Lawson’s Case

Peter Clarke

  • The View from No 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical by Nigel Lawson
    Bantam, 1119 pp, £20.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 593 02218 1

In a publishing season of big books, this must be the biggest. Nigel Lawson learned his trade as one of the ‘teenage scribblers’, whom he later disparaged, on the Financial Times. ‘The length that comes most naturally to me is, not surprisingly, that of a rather long newspaper article,’ he observes. His old skill in knocking out a story in a series of effective paragraphs has not deserted him, but here he has joined them up, story by story, each with its own sub-head, into no fewer than 81 chapters, not to mention fifty pages of annexes. The reason is evident. Since his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1989, he has been left with a double burden: not only time hanging heavy on his hands but a mission to explain and to justify weighing equally heavy on his mind. And a good mind it is too. There is an impressive sense of intellectual engagement in this account which carries the flagging reader along, with incisive passages of real penetration redeeming the dense thickets of involuted detail in which we sometimes become trapped.

The author offers his 20-page table of contents as ‘an à la carte menu’, from which the reader is invited to pick and choose. In a Chinese restaurant the chef’s specials would have to be Numbers 7, 18, 27, 33, 36, 50-51, 65 and 78. Each of these chapters gives an inimitable insight into the making and implementation of Conservative economic policy in the Thatcher era. Here, successively, we find an explanation of the medium-term financial strategy by its author; a rationale of the privatisation programme by a true believer; an exposition of Lawson’s agenda for tax reform; ‘My Monetary Principles’; a critique of the retrospective Thatcherite myth that Lawson’s chancellorship brought a golden age of monetarism to a sorry conclusion; two linked chapters on the relation between the end of deregulation and the credit boom of the late Eighties; an apologia for the strategy adopted in the controversial Budget of 1988; and finally an extended perusal of the balance sheet as it looked at the end of ten years in office.

All this, in little over a hundred pages, cuts to the core of the political economy of ‘Thatcherism’: a term which the author claims to have established, in a speech he made as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1981 (though he has the grace to concede that ‘the recherché, and now defunct, publication Marxism Today’ had actually got there first). What does Humpty Dumpty mean by it? ‘The right definition,’ he tells us, ‘involves a mixture of free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, “Victorian Values” (of the Samuel Smiles self-help variety), privatisation and a dash of populism.’ And the wrong definition? Why, of course, ‘whatever Margaret Thatcher herself at any time did or said’. She was, admittedly, ‘the indispensable element of the revolution which so astonished Whitehall’ – at least at the outset. Latterly, however, Lawson hardly even pretends that he has come to praise Thatcher rather than to bury her. Instead, as an inspired advocate in his own cause, he conducts a densely satisfying and tautly constructed defence of ‘Thatcherism’ as theory, as policy and as a grand historical experiment.

If these chapters are the intellectual spine of the book, there are others on the menu which flesh out the story of the Thatcher Government with more immediacy. For example, Chapter 3 describes how the Thatcher Government took office, determined to break the post-war consensus. More ambitiously, there is Chapter 8 on the thorny problem of just how to control the money supply. Only in Chapter 21 does Lawson actually become chancellor. The author allows himself a moment of relaxation at this point: he tells us that the news made his wife Thérèse burn a hole in the shirt that she was ironing, he notes that the Prime Minister’s only word of advice to him at their first interview was to get his hair cut, and he reveals his disappointment that the total staff at No 11 consisted of one doorman who had to double up as switchboard operator and tea-maker. Chapter 30 takes us back to the principles of personal taxation and explains the psychology of taking a penny off the basic rate in the 1986 Budget, in order to whet the public’s appetite. In Chapter 40 the reader observes the initial effort to cajole Thatcher into joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), discovers her resolve to do no such thing, contemplates the missed opportunity of 1985, and makes a first encounter with the Prime Minister’s éminence grise, Professor Walters.

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