Power and influence

02Jun08

A survey conducted by the Leaders in London International Leadership Summit of one thousand business leaders recently said that Tony Blair is the most powerful man in the country. Or the most powerful person in the country. Or the most influential man. Or the most influential person. It’s really not clear from any of the press coverage.

Looking closer at the figures, it seems 20% of votes went to Blair. But it seems 30% voted for the Queen, named the most influential (or possibly powerful) woman. So I suppose we can assume that there was a separate section for women. Perhaps the participants were supposed to vote for one man and one woman? Or for the most powerful people, and then the most powerful women? Perhaps it was a multiple choice question. With 5 people in each category to be ranked? Or 10 (or 20, or 50) to choose from? With no information provided, it’s hard to judge.

The articles about this survey also confuse ‘powerful’ and ‘influential’. Power is not synonymous with influence. A powerful person is influential, while an influential person may not necessarily be powerful. A powerful person can compel others to do something “because I say so”. An influential person can make others do something “because it’s a good idea”. (For a given value of ‘good’, of course. Good from someone’s point of view). It’s comparatively easy to remove someone’s power, much harder to remove their influence. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

That being said, here are the results. First, the category for men (or possibly “people”. As I’ve said, we can’t tell).

At number five is David Cameron. As the leader of the Conservative Party, watching Labour’s approval rating plummet, he is (much as it pains me to admit) increasingly likely to be the next Prime Minister. As the leader of the Opposition, he undoubtedly wields a lot of power. But he is also influential, and not just within his party. A large number of people on his side will be influenced by him – and a large number of his opponents will be influenced by his actions.

Number four is Rupert Murdoch. It is suggested that the Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation (which owns The Times, The Sun, News Of The World, ITVplc and BSkyB, amongst many other holdings) exerts a great deal of control over the editorial line of his newspapers and news channels. He is clearly an influential man. But a powerful one? In the last 3 general elections, his papers have backed the eventual winners, Tony Blair’s Labour government. Does he simply follow the prevailing winds in an attempt to seem prescient? Or is it a hope for favourable policies from incoming governments? I imagine most people would prefer the former. Murdoch’s influence may be considerable, but his power (certainly over non News Corp entities) is less certain.

(Incidentally, Murdoch’s inclusion in the top 5 is almost certainly the reason for this photo gallery on the Sky News website. Notice that while all the photos of the women are reasonably flattering, the same cannot be said for the men. With the exception of Mr Murdoch, of course.)

At number three is Sir Richard Branson. Another very rich man, with a more diverse range of businesses than Murdoch. Some have been incredibly successful (Virgin Records, though its fortunes have waned recently, Virgin Mobile and the various Virgin airlines), while others have been less so (Virgin Trains springs to mind, though fortunes there are improving slightly). His power, like Murdoch’s, is limited to his global Virgin empire. But his reputation as a maverick but highly successful entrepreneur cannot be disputed, and for this reason he has influence – when you are as successful as he is, people listen to him. Unlike Murdoch, Branson is also involved in a number of what might be termed ‘socially-conscious’ projects. His next venture, Virgin Fuels, is said to be involved in environmentally-friendly fuel initiatives. He is also involved in funding The Elders, a group including people such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was founded with the intent to bring their collective experience to bear on solving global problems. So Branson’s influence stretches over more than just his business interests, but it is debatable whether it is stronger than Murdoch’s.

Number two is Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister undoubtedly wields power. He held a great deal of power for ten years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and now holds even more. That cannot be disputed. But in recent weeks and months, it could be said that his influence is dissipating. The survey was released recently, but it could have been conducted some time ago. As Labour’s approval ratings fall and the Prime Minister becomes the least popular person to hold that position for a very long time, even members of his own party are starting to distance themselves. Witness Brown’s near-total disengagement from the Crewe by-election. And Labour still lost. He still has influence, of course. But for how much longer?

And at number one, former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair was Labour’s longest-serving PM, and his ten years of experience should not be underestimated. He stepped down as an MP when he resigned as Prime Minister, and is now an envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet of the UN, the EU, the USA and Russia. There is some speculation that he may be a candidate for the new position of President of Europe. Blair clearly has influence in world politics, and it is very likely he can still exert it in the UK. But his power, both on the world stage and in the UK, is more in question. It’s not clear that he can compel anyone to do anything any more – but his influence is still strong.

In the women’s list, number five is Shami Chakrabarti. The director since 2003 of the human rights organisation Liberty undoubtedly wields significant influence, especially in recent weeks over the debate on detention limits. And Chakrabarti herself was voted as the second “Most Inspiring Political Figure” in the 2006 Channel 4 Political Awards – implying that her influence stretches further than just the political arena (if you’re interested, the winner was Jamie Oliver). But her power? Well, that depends on how successful Liberty is at achieving its aims. Its next test will be the vote on 42 days – something the group has vehemently opposed.

Number four is where the survey goes a little haywire. Number 4 in the list of most powerful (or influential) women is Victoria Beckham. Presumably for her services to tabloid news? There is, I suppose, some argument that she has a little influence on popular culture and fashion. She is admittedly married to the man voted the most powerful sporting figure in the same survey. But her influence must be limited only to the worlds of music and style. And even then it is small. And her power? Thankfully, it can only be negligible.

At number three is J.K. Rowling. Her enormous success as a hugely popular writer means that if she says something, it will be listened to. She has become very wealthy indeed, but contributes to a number of charities supporting, among other things, single parent families and multiple sclerosis research. She wields a strong amount of influence, particuarly amongst her many fans of all ages, though it cannot really be said that she is powerful in any meaningful sense.

Number two is Baroness Thatcher. Now in her eighties, as Prime Minister Thatcher caused huge changes in the UK and oversaw many defining moments. She was the longest-serving Conservative PM for almost one hundred years, and while many of her policies were controversial, there is no doubt that for many years she was both the most influential and powerful figure in Britain, and the most hated. But mounting health problems including some small strokes meant she retreated almost totally from public life in 2002. Her legacy still influences the Conservative Party and in some ways Britain itself. But her power waned with her departure from the House of Commons (though she did enter the House of Lords) and is now almost non-existence. Even her influence has ceased to have much effect as the leadership of David Cameron attempts to repaint the Tories’ image. There is no denying that she is an important figure and still widely respected in some circles, but her influence now is a fraction of what it once was.

Finally at number one is the Queen. She reigns over sixteen separate nations, not to mention their dependent territories. In theory, her powers are vast. In practice, by convention, they are hardly ever exercised, and the UK is to all intents and purposes controlled by the Prime Minister. But her influence almost cannot be overstated. She has reigned in the UK for almost fifty-six years, spanning the terms of eleven different Prime Ministers from Churchill to Brown. She has visited an enormous number of countries as the UK’s most impressive ambassador, and met many heads of state from all over the world. It is said that she spends around three hours every day reviewing state matters, and has done since she ascended the throne. While the Queen’s own personal political opinions are not expressed publicly, she meets the Prime Minister once a week, and the meeting is taken very seriously indeed. If she expresses an opinion, it is listened to.

Opinion on the monarchy in the UK is divided. But the Queen, by virtue of her longevity and the fact that, unlike many other members of the Royal Family, she has never put a foot wrong. Her power these days may be largely ceremonial, but her influence, however discreetly it is expressed, cannot be disputed. And this influence is exerted on the most powerful people in the country. She may well be the most influential person in the country.

Power and influence are not synonymous. And this survey is certainly not scientific, but has produced some interesting results. Not many of the people named have real power. But they almost all have real influence. And that is, in some ways, more effective. Some exert it by virtue of influence, some by way of position, and some by potential. But strong influence may be more important than strong power, and it may be more lasting.

The comic-book quote that “with great power comes great responsibility” may hold true. We should hope that great responsibility comes with great influence, too.

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One Response to “Power and influence”

  1. The power they have is, perhaps, their ability to influence. Unfortunately, power and influence is so often abused. The real issue here is the more power these individuals have, the less likely people are to challenge them and the less challenges they receive, the more they believe they are right. This is when power and influence in the hands of so few becomes dangerous to the majority.


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