Tribute to Lord Lawson
Lord Lawson of Blaby: 11 March 1932 – 3 April 2023 | Alamy
With his irrepressible energy, powerful intellect and sense of mischief, former chancellor Nigel Lawson was one of the most influential politicians never to become prime minister
Even with Donald Trump's drama in New York, the death of Nigel Lawson made front-page news. This was a measure of his impact on politics where his powerful intellect made him one of the most influential politicians never to become prime minister.
He was with Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe one of the main architects of “Thatcherism”: a belief in markets, privatisation, low taxes and limited government.
Nigel Lawson was involved in the Thatcher project from the beginning to almost the very end. Although not a cabinet minister in her first administration, as financial secretary, he was hugely influential in developing the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS ) designed to control money supply, public spending and bring inflation down.
As energy secretary, he became a powerful advocate of privatisation, a policy that had never featured in the Conservative manifesto of 1979. He became an evangelist for wider share ownership.
Sometimes people wrongly thought of Lawson as a technocrat rather than a politician. He had little patience with political tittle tattle but always thought strategically. His budgets accorded with his philosophy but were also designed with an eye on elections. His sense of direction was shown when he built up coal stocks at power stations in preparation for the second miners’ strike. He later described the costs of that strike as "a very good investment".
To those who did not know him, Lawson might appear rather forbidding. But He had a strong sense of mischief and was not averse to making fun of himself. I remember one of his birthday parties where he appeared in a velvet dinner jacket and began to entertain everyone singing like Noel Coward in Las Vegas. He appeared on Have I Got News for You and made wry comments about his nemesis, the former economic adviser Sir Alan Walters.
He didn't just cut taxes. He reformed them, and simplified them
It was in his six years as chancellor that Lawson transformed the British economy to one of faster growth, lower taxes, and a smaller state. His defining moment was the 1988 budget when he cut the top rate of income tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent and the basic rate from 27 to 25 per cent.
But he didn't just cut taxes. He reformed them, and simplified them.
Some commentators praising Lawson’s tax cuts have attempted to use his memory to advocate policies which he strongly opposed. During the Conservative leadership election, he made clear tax cuts depended on getting inflation down first – and needed to be matched by spending cuts. He declared Rishi Sunak to be the only candidate “who understands Thatcherite economics”.
Many people were puzzled by Lawson's attitude to Europe. He supported joining the ERM, but backed Brexit. He was a Gaullist who became increasingly Eurosceptic as European integration developed.
His support for the ERM had nothing to do with Europe and came after he lost faith in targeting monetary aggregates as an anti-inflation policy. He felt anchoring the pound to a strong currency like the Deutschmark would drive down UK inflation. He did not remotely believe in the euro.
It was this attitude to the exchange rate together with the activities of Mrs Thatcher’s adviser Sir Alan Walters, that led to his "falling out "with Mrs Thatcher and his resignation. I tried hard to persuade him not to resign, but had the impression he felt he had been chancellor long enough.
Despite his departure from the government, Lawson always retained the highest regard and affection for Mrs Thatcher. He felt together they had achieved great things.
His energy remained irrepressible. After his elevation to the House of Lords he became one of the leading sceptics about accepted theories of global warming.
It is sometimes said that individuals cannot alter the course of history. Nigel Lawson was the exception. He made a true difference to economic policymaking in Britain and the wider world.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick is a Conservative peer
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.