Nigel Lawson: Meet the Man Leading the Drive for Britain to Leave the EU

Nigel Lawson Brexit
Chairman of the U.K.'s Vote Leave group, Nigel Lawson, speaks to guests at Chatham House on February 23, in London. Lawson is among the Conservative heavyweights campaigning to leave the EU Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The first thing that strikes you about Nigel Lawson is how frail he looks. A political heavyweight, who was Margaret Thatcher's longest-serving chancellor, he famously lost five stone after leaving office. Now, his physical stature might be further reduced by age but his intellect remains as imposing as ever. Three decades after his glory days presiding over a period of economic prosperity christened the "Lawson Boom", the irrepressible peer is reveling in his return to the political spotlight. At the age of 83, he has shuffled out of semi-retirement in rural France to take a central role in the battle over Britain's membership of the European Union.

Lawson is no stranger to political warfare; he resigned from Thatcher's cabinet in 1989 after she refused to sanction Britain's membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism—the precursor to the euro. This time he's on the other side. As the chairman of the pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, he will be making a bid to free Britain from a relationship with Europe that he believes has gone rotten. "I'm not thoroughly anti-European, it's the EU that is the problem," he explains, repeating the line echoed by many of Vote Leave's high-profile supporters including London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Lawson's voice, which is punctuated by the odd wheeze, resonates around the cavernous mosaiced hall in the House of Lords where he has agreed to meet. He seems perfectly at home amid the dusty grandeur, a fragile yet steely figure in a well-tailored suit, silhouetted against the chamber's signature red leather benches. "Europe existed long before the EU came into being and will no doubt continue long after it is consigned to the dustbin of history… It is an elitist project."

His view of the union as an undemocratic body chimes with that of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who has recently launched a new political movement, DiEM25, dedicated to reforming EU institutions. Does he feel a sense of solidarity with the leather-jacketed left-winger? "I don't share his communist, or quasi-communist, perspective but [Varoufakis] is right that [the EU] is an anti-democratic, bureaucratic organization. This is particularly unattractive to the British people who have a greater addiction to democracy than pretty much anyone else in Europe."

An arch-strategist, Lawson has been building towards this moment since the U.K. prime minister first announced, in January 2013, that there would be a referendum if the Conservative Party won the general election. In May 2013, Lawson "persuaded" The Times to publish an extended opinion piece in which he outlined his position. "I set out my view that unless [David Cameron's] negotiations led to substantial change we should leave the EU. I also set out my expectation that having lived through the 1975 renegotiation [on the U.K.'s membership of what was then the Common Market] that the outcome would be trivial and inconsequential, which it has proved to be."

Lawson is a suitable figurehead for the Vote Leave group, which is vying with the less high-profile, but more widely supported, Leave.EU, to lead the official Out campaign. It has attracted Conservative rebels such as Johnson, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and former party leader Michael Howard to its banner, but its failure to reach out to Brexiters from other parties could harm its chances of swinging the Electoral Commission's decision, due in early April, in its favor. Gove pointed to his frustration with the restrictive nature of EU laws as the key reason behind his decision to campaign for Brexit in a statement released last week. "Whoever is in government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they're needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn't be in this country," he wrote.

Lawson was faced with similar difficulties during his time in government: "My own experience as chancellor was that I was forced to make changes in indirect taxation [such as VAT], which I would not have made if it hadn't been for the ruling of the European court of justice… Once a policy is in European law there is nothing we can do—it takes supremacy over U.K. law, as a result of the 1972 European Communities Act."

But, does he not accept that some European laws have helped Britain raise standards in areas such as workers' rights, equal pay and parental leave? Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major secured an "opt-out" from the EU social chapter in 1993—covering employment and social laws—but that opt-out was abandoned by Labour premier Tony Blair in 1998. Lawson is dismissive of the notion that any legislative benefits make up for the surrender of the U.K.'s sovereignty. "When I was in government we had a thorough program of deregulation of British laws," says Lawson. "The ones we thought were harmful we got rid of or at least amended, and the ones we thought were good, we kept. But with the European legislation we have to accept the lot."

A deep-rooted economic distrust is at the root of Lawson's desire to unshackle Britain from what he labels a "political project". He is vehemently opposed to the country being drawn further into a "United States of Europe"—a scaremongering phrase more commonly heard during the mid-90s wave of Euroskepticism that dogged Major's government. While he accepts that Cameron's EU reform deal includes an escape route for Britain from being pulled into "ever closer union", in his view the new opt-out does not go far enough to enshrine British sovereignty. The reason for his dissent lies with the EU's continued ability to introduce legislation designed, in his opinion, to assist in the creation of a federalized Europe.

As for the euro, he sees it as an economic experiment that has failed and is damaging those who continue to participate in it: "The only reason the eurozone countries have the single currency is because it is a necessary part of political union. It is a stepping stone that on its own makes no economic sense." When pushed, Lawson admits that the only thing that might have swung his vote in favor of staying in the EU would have been if Cameron had secured an agreement on scrapping the euro. "We haven't even got a fudge on it—they are steaming ahead to ever closer union but we don't have to be part of it," he says sternly.

Another central plank of the Brexiters' argument is that Britain, as the fifth largest economy in the world, would not suffer from making the break with the beleaguered EU, which Lawson calls an economic "disaster story". Greece, whose fiscal woes brought the eurozone to the brink of collapse in 2015 and made Grexit a distinct possibility, was kept in by Germany, possibly because "they felt if Greece left they might do better and that would not be a great advert for the EU," Lawson says. He also points to the strength of the U.S. and Chinese economies and the fact that due to the forces of globalization the world outside Europe is "moving ahead fast."

There's a mix of romance and pragmatism in Lawson's steadfast certainty that being a "self-governing democracy" is the key to Britain's future prosperity. It stems in part from his long-held belief in the value of maintaining a free-market economy. In his prime in the 1980s he might have supported the EU when it abolished trade barriers between nations but now, in the twilight of his career, he sees it as a meddling, transnational institution that brings Britain no benefit. "This is a matter of concern to many people throughout the European Union," Lawson told the Chatham House audience. "But it is a matter of particular concern in this country, with our addiction to freedom and democracy. We have within our grasp a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize control of our destiny—to be free, to prosper, and to stand tall."