Interview: Nigel lawson - Striving to be lord of a new economic manor: As the OECD meets in Paris, Peter Torday talks to a celebrated long-shot candidate for its top job

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The Independent Online
NIGEL Lawson entered the House of Commons in 1974 after a career as a financial and political journalist. He quickly attracted controversy as a Heathite who converted to Margaret Thatcher's cause. In 1981, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, he was largely responsible for placing monetarism at the heart of economic decision-making. After two years as Energy Secretary, he became Chancellor, staying longer in the job than anyone since the Second World War. Likely to be remembered principally for his dogged but unsuccessful attempts to take sterling into the European exchange rate mechanism which resulted in his resignation in October 1989, he will also be recalled as the chancellor who presided over the boom and bust of the late 1980s.

LORD Lawson has rarely been out of the limelight. Even though he quit the House of Commons at the last election, the 1992 publication of his memoirs - The View From No 11 - re-ignited his long- running feud with Margaret Thatcher.

Those same divisions over economic policy were played out again in last autumn's BBC television series on Lady Thatcher's premiership. Now, after a few months out of the public eye, the former chancellor is back with a long-shot campaign for the top job at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He has an interesting life; time is divided between his business interests - as chairman of Central Europe Trust, the eastern bloc investment consultants, and as a non-executive director of Barclays Bank - and the inevitable speeches and conferences.

Otherwise he attends the House of Lords. No one day is typical, especially now, as he tours Europe and the US lobbying for support on the OECD job. He also has a family, one son and two daughters from his first marriage and a son and daughter from the second.

But Lord Lawson is clearly in no mood to retire. 'It's too soon,' he says bluntly. He evidently relishes the prospect of a job that he sees as a natural extension of his working life.

'I've had two full careers, one in journalism and one in politics and now my hat is in the ring in the international arena. It's a great opportunity, a job I could do well. It's an extension of my previous career.'

If he succeeds, Lord Lawson will step into a job paying pounds 125,000 free of taxes with a luxury apartment in the prestigious 16th arrondissement in Paris. He could also take on a role of growing influence and importance.

'If it doesn't sound too pompous to say it, I feel I've got a contribution to make,' he says.

He believes the OECD, a forum for industrial countries to cooperate on economic policies, could become a much more high-profile body. The collapse of the Soviet empire has led to agreement that the market economy is the only practicable basis for economic success, he says.

Yet the emergence of a global economy powered by free capital movements, the rising economic power of Asia and the European jobless crisis come as governments are less willing to co-operate.

As Lord Lawson warns: 'It would be foolish not to recognise that it was the existence of the Cold War and the Soviet threat that, in large measure, impelled the nations of the West to co-operate.'

That habit, which came so easily before 1989, is more difficult now and the unspoken threat is protectionism. So he sees a pressing need for the 25-nation OECD to play a role in creating a new economic order. That makes the organisation much more likely to recapture an important role in global economic policy-making.

But he has a fight on his hands. The US and Japan, the main shareholders of this club of rich industrial countries, are adamant that a non-European should become the next OECD Secretary-General to better reflect the fact that it represents all three trading blocs.

They have swung their support behind Donald Johnston, a Canadian politician. Mr Johnston is admittedly the favourite, but in Paris, where the OECD is headquartered, there are rumblings that he has failed to inspire the membership after a comprehensive tour of national capitals.

Lord Lawson has his doubts about US policy. 'Clearly they should be trying to get the best man for the job and it is a pity, I think, to look at it in regional terms.' The US, he says, has always played a strong role in OECD policy-making: 'It's never been simply a European club.'

Jean-Claude Paye, the incumbent and a bureaucrat rather than a politician, is campaigning hard to retain his post. He has acknowledged that interest in the position reflects a belief that the agency will become more important.

But there is strong opposition to his retaining the job, not least because Frenchmen hold a disproportionate number of top international posts. Another candidate, Lorenz Schomerus, a German trade official, is barely taken seriously. So Lord Lawson is in with at least a fighting chance.

As he did so often in his political career, he is basing his campaign on his qualifications rather than from a strong base of support.

'I do think that it's a case of the best man or woman for the job. I mean that comes first.' He reels off his qualifications; a decade at the heart of government, political leadership and wide experience of the international economic scene.

But his opponents can throw back at him his close association with Thatcherism. 'People have been tremendously polite. I wouldn't say I've encountered any outright hostility. I have detected some reservations from some people and governments who have a sort of distrust of what they see as Thatcherism, but on the whole, I've had a very good response.'

Warming to his theme, he points out that all member countries realise the world is changing. Each has its balance between market and state, but they are all being pulled in a free-market direction, much as the world is.

'They can see that in South-east Asia and in Eastern Europe.' And however much the US model is derided as the free-market extreme people know global forces are pulling them towards the market, not just dogma, he says. The best formula for economic success boils down to a question of what works, based on the acknowledged objectivity of OECD expertise.

He would reform the organisation which he has criticised - perhaps unfairly as he now admits - but only after consulting members. He thinks the published work lacks focus and clarity. The agency is afraid to criticise member governments as it once did.

'At the end of the day the message is muffled, just in case anyone, anywhere, might be upset.'

The annual meetings, under way in Paris today, have drawn heavy criticism. They frequently amount to a laborious series of speeches, followed by interminable communiques. They need more genuine debate, says Lord Lawson.

But does he have any doubts about his record? Despite enduring heavy criticism in the late 1980s he has never given any thought to his biggest mistake, he insists. Indeed he chuckles at the question. Some credit Lord Lawson with introducing that question to British journalism. In a television interview he asked it of Harold Wilson, just after the 1967 devaluation. After hesitation, the Labour prime minister replied: 'Underestimating the power of the speculators.'

(Photograph omitted)

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