Nigel Lawson’s successors all failed to escape his shadow
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
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Good morning. Nigel Lawson, tax-cutting chancellor, major figure in the Thatcher government and FT journalist, has died at the age of 91. My first thoughts and condolences are with his family.
One of my real pleasures as political editor at the New Statesman was the occasional email from Lawson. (One lowlight was when, in response to this column, he wrote to my editor, Jason Cowley, saying that I badly needed to read his memoirs, as I had unfairly categorised his falling out with Thatcher, though he thought the overall thrust of the column was itself sound as I recall.)
His life and work is summarised perfectly in our obituary by Barry Riley and George Parker, but his legacy and continued influence over the Conservative party mean he remains very much a living politician. Some thoughts on that legacy in today’s note.
Forever in his shadow?
Nigel Lawson left a shadow over his Conservative successors that none of them have yet been able to escape.
The chancellors who came immediately after him — John Major, Norman Lamont and Ken Clarke — were all in a sense destroyed by his failures. His tax-cutting budgets in the late 1980s prompted the “Lawson boom”, as the UK economy recovered strongly and unemployment halved. Then, both the long hangover of his policies and the unwinding of Britain’s membership of the exchange rate mechanism, shattered the Tory party’s reputation for economic competence and helped usher the Conservatives into the wilderness in 1997, despite the excellent economic performance Major and Clarke oversaw during their final years in office.
But more recent chancellors have been unable to escape the shadow of Lawson’s successful interventions. He later recanted his pro-European past and became the first major figure in the Conservative party to call for Brexit in 2013. Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of Vote Leave, described him as one of the five unsung heroes of the Brexit campaign:
It is hard to remember now, but at the time, this was a genuinely galvanising moment. Despite [David] Cameron’s promise of a referendum, Brexit still felt in many ways like a fringe position.
For Lord Lawson, a man venerated by many Tories, to come out into the open on the issue made it intellectually and politically possible for others to do the same. To use a term from political science, he extended the Overton Window on what was acceptable to think and say in the European debate.
Lawson’s decision to step in briefly as the chair of Vote Leave also helped steady the Brexiter campaign at a time when it might have detonated at launch. His vital role in taking the UK out of the EU directly brought about the downfall of George Osborne, the man who helped bring the Conservatives out of the ashes of 1997 and into office.
Osborne’s successor, Philip Hammond, was a curious political throwback: economically and socially conservative, a defender of the UK’s membership of the single market, he was in many ways the Tory party’s last authentic original Thatcherite. The intellectual revolution in the Conservative party that Lawson had helped to bring about made him an isolated figure who was able to achieve very little at the Treasury.
Hammond’s next three replacements — Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi — all struggled with the same essential problem: that the political promises made by the Conservatives in 2019 to get Brexit over the line made it impossible to deliver the type of economic policies that Lawson had. Sunak famously had a portrait of Lawson on his wall, but in office he raised taxes to historic highs.
Kwasi Kwarteng’s doomed short stint at the Treasury was in many ways a result of over-imbibing the myths, rather than the reality, of what Lawson did and how he did it.
Jeremy Hunt, now serving in Number 11, is again in circumstances constrained in part by the Brexit that Lawson helped cause. While Hunt confronts a situation entirely unlike that of Lawson’s day, he still finds himself unable to escape the legend of the man who was surely the Conservatives’ most consequential chancellor of the 20th century.
A note on trophy hunting
My column this week reflects on our own eating habits, as a ban on importing into Britain hunting trophies — lion pelts, warthog tusks and the like — reaches the House of Lords.
Now try this
If you’re in the hunt for a well-made but ultimately incredibly silly film, you really must see John Wick Chapter 4, a ridiculous action movie full of great set pieces. If you haven’t seen the others, all you really need to know is that Keanu Reeves is a retired, widowed hitman who is forced back into the business and has since been declared an unperson, or “excommunicado” by his fellow assassins at the start of the film. It’s beautiful to look at but it’s vapid as anything. For a less favourable review, here’s Leslie Felperin.
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