April 4, 2023 - 11:45am

Reading through the obituaries and tributes to Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor who died yesterday aged 91, one has to wonder: will any politician from this period of Conservative government warrant such treatment?

I am instinctively wary of the tendency to populate the past with titans, because like many Tories I am temperamentally inclined towards it. Not the raging pessimism of the true reactionary (“the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes”, as Mark Lilla put it), but the melancholic sense that yesterday was populated by better men.

Yet whatever you think of the Thatcherite project, there was a clarity of thought and will to action to it which is almost impossible to imagine now — and Lawson’s retrospectives help to explain why.

This morning, the Spectator republished an article written by the late Lord Lawson in 1967 in which he set out the case for “an alternative economic policy”, a full 16 years before he entered Number 11 Downing Street, and eight years before the Iron Lady herself even won the Tory leadership.

And here is a 1980 lecture to the Bow Group — then a serious forum for Conservative policymaking, now an irrelevant shadow of its former self — addressing with great clarity the apparent paradox of Thatcherism (then called ‘The New Conservatism’) being simultaneously conservative and a radical departure from the post-war consensus.

Contrast this with more recent experience. 

David Cameron talked about the Big Society. But amongst the aftershocks of the 2008 crash, neither he nor George Osborne were prepared to properly pull back the boundaries of the state and let society fill the gaps. Instead, they tried to keep doing everything with less money, laying the foundations for “shit-state conservatism”. 

Theresa May took the leadership unexpectedly and spent her whole time grappling with Brexit, leaving little in the way of legacy apart from fundamentally compromising the UK’s position in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson had a columnist’s grasp of the possibility for a realignment in the Tory vote, but allowed levelling up to devolve into councils bidding for tiny pots of cash.

Perhaps the most damning contrast was offered, ironically, by Liz Truss, an avowed votary of the Latter-Day Church of Our Lady of Iron. For all the superficial buccaneering spirit of her leadership bid, it was extremely telling that at the London hustings, in the middle of a city gripped by a rent crisis and where the Tory vote is collapsing, she didn’t have a word to say about housing.

For all its flaws, Thatcherism was a clear-slighted and brave challenge to the entrenched forces holding back the Britain of 1975. The comprehensive failure of this generation of Conservative ministers to do the same to the equivalent forces in 2022 is a salutary reminder of how remarkable Lawson and his allies really were.

Today, both Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt cite him as an inspiration. But if any part of Lawson is looking out from that portrait in Number 11, it must surely be despairing. And if the Prime Minister and Chancellor seem smaller than they might, well, they stand in the shadows of giants.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.