Editorial: The new chair's political baggage

Strong political opinions expressed in the past don't necessarily mean William Shawcross will not be an effective leader of the Charity Commission, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The Charity Commission has been through some stormy times recently and is not a particularly happy ship. That's why it seemed important to appoint, without an interregnum, a new chair who was demonstrably impartial politically and had a record of wise administration and consensus-building.

In the event, the interregnum has not been avoided, but will be no longer than two months: the government's choice, the author and journalist William Shawcross, is going to start in October. The more contentious question of his political impartiality was explored by the Commons select committee on public administration last week.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the committee concluded that Shawcross would not be a suitable appointment, citing a 2010 article by him on the right-wing US website National Review in which he attacked Gordon Brown in vitriolic terms and concluded that only the Conservatives could bring the UK "back from the abyss".

Given that the committee voted by four to three in favour of the appointment, the government has simply ignored the dissenters. But the episode means Shawcross will start his tenure as a controversial figure, dogged by some outspoken political views just as his predecessor was dogged by her membership of the Labour Party.

There is a sense in which the government is doing what governments tend to do - appointing one of their own. Shawcross is an old Etonian, the official biographer of the Queen Mother and, it seems, a Conservative supporter. How much that matters in the grand scheme of things depends on how good a chair he proves to be.

On the face of it, he looks more like an individualist than an organisation man. He has made his reputation as a polemical writer on international affairs. There is no intrinsic reason why someone like that should not be a good chair. The government cites his intellectual and analytical credentials, and maybe he will challenge some of the orthodoxies and complacencies of the commission. No one should write him off before he starts, and clearly there is a lot to play for.

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