Nigel Lawson: Rejecting the ideology

Written by Sam Macrory on 1 May 2014 in Interview
Interview
The former chancellor to Margaret Thatcher and Conservative peer has become one of the loudest voices against mainstream arguments about the science of climate change. He discusses his scepticism – and displeasure at his party’s attempts to go green – with Sam Macrory
When they enter their ninth decade, not many politicians find themselves in the position of being a pin-up for a political cause. Quiet retirement, a directorship or two, and a well-furnished office in the House of Lords is normally enough to pass the time.

But at the grand age of 82, Nigel Lawson, who last sat round a cabinet table as Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor a quarter of a century ago, is a figurehead for a movement. His cause isn’t a popular one, but then to Lawson, that’s exactly the point: “The more important an issue, the more important that it is debated,” is the Lawson line, and as he strides purposefully through the Upper House it’s clear that this is a particular debate he has no intention of losing.

In 2008, the same year the Labour government’s Climate Change Act became law, Lawson published An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, in which he argued that, while global warming is happening, the scientific community’s consensus behind its reasons is flawed, and the policies being pushed to tackle rising temperatures are ill-thought out. And anyway, global warming, he suggested, may be no bad thing. So humankind should focus on adapting to the extra degrees, rather than ploughing resources into preventative measures.

A previous Lawson title had revealed his diet tips – he was five stone heavier in his time as the occupant of 11 Downing Street – but his latest treatise presents a recipe, with all the trimmings, which stunned and delighted opposing sides of the climate change debate.

Encouraged by the response, and perhaps relishing in the notoriety – Lawson once warned that “a popular chancellor is not doing his job” – the following year Lawson set up the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a base from which he resolutely takes on anyone, scientist, politician, activist, who he believes has lost themselves to the ideology of climate change.

Not surprisingly, he sees enemies everywhere, and just as predictably, his opponents see Lawson as public enemy number one.

To Ed Davey, the Lib Dem energy secretary, Lawson is one of the “diabolical” examples of who he calls “flat-earthers.” The former chancellor sadly shakes his head when reminded of Davey’s description. “When anybody has to resort to abuse of that kind it is always a sign that they have a very poor case,” he dismissively replies. “If you have a good case, you don’t need to resort to abuse. I would be surprised if there are many round the cabinet table, for example, who take the view that Ed Davey does.”

Davey isn’t the only opponent of the Lawson cause. Steve Jones, the academic behind a 2011 BBC Trust report on science coverage and impartiality, recently complained that BBC News was “sticking two fingers” up to BBC management in giving Lawson airtime in the climate change debate. Fittingly, mention of Jones seems to lower the temperature in the room a notch or two.

“It was a deplorable report,” Lawson snaps. “He is completely irrational on this issue. It’s not an issue he has any expertise on – he’s a geneticist, and has a rather narrow expertise in that field. No doubt he’s very good in his own area but he knows nothing about this. He would like to see no debate, no challenge allowed at all on the BBC, which I think is unacceptable. He has taken an uninformed and extreme view.”

The Green Party’s suggestion, meanwhile, to ban politicians who don’t believe in climate change from government posts and shutting down debate is dismissed as “utterly repugnant – it is a sign of the intolerance that there is on that side of the debate. I don’t think you should take the Green Party seriously.”

And even the views of the prime minister, who recently told the Commons that he suspected there was a link between the UK’s February floods and climate change, are dismissed. “I think that was an off-the-cuff remark. He’s not a scientist,” Lawson says of David Cameron’s comments. “The scientists have made it clear that there is no established link.”

The scientists who suggest otherwise must despair. Lawson, who was an MP for nearly two decades, and at one point the longest-serving chancellor since David Lloyd George, has total, unflinching faith in his convictions. Throw him an argument about the dangers of climate change or the need to act now, and Lawson simply tosses it away. Present a fact that opposes his view and he’ll explain why the numbers are flawed. Each mention of an opponent, or opposing view, is dismissed dryly and with neither fluster or bluster, even when it involves the work of over a hundred international climate change experts.

The week before we meet, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report into global warming was published, and the message, in a report Davey describes as “the most scientifically credible piece of work in human history”, was clear. Global warming is happening, has been caused by man, and preventative measures must be taken immediately. “The high-speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society needs to get on board,” said the IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri.

Lawson, as ever, disagrees, describing the IPCC as “basically a political organization”, pointedly noting that Pachauri is “not a scientist”, and suggesting that the report is being spun by the UN to force a successor to the Kyoto agreement on emissions.

“The Kyoto agreement came to an end a little while back. The political object is focused on the Paris meeting on the UN framework provision on climate change next year. They are desperately hoping to get an agreement at Paris next year and the only way they can really get it – I don’t think they will – is if they scare people into it. This is what the purpose is.

“So given that, I’m not surprised they’ve tried to present it in as scary a way as they possibly can. The final press release is something which is agreed by the governments: it is not the scientists who write it, but the governments who are committed to particular policies. It has to be seen as what it is, particularly the presentation to the public, which is a political act.”

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Nigel Lawson was a dry-as-dust chancellor during Thatcher’s premiership, and a very different Conservative to her rather more Keynesian predecessor Harold Macmillan, but he would agree entirely with Macmillan’s observation that when all sides of the House agree on an issue then they are usually wrong:

“What one has to do is reject the ideology and religion and apply common sense and reason,” Lawson remarks, when asked to explain his position, adding that “it would seem” that Davey has signed up the cult.  “The argument is very much between those who apply reason, as I try to do, and those who are in the grip of an ideology – it has become a complete ideology. There probably is some kind of problem. I don’t think it is the worst problem the world faces by a long chalk – think of the appalling things happening in Syria or the Central African Republic – and to say so is lunatic. Given this is happening, we don’t know how much, nobody knows how much, it is extremely uncertain, all the models they use to prove it have been proved wrong. So we ought to address it calmly, reasonably and rationally.”

For Lawson, that means focusing on adaptation to rising temperatures, an approach which he says is gaining a “grudging recognition”. He explains two “obvious” arguments for it: “One is you do not need a global agreement, you can go ahead and adapt and different countries will want to adapt in different ways. The other thing, which is even more important and has become clear, grudgingly again, is there are some benefits of a warmer planet, particularly for human health – cold is far more damaging to human health – and better crop yields.

“Adaptation enables you to pocket all the benefits while minimising as far as you can the disadvantages. In my opinion this is the only rational course.”

He deplores the 2008 Climate Change Act, opposed by just five MPs, which sees Britain committed to reducing its carbon emissions.

“We have a crazy energy policy,” Lawson complains. “More and more people are concerned that, maybe next winter, the lights will go out. We have a lunatic policy in this country. This is because we don’t have an energy policy at all. We have a decarbonisation policy. The idea that we are leading the world… Just look at the rest of the world: they have not the slightest intention of following us.”

But only this February the Chinese and the US signed a “unique co-operative effort” to tackle climate change. Haven’t Chinese minds turned on this issue?

“No they haven’t,” Lawson interrupts. “It is all talk. Both in the case of the US and China. There are some things that China is genuinely planning to do – increase its energy efficiency, which is sensible, but that is a completely different matter from going over to wind or solar. The Chinese aren’t doing that. They are heavily into coal.

“It is sensible to use the most economic form of energy. To use more expensive forms than you need to is damaging to your economy. This is why our example is not going to be followed – the Chinese know that this would make their energy costs far more expensive. This would interfere with their economic growth and development and they don’t want to do that. They say things, but you don’t want to listen to what they say, you want to see what they do.”

Wind and solar leave Lawson deeply unimpressed, and he describes offshore wind as “probably the most expensive form of electricity generation known to man, so you are damaging your economy seriously.”  This is not, he insists, an argument over “whether you think the environment is important or not”, pointedly noting that, “if you really cared about the environment then you wouldn’t be littering the glorious English countryside with all these forests of wind turbines and solar panels, which are hideous.” Instead he says that as fossil fuels are “far and away the least expensive form of energy”, then it is “sensible” to use them: Lawson, a former energy secretary, describes “the shale gas revolution is the most exciting thing that has happened in the energy field within living memory.”

Not so exciting, it seems, that the government can agree on what to do about it – green groups oppose the controversial use of fracking to release the shale gas, while Ed Davey took until last year to lend his cautious support to shale.

“Ostensibly the Liberal Democrats have accepted the Conservative line on this. In fact, they are dragging their feet in every way they can… Ed Davey has been dragging his feet to develop these indigenous shale gas resources,” is Lawson’s take on the debate.

“Of course they are in a particularly strong place to do that because the energy department, when I say energy department I mean the climate change department, is headed by a Liberal Democrat.” And that decision to hand DECC to the Lib Dems in 2010, says Lawson, “has proved to be a big strategic mistake.”

It all sounds a long way removed from the Conservative Party’s 2010 election promise that to vote blue was to go green. Not surprisingly, it was a slogan which left Lawson distinctly unimpressed.

“I never had any sympathy for it,” he states, rejecting the “false analysis” that the Conservative brand had “become toxic” and required a “complete” makeover.

“What people were concerned about were living standards and the economy, so to focus elsewhere was crazy. That’s not what people were concerned about. The Labour Party, Gordon Brown – there were world factors as well – had presided over the most ghastly economic crisis and banking meltdown that we had known for a long time. People were concerned about that, and that’s what the Conservatives should have focused on, saying ‘we will sort that out’ – they’re doing that now – instead of all that ‘vote blue, go green’ nonsense.”

So he approves, presumably, of David Cameron’s reported request to get rid of the “green crap”? “I don’t know whether he said it or not,” Lord Lawson replies, adding, with just a hint of a smile: “But if he did, I fully understand why.”

Why doesn’t the prime minister put his name to the quote? If, as Lawson argues, Davey is in a minority view round the cabinet table, why don’t the ministerial climate change sceptics stick their heads above the parapet? “It doesn’t look particularly good in government if governments appear divided,” Lawson replies, suggesting a cabinet rife with sceptics. “It is quite normal to have differences of view round a cabinet table but you don’t air these in public.”

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At the next general election, it is safe to predict that Cameron will not publicly declare that he has signed up to the Lawson doctrine on global warming, but at the very least Lawson wants to see his party ditch its 2010 green pretensions. Because if it was a vote-loser in 2010, then the rise of UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage is on a mission to tear down, “ugly, disgusting, ghastly windmills”, threatens to take even more advantage in 2015.

“UKIP is an opportunist party – well, it’s hardly a party, it’s one man,” Lawson argues. “He is an opportunist and when he sees the Conservative Party getting on the wrong side of an argument like this, obviously that presents him with an opportunity, but I think that the Conservative Party will gradually move its position. There are signs it is doing so now.”

He may see the signs, but Lawson sounds sufficiently worried by the freewheeling Farage to send a clear signal to would-be UKIP voters.

“The real problem is that when the general election comes – it doesn’t matter about the European elections – a vote for UKIP is effectively a vote for Labour. That is the real danger. That is why it is important that Conservative voters – even if they are, for whatever reason, whether  it’s climate change or anything, attracted to Mr Farage – shouldn’t vote for his party because that will openly help the Labour Party and raise the prospects of a Labour government.”

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, still enjoys a poll lead ahead of the Conservatives, but Lawson believes that is not “the real problem, it’s neither here nor there.”

Instead he identifies a headache far closer to home: having enjoyed the no-compromises-necessary approach of Thatcher’s 1980s government, Lawson is far from happy about the need for his party to do business with the Liberal Democrats.

“The real problem for the Conservatives is the bias in the electoral system,” he argues, before launching into an attack on the Lib Dems for refusing to vote for a redrawing of constituency boundaries – the pay-off for their referendum on the voting system – after House of Lords reform was rejected.

“The Liberal Democrats, unfortunately, have been the most disloyal coalition colleagues you could possibly find. There was a deal done. So clear was this a deal that the two bits were put in the same Act of Parliament. Conservatives duly delivered, we had the referendum, and the Liberals reneged. It was the most disgraceful behaviour. There had been a clear agreement.”

Does fighting on the old boundaries mean defeat is inevitable? “No, I don’t think it is too big a hurdle to overcome but it’s a massive hurdle and it makes it difficult,” Lawson replies, though he sees a reason for optimism in the country’s improved economic fortunes. Lawson is seen as a major influence on George Osborne, a politician said to be even less convinced by ‘green crap’ than the prime minister might be, though the former chancellor has not been afraid to criticise the incumbent’s work: in 2012, he suggested that Osborne should give up on his strategic role and focus solely on his Treasury responsibilities.

In 2014, Lawson says, Osborne has found the right balance. “Yes. It’s not new that budgets are political; there’s always been a political dimension. Maybe George is a little more political than most chancellors, but no chancellor who is not political can do the job. I think he thought through this budget very thoroughly and as a result it is a good budget.”

Not that Lawson would have done things exactly the same way. He had argued for a cut in the 40p rate of income tax, a tax band which, when Lawson introduced it, was a “rate the rich have to pay… it has now come down to a lot of people who are not poor, but are certainly not rich.”

Though pleased that Osborne moved “a little bit” on tax rates, Lawson believes, “it is likely that a Conservative government would recognise that the 40% threshold comes in at too low a level of income.”

He also warns that “there is a risk” of the two coalition partners getting into a bidding war over who can raise the tax threshold furthest and take people out of tax altogether. A Lib Dem pledge in 2010, the policy has proved popular and is one which the Conservatives are keen to claim credit for. Lawson is not convinced.

“You’ve got to look after the poor, but that is basically the job of the social security system,” Lawson argues. “Taking people out of tax simply reduces the size of the constituency of the country who want to see lower tax, which means that they will always be in favour of higher spending and that makes control of public expenditure more difficult.

“Look, the Conservatives are in favour of lower taxes, at least they always have been. They have had to reach agreement with the Liberal Democrats and that has affected the nature of the budgets that George has introduced.”

It’s a decidedly tepid assessment of the policy, but even so, Lawson is all for Osborne basking in its popularity. “Certainly, he signed up to that and he’s perfectly entitled to take the credit.”

On another popular government policy, the Help to Buy scheme, Lawson is even less convinced. As an immediate move he wants to see the threshold brought down from £600,000 to say £300,000 “so that, in effect, it would cease to operate in London which is an overheated market – there is practically nothing in London which is under £300,000, but it would still be a benefit in the north where there is no overheated housing market. You don’t need to boost the housing market in London, certainly.”

By and large, however, Lawson believes that Osborne, “can rightly take a modest pride that he has stuck to his guns, stuck to plan A, and the economy is recovering very well.”

The line of praise is telling. When it comes to climate change – or, if you prefer, global warming – Nigel Lawson sticks rigidly to every weapon he can lay his hands on, firing off salvo after salvo as those who believe in man-made climate change, and what needs to be done to counter it, move in for the kill. An economist, author and politician, he also has another reason to fight his cause – this grandee is also a grandfather.

“People know that there is no problem for anybody living today, because the problem that the alarmists foresee, in fact if you analyse it, is in the next century,” he concludes. “There are very few people alive today who are going to be alive in the next century. I’m more concerned about people alive to today. We need to focus in part on the developing world, where there is huge poverty, on ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, rather than being obsessed with a possible future problem for those as yet unborn. You do the best for those as yet unborn by having the fastest rate of economic development and growth so that you have the resources to cope with whatever problems nature throws at you, and by weakening our resources I don’t think we’re looking after future generations any more than we are looking after the present generation.”

With that, Lord Lawson finishes his coffee and prepares to return to his home in France – he flies, naturally – for the Easter break. Whether you agree with him or not, his belief in his cause, and determination to fight for it, is admirable. Whether he is right, or not, is a question only future generations will be able to answer. A pin-up today, but as Lord Lawson will know, hindsight is the only exact science. ■

 

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