The Daily Telegraph by Andrew Orlowski
Much has been written about Nigel Lawson, who died last week, but one quality jumps right off the page. Lord Lawson didn’t very much care if he was liked, and didn’t ingratiate himself with fashionable opinion.
This is exceptionally rare in a politician, as it requires a combination of personal confidence and great courage. Fortunately, Lawson had both in abundance.
What a refreshing contrast to today’s politician or policy operative. Their craving for approval was savaged by James McSweeney in The Critic last week, as the Conservative “Please Invite Me to Dinner Brigade”. This was, he wrote, “a caucus best defined by an obsessive desire to be liked in London media circles and bitter opposition to the core values of their voters”.
By contrast, in his final book Lawson scorns “feelgood measures… popular among parts of the Western middle classes”. Indulging them has only encouraged younger conservatives to trash one of Lawson and Thatcher’s singular intellectual legacies: state aid policy.
When Lawson became financial secretary to the Treasury in May 1979, the intellectual elite across Europe and Western business believed that state aid was a moral duty. The consensus was overwhelming – in 1981, Communists joined Francois Mitterand in his first Cabinet.
Challenging this orthodoxy was almost unthinkable. So the 1979 Conservative manifesto was tentative, reflecting how cautious the new administration felt it had to be. It merely said: “Government strategies and plans cannot produce revival, nor can subsidies. Where it is in the national interest to help a firm in difficulties, such help must be temporary and tapered. We all hope that those firms which are at present being helped by the taxpayer will soon be able to succeed by themselves."
A decade after Lawson left office, the old consensus had been shattered so comprehensively that nations queued up to bind themselves into a complex new framework of international rules designed to inhibit state aid.
The Business Department lists seven such frameworks, four of which are administered by the World Trade Organisation. We left one, of course, the European Union's state aid scheme, after which then-business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng promised a review.
“We will not, of course, return to antiquated command and control methods of economic management, or encourage wasteful use of public money by propping up failing businesses,” he said.
But that was a pious wish too. For once again, we have become a nation of subsidy junkies. Margaret Thatcher’s Methodist thrift is a distant memory.
Today the state is an apparently bottomless pit of prizes. Richard Branson got a little of your money – a few millions – for his now-bankrupt Virgin Orbit. Mobile operators and equipment giants get a little for “network diversification”.
There’s a subsidy to soothe every ailment. When a request to save a failing business is declined - as it was with electric car battery maker Britishvolt - it is so rare that the refusal actually makes the news.
Sadly, some of those who could be heard eulogising Lord Lawson last week have played the largest role in setting fire to his legacy.
The Conservatives once boasted a formidable intellectual apparatus in SW1, but they have become lobbyists for vested interests – for an industry that wouldn’t exist without favours or without government bucking the markets.
This is the “low carbon” energy sector. Scan the list of think tanks – the Centre for Policy Studies, the Social Market Foundation, or newer operations such as Onward and Britain Remade and Net Zero loom very large.
The European Climate Foundation - and, inevitably, Octopus Energy – underwrite much of this work. When the GB News’ presenter Tom Harwood recently eulogised wind and solar energy as “capitalist and cool” on Twitter, he was reflecting the happy-clappy optimism of his social circle. But we were being invited to applaud the jailor who jails us, in the form of high energy prices and low energy security.
Rather than making the case for free markets, where the cost and benefits of the technologies are reflected in their price, this flotilla of “market-friendly” think tanks have become PR operations, obscuring the costs and exaggerating the benefits.
We know that onshore wind is not remotely capitalist thanks to Lord Lawson, too. His most unpopular and thankless cause of all was attempting to create a rational debate about energy policy.
He established The Global Warming Policy Foundation, a tiny operation which is almost unique in discovering the true costs of the green gravy train. The racket isn’t just about subsidies, but about shifting the costs to consumers – and then hiding those fees.
However, the case for maintaining these painful green programmes is vanishing before us. President Biden has devoted an astonishing $369bn (£297bn) in his misleadingly named Inflation Reduction Act to subsiding “low carbon” technology development. For the next five years, developing anything in the United States that qualifies is essentially cost and risk free. This is a massive market distortion. It is also a race we cannot win.
In his 2008 book An Appeal To Reason, the late chancellor warned there would be a price to pay for courting green approval.
“While fine words are cheap and probably politically attractive, the deeds to match them are anything but cheap and almost certainly politically unattractive,” he said.
Lord Lawson couldn’t care less for flattery – and he will surely have the last laugh.