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Paul Vallely: Nigel Lawson’s legacy damaged the UK

06 April 2023

The reforms he began have unravelled society’s fabric, argues Paul Vallely


Nigel Lawson at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth in 1986

Nigel Lawson at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth in 1986

SOMETHING was missing from the lavish tributes paid by leading Conservatives on the death of Nigel Lawson, who, in the 1980s, was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the heart of the Thatcher revolution, which cut taxes for the rich from 60 to 40 per cent, slashed public spending, and privatised public utilities, including gas, electricity, water, and railways. What was missing? A sense of context and consequence.

Lord Lawson was “a transformational Chancellor”, said the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. He “transformed our thinking as well as . . . our economy”, the current Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said. Lawson would be remembered “for his clarity of thinking, commitment to free-market economics, and willingness to challenge orthodoxies”, the Tory Party chairman, Greg Hands, said.

No one made the obvious link between the Lawson legacy and the rest of that morning’s news: £250 million axed from the promised care budget, furious teachers rejecting a below-inflation pay rise, and unprecedented levels of sewage discharged into our rivers — to which the Government’s response was to announce a ban on plastic in wet wipes, a ban that it announced five years ago without implementing.

True, the Lawson boom boosted the economy after 1986, but denationalisation has placed key public utilities in the hands of private owners who have extracted large sums of cash from the UK — while leaving our rivers and railways in chaos. Ordinary customers are paying exorbitant gas and electricity bills, while energy companies chalk up record profits.

The Lawson model of public-spending cuts has been followed by subsequent Conservative Chancellors. Thirteen years of Tory austerity have damaged our schools, hospitals, childcare, and transport. The NHS has 110,000 vacancies. Pledges to recruit more doctors are made and broken. For the first time in a century, life expectancy has fallen, especially in poor areas. Infant mortality has risen. Child poverty is at its highest level since the Second World War. State spending per child has fallen from £11,300 to £10,000. Decades of the reforms inaugurated by Lawson are unravelling the fabric of our society.

That is not all. One of the great Lawson triumphs was the Big Bang of 1986, when deregulation of the City’s financial markets brought a new freedom, which strengthened London as a financial capital. But the price of the booming City was the decline of the nation’s heavy industry. In 2010, Lord Lawson admitted that the 2007 financial crisis was the “unintended consequence” of his Big Bang.

Nigel Lawson, another Thatcher Cabinet member, Lord Baker, said, was an intellectual who “worried about the balance between the State and the individual”. Perhaps he did not worry enough. As the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, pointed out in Thought for the Day the same morning, there are two types of freedom. Negative liberty frees us from the control of others, but freedom without responsibility means slavery to our basest desires. When God told Moses to tell Pharoah to “let my people go”, he added the rider “in order that they may serve me”.

True freedom connects rather than isolates us. Our individual freedom is inextricably linked to the freedom of others. That is an insight that today’s Conservatives would do well to relearn.

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