Nigel Lawson obituary: Economic force under Thatcher who oversaw ‘Big Bang’

Former chancellor latterly became a prominent sceptic on the issue of climate change

Born: March 11th, 1932

Died: April 3rd, 2023

Nigel Lawson, a Conservative politician and journalist who helped turn around Britain’s economy under Margaret Thatcher but who quit the government in a bitter dispute over monetary policy, has died. He was 91.

The BBC reported his death on Monday but did not say where or when he died or give the cause. In a statement, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister and Conservative leader, called Lawson “a transformational chancellor and an inspiration to me and many others”.


After his government service, Lawson went on to become a high-profile sceptic on global warming and was largely eclipsed in the public eye by his daughter, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson.

As chancellor of the exchequer, Lawson was closely associated with Thatcher’s hallmark drive for deregulation and the privatisation of huge state enterprises and utilities, including British Airways, British Telecom and British Gas.

His tax-cutting stewardship of the economy helped turn a budget deficit into a surplus, halved unemployment and curbed inflation. But the so-called Lawson Boom was followed by harder times, with soaring inflation and high interest rates, which rose to 15 per cent from 7 per cent over 16 months.

Lawson also oversaw the so-called “Big Bang,” which in 1986 set off a surge of untrammeled electronic trading on the London Stock Exchange that Lawson later said contributed to the financial crash of 2008.

In his early years, he was regarded as a supporter of the European Union, but he became ever more acerbic in his criticism of the single European currency, the euro, of which Britain was not a member.

Advocating British withdrawal from the EU, Lawson argued that the bloc had veered away from its economic roots to become a political project “to create a megastate, the United States of Europe,” which, he said, did not make sense.

“We don’t want to be little Europeans; we want to be a global player,” he said.

“I think we have a choice,” he told the British newspaper the Independent in 2014. “We either subscribe to this political objective, join the single currency and play our full part in trying to influence it in whatever way we can; or else we can say, ‘No, we don’t share this ambition,’ at which point you have to say, ‘We love you and leave you.’”

In October 2015, Lawson announced that he would head a group called Conservatives for Britain to prepare for a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the EU. He argued that prime minister David Cameron would not secure sweeping enough reforms in Britain’s relationship with the rest of the bloc to justify the country’s continued membership.

Lawson had resigned angrily from Thatcher’s government in October 1989 in a dispute over who was running the economy – the chancellor or Sir Alan Walters, Thatcher’s economic adviser at 10 Downing Street. The dispute revolved around Thatcher’s resistance to pegging the British pound to the deutschmark and a basket of other European currencies.

Diet book

After he left office, Lawson adopted a different lifestyle. Heeding medical advice, he lost 70lbs (31.7kg) and wrote The Nigel Lawson Diet Book in 1996. Despite his aversion to European integration, he divided his time increasingly between London – where, as a life peer, he was a legislator in the House of Lords – and a home in Gascony, in southwest France.

“I lead a kind of double life because my home is deep in la France profonde,” he told The Independent, using the French term for the remote countryside. “So I spend Friday, Saturday, Sunday there, then Monday to Thursday” in London.

Challenging widespread perceptions of a severe threat of global warming, Lawson in 2008 published a climate change manifesto titled “An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming”.

In an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, he wrote scathingly of “the high-profile climate-change travelling circus” made up of scientists and others who expressed alarms at the pace of climate change.

He was founding chair of an advocacy group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, established to expose what he once termed “the intellectual bankruptcy of the climate change establishment” – a campaign he also promoted in lectures, books and articles.

In Lawson’s later years, outsiders’ perceptions of his family focused more and more on his daughter Nigella, particularly during her highly public divorce in 2013 from Charles Saatchi, a British advertising mogul.

Lawson spoke approvingly of his daughter’s growing celebrity as what she called a domestic goddess.

“The fact that when she was young she was known as Nigel Lawson’s daughter, and now I am known as Nigella Lawson’s father, pleases me immensely,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2009. “That’s how generations should pass.”

In 2010, he updated a 1992 autobiography, The View From No 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical.

Nigel Lawson was born in Hampstead, a prosperous suburb in North London, on March 11th, 1932, the son of Ralph Lawson, whom he described as the owner of a small but prosperous tea-trading company in London. His mother, Joan Elisa Davis, was the daughter of a prosperous stockbroker, and the family lived a comfortable life, he said, “complete with nanny, cook and parlourmaid”.

He was educated at the Westminster School and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Christ Church, Oxford.

His first career was as a journalist, writing financial analysis for the Financial Times starting in 1956, one year after he married Vanessa Salmon, a glamorous socialite whose family had founded the ubiquitous Lyons Corner House catering chain.

In addition to Nigella, the couple had three other children – Dominic, who became a prominent journalist, Thomasina and Horatia – before their divorce in 1980. Vanessa Lawson died of liver cancer in 1985 at age 48, while Thomasina Lawson died of breast cancer in 1993 at 32.

In 1980, Nigel Lawson married Thérèse Maclear, a former researcher for the House of Commons. They had a son, Tom, and a daughter, Emily, before their divorce in 2012. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

As a journalist, Lawson was a senior editor at the Sunday Telegraph and later at the Spectator, a weekly, from 1966-1970. But he also showed political ambitions, working as a special adviser to prime minister Alec Douglas-Home in the 1960s and in the Conservative Party headquarters in the early 1970s before his election as a legislator in the constituency of Blaby in the East Midlands in 1974.

He remained the district’s representative in the House of Commons until 1992. In what was seen as a rapid rise, he was appointed financial secretary to the treasury in 1979 and energy minister in 1981 before becoming chancellor of exchequer two years later.

In his later years, Lawson was known to acquaintances in southwestern France as a gregarious and energetic figure committed to promoting his causes.

In 2012, he told the Daily Mail: “The idea that because you’re old you’re completely selfish and think, well, I’ve only got another five or 10 years to live, so I couldn’t care less – that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.