a final question?
<Chair:> Briefly, because we are running out of time.
Q146 <Paul Flynn:> Yes, it is a very brief question. Do I sense, in the course of this morning, that your enthusiasm for this job is waning and you might think that the advantages you would bring to the independent Charity Commission might not be as substantial as the loss that the world of biography would suffer by you taking this job?
William Shawcross: No, that is not the case, Mr Flynn.
<Paul Flynn:> Oh dear.