The boldness of Nigel Lawson is a thing of the past
Today's Tories are timid and confused compared to the late chancellor
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.
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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.
… And if the Prime Minister and Chancellor seem smaller than they might, well, they stand in the shadows of giants.
Giants of Conservative thinking and policies which is absent from our current leadership, and instead adopts the civil service cultural Marxism.
One of the very few in the last 50 years to have actually simplified the UK tax system. The rest all seem to be tinkerers who keep coming up with new wheezes to incentivise some group or other and just end up making the whole thing more complex and less efficient. Jeremy Hunt shows many signs of being another “tinkerman”.
That 1980 lecture is worth reading – in particular the part about the simplistic belief that governments can [always] intervene to correct the inefficiencies of the state. He tellingly makes the point that errors and incompetence are at least as widespread in the public sector as the private one. By 1980, we had learned through hard experience the limits of what government and central planning could achieve.
It is the clarity of thinking that impresses most. He didn’t seem to think he had perfect solutions, but was confident enough that those he had were better than anything else on offer and had the determination too push them through. And accept the 20% of things that may get worse that comes with improving 80%.
But this all requires that you’ve spent enough time doing something else before going into politics so you can actually do your own thinking.
What conservatives believe in is reality. It is to roll back the nanny state that always knows better and accept that there is no nirvana to be found in a centrally directed economy or society. Unfortunately, we do not have a conservative government such as that set out so clearly Lawson but one that clings to the unreality of the big state and fails to cut those directly and indirectly employed by the state. It is symbolic that they have facilitated the daft proposal that employers should be financially liable to their staff for the upsetting rudeness of their customers. There is no conservative thinking on display.
Which bits would you cut now JB?
If we needed any confirmation that the free market works, it is the way the titans of Thatcherism solved most of the problems of rented housing in the 1980’s.
And if we need more confirmation, it is the destruction of housing market deregulation and the reappearance of a housing crisis over the last 8 years. How could these Tory pygmy brains be so very stupid?
Eh? Thatcherism is the direct cause of the nightmare that is the current British housing market. Destroying the public housing sector with the short-sighted and politically motivated ‘right to buy’ was a disaster.
I largely agree, albeit the issue was perhaps less, IMO, the ‘right to buy’ and more the blockage on Councils then being allowed to spend those receipts on constructing replacement public housing. Ideologically driven, and we’ve gone back to Rachmanism private sector rental market abuses.
Tosh. Rachman employed nasty thugs with baseball bats and Alsatian dogs. This sort of remark is downright insulting to all landlords, in the Linekar “Nazi” class.of remark.
After the reforms of the 1980’s private rented housing became a proper competitive open market that provided a whole range of properties to renters. It solved most of the problems of the market within 10 years. The last thing we need is councils or indeed any arm of government thinking it can run rental housing businesses. Other than perhaps smallscale temporary housing for emergencies and disasters there are no circumstances in which the state should be involved in the homes of its citizens. Housing Associations are the good alternative to the private sector, but to avoid any interference from Whitehall or Town Hall, they should be transformed into housing cooperatives with length of tenure earning votes.
And as for the idea of letting councils use the money from sales under right to buy to build new accommodation – they can’t run rental businesses, and they certainly can’t build good quality housing.
Councils did very well running rental housing after they had built it post-war, and the quality of build was usually very good.
Now please tell me where in the world decent housing for low-waged workers is available without state provision or serious intervention in the private sector, or both. I can’t think of anywhere but maybe you can.
Lawson’s legacy – intolerable intergenerational and geographical inequality, stagnating productivity, a vast personal debt burden, and the poison of Brexit. The Lawson era spawned all of these.
And privatisation? To lead to more investment in infrastructure and increased efficiency via competition? Just two examples – Gas market/Centrica got rid of strategic storage for short term dividend purposes and Thames Water admitted a c300yr timescale to renew it’s trunk mains. Some success that, and they are but two examples. Natural monopolies looted by its private equity owners.
And then ‘ financial deregulation’ of the financial system in general, and the building societies in particular – the foundation policies of the 2007/8 financial crash as we now know.
Or maybe the liberalisation of the labour market? A legacy of a decline in real wages, stripping workforce rights and bargaining power leading to the Right Wing distraction strategy of blaming immigrants for all this.
And let’s not forget the consistent undermining of capital investment through over-zealous, indiscriminate control of public spending growth.
Private affluence, public squalor is the Lawson legacy.
Along with mass immigration and low interest rates. The blame doesn’t belong to the immigrants but to successive governments both Labour and Tory who thought it was a good idea to import three million people a decade without the consent of the electorate.
Spot on. The only serious privatisation which I can think of which actually worked was BT – and that was by mistake as it turned out that tech advance meant that telecoms was no longer a natural monopoly! Thatcher had some great ideas but ruined them by zealous pursuit driven by ideology not serious thought beyond the short term.
Just unfortunate he spent his latter years in active climate change denial.
Please answer me one question. If someone doesn’t agree with government policy, someone who feels that the government is making too many mistakes, who feels that other parties are also not answering the key questions, who wants a more open dialogue where all views are considered, who wants the truth and nothing else, who wants to see all sides of an issue discussed on TV – is that someone automatically labelled a ‘boomer’ or ‘denier’ in your limited English capability?
How is disagreeing with the consensus actually “denial” ? I understood that he accepted that some warming was happening, but that the best practical response was to adapt to cope with it rather than pursue expensive and perhaps futile policies to try to prevent it. He also noted that warming brings both benefits and costs. Again, how can that reasonably be labelled “denial” ? Heresy perhaps if you must. But it’s a free country and he’s [was] entitled to his views as much as you and I.
We need to ask ourselves why so many people wish to silence the heretics. Open discussion and challenge serves a purpose.
I didn’t say he should be silenced, but he was however more hysterical than a heretic about it. Spoiled his legacy imho.
Understood. An entirely valid view. I didn’t mean to imply that you did (and didn’t read it that way). It’s just that so many people do. If you’re sure of your case, you needn’t feel threatened by challenges.
But again, “denial” does not seem the right word here. I don’t see how you can have a truly honest debate about anything without truly honest language.
Lawson was in complete denial initially, referring to the science as ‘mumbo jumbo’. Later however he seemed to come round and admitted that humans were responsible for climate change, but felt that we were ‘crazy’ to do anything about it. That of course is the economist in him talking and as I come back to frequently, protectionism being the reason why wider international agreement is impossible.
In addition however he founded and became the Chairman of The Global Warming Policy Foundation, which to this very day peddles the kind of garbage that is lapped up by sneering sceptics – now that, was a crime against humanity.
There is no climate crisis. It’s bollocks.
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