The House Magazine: Interview With Nigel Lawson
More active than many peers half his age, Lord Lawson is busier than ever. And from shale gas to wind farms, from tax cuts to EU reform, the former Chancellor’s views are taken seriously in both the Treasury and No 10.
“I think it’s appropriate that George Osborne is dieting,” Nigel Lawson says, with a knowing smile.“Controlling public expenditure is about saying ‘No’ and sticking to it. And dieting is exactly the same.”
As a former chancellor of the exchequer and the author of his own best-selling diet book, Lord Lawson of Blaby knows whereof he speaks on the issue of belt-tightening. And with a sprightliness and energy that belie his 82 years, one of the Tory party’s biggest of big beasts is relishing his role as a troublesome éminence grise.
The recipient of The House magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year, he’s helped redraft the UK’s banking regulation, runs a thinktank on climate change and is a constant critic of HS2 and the EU. A regular attendee in the House of Lords, Lord Lawson appears to be more politically active than at any time since his departure from Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet 25 years ago. Far from resting on his laurels, he’s as focused on the future as any new intake MP.
Energy policy is one of his chief passions, not least since the creation of his own Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2009. But his keen interest in the issue stretches back to the early 1980s, when he was Margaret Thatcher’s energy secretary. With the coal strike looming, Lawson sought to redefine the way the UK bought and sold energy. Given the way the subject has soared up the political agenda of late, does he think he was ahead of the game?
“I do, if I may say so,” he says. “If you want an impartial witness, the leading energy economist in this country is Professor Dieter Helm, who has written the definitive account of British energy policy since the war. He says that the 1982 speech which I made to a meeting of the International Association of Energy Economists in Cambridge was the most important speech ever made by an energy secretary and it defined the whole of our energy policy for a long time to come.”
The main thrust of that speech was to say there is no reason to treat energy any differently from any other area of policy, despite the habit of British governments to interfere in the largely state-owned industry. “A sensible energy policy should be part and parcel of our economic policy,” Lawson says. “And just as our economic policy was to give the state a reduced role and to give market forces a greater role, so that should apply to energy as well.” Crucially, he prepared the ground for the gas and electricity privatisations to come.
The former chancellor has long defied the conventional wisdom on climate change too. When the world was congratulating itself on the Kyoto Treaty in 2004, Lawson was among those who wrote a letter to the Times warning of uncertainties in the science. Last year, he won a bet with Oliver Letwin that Kyoto would expire without any successor in place.
“I was not the first, but I think that certainly I realised very early on that this had been accepted as gospel by people who had not done any proper analysis,” he says. “It’s a new religion. That is why it is so difficult to change people’s minds, because they are not interested in the facts – it’s a belief system.” The Treasury still strong in his bones, he says the real issue is not so much the science as the policy response and a proper cost-benefit analysis. “What is the extent of the damage? And how does it compare with the benefits from warming? Because there undoubtedly are benefits, even the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] accepts that; it’s where does the balance lie?
“Then there is also the political issue that because it’s an extremely costly policy, it means we go from relatively cheap and reliable energy to relatively expensive and unreliable energy. And you’re not getting any benefit on the climate front because there isn’t a global agreement.”