Thomas Piketty in London, the ghost of Mrs Thatcher and another boost for Salmond

That a 690-page treatise on inequality has become an international bestseller is surely a symptom of our anxieties and of a yearning for something better.

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Evan Davis indulged in a little self-congratulation on Today on Bank Holiday Monday, boasting in his chuckly, soft-voiced manner that the Radio 4 programme had been ahead of the pack in paying attention to the French economist Thomas Piketty, whom Davis recently interviewed on an indistinct phone line to Paris. Not so. If we are playing this game, it’s worth saying that Mehdi Hasan and Nick Pearce both wrote about Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century in the New Statesman a few weeks before he was featured on Today (squeezed between the racing tips and the business news). Indeed, so prescient was Pearce that as long ago as last November he invited Piketty to speak at an IPPR event.

So it was that one recent afternoon the so-called rock-star economist came to town, trailing groupies, roadies and boun­cers behind him. I arrived early at King’s College London, where Piketty was scheduled to speak, and already a long queue had formed outside the lecture theatre. The air was full of excited, reverential chatter. Who said no one was interested in serious ideas?

When Piketty, who is 42, began talking – he was wearing very tight grey trousers, a pale blue shirt and a crumpled jacket – it took a while to understand what he was saying, not because of the density of his arguments or the complexity of the graphs he projected on a screen behind him, but because of his insouciant delivery and heavily accented English. It was a gripping performance, all the same. Afterwards young people gathered around the Frenchman, taking photographs on their phones and asking him to sign books.

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That a 690-page treatise on inequality has become an international bestseller is surely a symptom of our anxieties and of a yearning for something better. Most of us sense that something is seriously wrong in our politics and economics, at a deep, structural level, and it’s not just a case of adjust mac­roeconomic policies and everything will be business as usual. One of the mysteries of the present moment is why no commanding political figure – one of Hegel’s historical individuals – has emerged to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies, to disrupt, and to lead us in another direction through the force of his or her ideas.

The financial crisis was a moment of profound rupture after which, some of us hoped, a new political and economic consensus would emerge. It has not come close to happening.

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In a recent Telegraph column Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s pre-eminent biographer, wondered why “this extremely troubled time has brought forth no Thatcher equivalent. No new leader has ‘kitchen-sinked’ the problem, boldly analysing what is wrong and forthrightly expounding what to do about it.” Moore had hoped that Barack Obama might have been that leader, but he has shown little interest in economics. “Ed Miliband, more recently, has studied Mrs Thatcher’s transformative style as opposition leader, and tried thoughtfully to re-analyse our economic woes. But I fear he is just not up to it, politically, personally or intellectually.”

From as early as the mid-Seventies That­cher and those who followed her had a philosophy and a message. Thatcher wanted to use the forces of liberty and the free market to smash the socialist state. She wanted to cut taxes; to control inflation; to end prices and incomes policies; to weaken and even destroy union power. She wanted to privatise, liberalise and roll back the state. She had a distinct world-view: belligerent, Atlanticist, anti-Soviet. And the Thatcherites were prepared to “think the unthinkable”, as Alfred Sherman, the former Marxist who became head of the Centre for Policy Studies, used to say.

What today, I asked Thomas Piketty, would be a counter-hegemonic project com­parable to Thatcherism? He smiled and, in a long, freewheeling answer, seemed to suggest, if I understood him correctly, that the problems of Britain and the United States at the end of the Seventies had not been as great as some had supposed, then or in retrospect (though Labour’s top rate of tax, at 98 per cent, was “perhaps too high”). “Countries have national perceptions,” said Piketty, who favours higher income taxes and a global wealth tax. “They tell stories about themselves . . . and these may be illu­sory. Maybe it was just a case that other countries were catching up with Britain.”

I suppose that’s one way of accounting for the Winter of Discontent.

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The Sunday Herald has become the first newspaper in Scotland to endorse the nationalists and to urge Scots to vote Yes to independence. When Alex Salmond came to Westminster in March, at our invitation, to give a New Statesman lecture, he hinted that he expected to have the support of the Herald. He also said that the Yes campaigners were confident of narrowing the gap in the polls by 1 per cent each month, which by the time of 18 September, referendum day, would bring them close to parity. The First Minister has the overwhelming support of the poorest fifth of Scots – but, as he said to me, “You can’t win a revolution without carrying the bourgeoisie.”

That the campaign is as close as it is has surprised many in Westminster but it shouldn’t have. Anyone who knows Scotland ought to understand why so many people there find our present constitutional settlement so unsatisfactory and want out. What’s more, the No campaign has been characterised by complacency and a kind of numbed disbelief. The union of the nations of these isles is worth preserving but someone, somehow, has to start making the case for a more progressive, less nostalgic unionism. Here and now. Victory in the European elections for Ukip – a populist English nationalist party irrelevant in Scotland – will serve only to deepen the cracks in the Union and further embolden Salmond and his happy breed of followers as they march on towards the Commonwealth Games.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?