With political battles yet to wage, the former Chancellor shows no sign of slowing down at 80.
Tomorrow I shall turn 80. I enter my ninth decade a happy man. When, on leaving the House of Commons 20 years ago, I brought out a very large book of memoirs, my opening sentences were: “This is not an autobiography, but a ministerial, and in particular a Chancellorial, memoir. In other words, it excludes all that is most important in life.” It has always been clear to me that it is one’s private life that matters most, and where true happiness is to be found, if it is to be found at all. On the whole, life has been kind to me. But on one score I confess to a sense of failure.
It had been my intention, on my 80th birthday, to launch my last book. It had occurred to me that, in a long and active life, I had accumulated a considerable store of experience and engaged in a considerable amount of reflection along the way. So there might be some merit in distilling some of this in a book. It would, of course, cover both politics and economics, areas in which I have been publicly involved for quite a time now. But it would also address philosophy, ethics, religion, democracy, public and private life, women and men, England and France (I live in both), bringing up children, love, music, cricket – and a lot more besides.
The great attraction of it, for a lazy man like me, was that I would not need to bother about a structure at all. It would simply be a series of short essays, arranged in alphabetical order as in an encyclopedia. But I have not even started it.
My excuse is that, at a late age, I have, much to my own surprise, embarked on a wholly new career. I have never been one to dwell on the past, and have a weakness for new challenges. After leaving the House of Commons, writing my memoirs, and going on the customary ex-ministerial talk circuit, I observed increasing interest among our new leaders in the subject of global warming, aka climate change, and in particular in policies to combat this new and allegedly existential threat. So I decided thoroughly to inform myself about it. Having been Secretary of State for Energy 30 years ago, I had the advantage of some familiarity with at least one of the dimensions of this multifaceted issue.
It did not take long to detect all the signs of collective madness, of which fanaticism is one telltale symptom, and an absence of rationality another. So, at the age of 76, I brought out a book which, politically incorrectly, sought to bring the searchlight of reason to the subject. My book, which had the greatest difficulty in finding a publisher, proved surprisingly successful, no doubt because of its scarcity value.
Urged by enthusiastic readers to follow it up in some way, I did so by founding a think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I had never had anything to do with think tanks before, nor felt the slightest inclination in that direction. But it has proved a considerable success, thanks in particular to the excellent full-time director I was able to find and appoint.
However, it still involves a considerable amount of work for me, and not simply in fund-raising, as a very hands-on chairman. It is, in fact, one of the few areas where there is a positive advantage in having an old man at the helm. Young scientists and young politicians feel obliged to keep their heads down and toe the line: research grants and promotion prospects are withheld if they do not. Anyone who dissents has to expect vilification. At my age and stage I am inured to vilification and, more importantly, I am able to speak truth to power, as they say, because my career is behind me.
There is another way, too, in which old age probably adds clarity and perspective. Part of the global warming madness is the conceit that we can know what the temperature of the planet will be, and where technology will be, in a hundred years’ time. The notion that the magic of computer models provides us with a reliable crystal ball is not science but one of the great superstitions of our age. The somewhat self-contradictory mantra of the warmists appears to be that, while the science is certain (which, in fact, in crucial respects, it is not), the consequences are highly uncertain, but bound to be bad; so we must fear the worst. This is simply irrational catastrophism, the explanation for which is most likely to be found in social psychology.
As for the development of technology, which is crucial both for assessing the impact of any warming that might occur and for our ability to adapt to it, I recall that when I was a child air travel scarcely existed and television didn’t exist at all. Today, all three of my daughters work wholly or partly in television (when I was a child, before the war, pretty well the only women who worked outside the home were secretaries and domestic servants), and my own weekly commute between London and la France profonde means that four long airport walks a week give me all the exercise I want.
The idea that we can intelligently take major, and very costly, policy decisions now on the basis of what the world is going to be like in a hundred years’ time is arrogant folly.
Part of the problem is the degradation of politics which has occurred since my time. I refer to image-led politics, driven largely by the belief that this is what goes down best with the media. “Saving the planet” is a great image, and can readily be illustrated by sentimental nonsense about polar bears and the like. The fact that the policies it spawns are both intellectually incoherent and economically harmful is, nowadays, neither here nor there.
Another part of the problem is that the disastrous conventional wisdom on this issue is embraced by all three political parties. Over many years I have observed that when all three parties are agreed on something they are more than likely to be wrong. There is a very good reason for this. When an issue is not subject to vigorous debate it is not properly examined, and there are few surer sources of costly error than this. Margaret Thatcher, who believed firmly in the merits of vigorous debate, detested the very idea of consensus. She had a point.
But I must admit that devotion to the public interest is not the only thing that has led me to espouse this cause and embark on this new career in the twilight of my life. I mentioned earlier that I am not one to dwell on the past. That is not because I have any regrets about my past, whether as a politician and minister or, before then, as a journalist and editor. I do not. But life is far more stimulating if, from time to time, one opens a new chapter.
It was for this reason that, a little over 10 years ago, when I was liberated by the fact that, for the first time in almost 40 years, I was no longer the parent of a child of school age, I decided to have a home – a real home, not a holiday home – in south-west France. I love living there. But what I love even more is being able to lead, in the best possible sense, a double life: a busy metropolitan life in London from Monday to Thursday, and a slow, relaxed and tranquil life in deepest rural France from Friday to Sunday, where I can think and write. The tedious hassle of the twice-weekly long-distance commute, complicated by my artificial knee setting off the airport security alarms every time, is a price well worth paying for this.
Be that as it may, chairing my think tank, on top of active membership of the House of Lords and chairmanship of a middling private company, has given me no time to write my projected book. At least, that is my excuse.
However, all that might change. The present coalition Government is determined to devote most of the next session of parliament to a Bill to abolish the House of Lords. This is an act of constitutional vandalism for which there is no popular clamour at all, and which displays a bizarre choice of political priorities. I, along with many other Members of the Lords, on all sides, will be doing everything I can to frustrate this project. But of course we may fail. If so, the consolation prize is that the abolition of the Lords will at last give me the time to write The Thoughts of Chairman Nigel. If, as I hope, we succeed, I will aim to launch it on my 90th birthday. By then, at least, I may have retired.