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Nigel Lawson. Not Easy to Categorise

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You don’t get many politicians like Nigel Lawson.  Perhaps the best thing about him was his intellectual self-sufficiency, which made him more immune than most from some of the typical politicians’ permanent, minute-by-minute angst that they might not be perfectly-enough positioned (vis-à-vis their party’s leadership, or their meejah image, or whatever else they worry about) for career advancement.  This leaves them always looking over shoulders – their own shoulders, and those of the people they are talking to – checking out the movements of the Important People in the room, metaphorically and actually.  This deeply unattractive paranoia, Lawson avoided better than most.

But it’s all relative, and he did care.  When he first entered the Cabinet as Energy secretary, after David Howell’s pathetic efforts in that job (and there was a paranoid shoulder-checker par excellence), he was overjoyed, and held a sustained round of little parties in his splendid new office for all his friends, showing off like crazy.  He was also very circumspect in his dealings with Mrs T, with whom he disagreed on a lot of economic policy but whose favour he wished to court and to retain – even when he was at the height of his supposed invulnerability.  

A striking example was mortgage interest relief, which everybody knew was a pointless, indeed self-defeating economic distortion which merely served to increase house prices.  Geoffrey Howe, his predecessor as Chancellor, had cautiously mentioned the notion that it might be sensible to phase it out, only to be firmly beaten around the ears by Thatcher, for whom economic logic played a very lowly second fiddle to promoting (even if fallaciously) the idea of sustaining “her” voters in their aspirations.  Lawson, equally keen to scrap the subsidy, decided it wasn’t on, while privately decrying it.  When, at length, he found the bottle to reform just one aspect of this nonsense, he screwed it up tactically by delaying its introduction after the announcement, causing exactly the baleful impact on house prices that theory indicated it would. 

I’d be interested to see an authoritative list of what enduring economic reforms his many admirers would claim for him.  My starter towards this little project: he played an important strategic role in defeating Scargill’s epic strike of ’84-85, both before and during.  That’s not a small achievement: before Scargill was so soundly defeated the whole of the Left in the UK intuitively felt that Thatcher’s regime was only there on sufferance: “Just wait till the miners go out …”. 

Other candidates for the list of achievements?  He certainly played a modest part in opening up the energy markets to competition, starting from the dreadful monopoly arrangements then in place.  But even on that he was half-hearted, despite being wholly persuaded intellectually of the merits of this long overdue measure.  It wasn’t until John Major’s often derided regime that serious progress was made, with a degree of success that made Lawson’s (and Peter Walker’s) efforts look like very uncertain baby steps.  A genuinely confident heavyweight proponent of free markets in his position could have moved much farther and faster. 

Feel free to add to this equivocal story BTL !



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