Who is the most significant living figure in global politics, and why?
Well there is the most prominent one for sure, and that is Barack Obama, and not for the right reasons. I had great hopes for him when he was elected but these have gone entirely unfulfilled. He has acted, particularly on foreign policy, in exactly the ways of his predecessors. But for the most significant I'd go for Xi Jinping, the president of China.
The country has developed amazingly in the last two decades – I'd hazard unprecedentedly – but it is going to become the dominant superpower in my lifetime, I'm sure. Of course it has its internal problems, currently over Hong Kong, but the country under successive leaders, now Xi Jinping, has been transformed into an economic and cultural powerhouse. I'll certainly be trying to convince my youngest that he should study Chinese at school.
What makes a good idea great?
Putting it into practice, surely. We all have them, lying in the bath or when we're daydreaming or looking for another way forward, but most of them disappear down the plughole. Only when the idea is persevered with and tested does it stand a chance of becoming great. There's that line from a Gershwin song, "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round, they all laughed when Edison recorded sound". Great idea for a song, great ideas expressed. Pretty much says it all.
What one thing would you change about the global political system?
As the old joke puts it, I wouldn't start from here. But if I had to it would be with the destruction of the neoliberal consensus.
Tell us an intellectual joke.
Hayek, Friedman, George Osborne, take your pick. What I believe is that if you aren't part of the solution you are part of the precipitate.
If you were chairing your dream panel discussion, who would be on each side and what are they debating?
The subject would have to be capitalism, so I'd be scratching about to find worthy defenders. Did you know there was an organisation called exactly that, Defenders of Capitalism, which makes annual awards to people you have never heard of for doing things entirely out of greed and self-interest? The proposition would be: “This house believes that capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” John Maynard Keynes would be defending and I'd disinter old Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, who would, remarkably, speak in perfect English, with a Dundee accent of course. Opposing: how about Henry Ford, Ayn Rand and that barking US columnist Ann Coulter?
What achievement are you most proud of?
It has yet to come. I'm pretty pleased I've stuck to my basic beliefs, despite the personal cost and while others trooped off stage right to riches and political success, like Alastair Darling – once a bearded Trotskyite handing out impenetrable tracts to bemused railway workers in Waverley station in Edinburgh. I think I did pretty well fighting my corner at the Senate. But the proudest for any parent is his children.
If you weren’t in your current profession what would you be doing?
Well, I wasn't the most assiduous student at school so that rules out quite a number of them, but no problem because there were never any other real choices. Probably a writer and commentator, which is an extension of what I do already. And I have a sneaking ambition as a character actor, so if there are any directors out there.....?
Where are you happiest?
I am rarely very unhappy. Enjoying my kids and family, listening to music, reading and relaxing: normal pleasures. A Tory taking a verbal doing is another one.
What is the next big idea?
If I had it would I be telling you? Something to do with 3D technology in medical science, perhaps? That Hadron collider, whatever it is, and the Higgs boson particle, surely that will lead to some awe-inspiring perception? Apart from how much it cost…
What is the biggest problem facing the world today, and how will it be solved?
The conventional answer is climate change but I would say the pursuit of absolute certainty, the warping of ideologies and the inability of them to reconcile, aka the absence of peace. Sorry, it won't be solved in this world any time soon.