Gates, Posh, and the hand that rocks the cradle

It's still a truism: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world indeed. All other power is just some chap's mating strategy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
POWER. IT used to be so simple. The most powerful person was just the one who had managed to subdue all of the others around him over as much territory as he could muster. The most powerful person on earth was easily spotted as the one who had control over the most land and the most people. Those were the days, eh?

Nowadays, power is complicated. We all begin our lives in a state of abject vulnerability, without any power at all. When my son was a tiny baby, and I had to do everything for him, the thing that made me weep for his indignity was moving him about. As I shunted him from supportive bouncy chair, to car seat, to cradle, to high chair, to baby buggy, I was acutely aware of his powerlessness and my complete control. I would find his inability awesome, his reliance unbearably touching. Now, at two, he calls the shots. I may retain some power over him, but his power over me grows stronger every day.

Few humans fail to experience the exercise of power in some arena or other, and it is in parenting that the wise use of power, checked and balanced by responsibility, can reap its greatest rewards.

In its "Power List 1999", The Sunday Times gives a nod to this fact. "Power begins at home," notes the newspaper's social affairs editor, John Harlow. "The people who have the most direct influence on the man on the Clapham omnibus are his parents, his loved ones and his boss. After that, power is almost invisible to us: something most of us will feel only as a wind from a far-off place, as when duty on alcohol rises at the next budget."

Lucky old "most of us" is all I can say to his latter assertion. For in my life I'm all too often aware of other people's power over me. It is the feeling of being trapped within a world of wider power that is, to me, the most awful sensation of almost any in my life. While it's embarrassingly literalist to talk in the same sentence of "power" and electrical supplies, the last time I felt overwhelmed by my own powerlessness was a couple of months ago, when I returned home after a weekend away to find that my house had been flooded and that the mains cable had shorted.

I called my electricity supplier for hours, trapped in a system of telephone messaging that had hundreds of different pathways, all leading to an unanswered phone. At night, in the dark with a toddler, I resented my powerlessness so much that I seriously considered the possibility of removing this area of vulnerability from my life altogether. Could I live without power? No, I could not.

In this case, I might only have been musing on my enslavement to the national grid. But within any context it strikes me that the same question would always receive the same answer. Human beings (especially male ones, but more of that later) cannot live without power. Even if individuals don't want it themselves, they always want someone to wield it on their behalf. We all have a stake in it. Which is why power is so powerful.

So it was with some gusto that I scanned through the aforementioned "Power List 1999". At one point my eye fell on one of the pronouncements of Raymond Seitz, a banker and former American ambassador to London, and also one of the panellists involved in compiling the list. "Seitz felt that the top 100 should have included Neil MacGregor of the National Grid..." it said.

"Now you're talking!" I thought, and prepared to give the paragraph in question fuller scrutiny. Disappointment came quickly. Neil MacGregor's job title had simply been hyphenated at the end of a line. He had nothing to do with the national grid at all. Instead he has purchasing "power" with the National Gallery. The most powerful power supplier in Britain, it turns out, is Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric and "America's most revered industrialist".

It need hardly be pointed out that quite a lot of Britain's most powerful people are American, although some guy called Tony Blair pips Bill Gates to the top spot. It need hardly be pointed out, either, that there are few powerful women on the list, although Dr Helena Cronin, co-director of the centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences at the LSE, and another panellist, did find a source of particular pride in this matter.

"There are no token politically correct women here. There are a few who have earned their place, but in reality power in Britain is still dominated by men. There is no evolutionary reason why women should be drawn to power, while men need it as part of their mating strategy, and that is unlikely to change unless there are many years of social engineering."

Which makes the achievement of 25-year-old Victoria Adams as one of only seven women to get on to the list all the more fabulous. Sadly though, the other Spice Girls don't make it. What is the cause of this failure of girl power? Well, none of the other lassies has made an important enough marriage to convert girl power into power power. It is Victoria's alliance with David Beckham that sorts her out from the others. And don't cry sexism, because it seems clear that Mr Beckham, too, would fail to get on the list, were it not for his spouse.

No, that doesn't seem too convincing to me either. What were either of these people doing on such a list? Apparently, says David Smith, they are "a power couple who combine several of Britain's obsessions at once - football, pop music, fashion and money - and hold significant sway over young people". Liam's and Patsy's noses must have been out of joint on Sunday morning. They combine the same obsessions - and more - but can't convert them into "power".

It's entries like these that make you feel that the whole "Power List" exercise is something of a turkey. While it is stressed in several places within the supplement that power and influence are easily confused but not the same, I cannot help feeling that the presence of V&D (as the former Independent columnist Suzanne Moore had dubbed them) confirms the feeling that an enormous power vacuum exists in Britain.

For while V&D were there (well, they're everywhere, aren't they?), some crucial spheres were not mentioned. Is there, for example, no powerful environmentalist in Britain? Apparently not, which may explain why our record on the matter is so appalling. The nearest we have to a powerful environmentalist is Dr Arpad Pusztai, who earlier this year prompted massive hostility to GM food after fighting his corner over his experiments with mice and genetically modified potatoes.

Again, I ask myself whether such an act constitutes "power". Again and again, people are mentioned on the list not because they are powerful, but because their actions have had a significant knock-on effect. So Doreen and Neville Lawrence find themselves on the power list, simply because they successfully challenged the idea that they were so powerless that it didn't matter if somebody stabbed their child to death.

Instead of helping us to understand power, this list confirms our confusions about it. Should we be pleased that the richest man in the world is only the second most powerful man in Britain? Or does this confirm our suspicions - hardly allayed by the fact that Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, is more powerful in Britain that Gordon Brown or Eddie George - that power and money remain inextricably linked?

The whole list, despite efforts at pointing up the democratisation of British society, is dominated by exactly what you would expect - politics, business, finance and the media, just like life. These are the powers in the land, and the people who represent them are powerful themselves only in the way that a man has more power when he's at the wheel of a high-performance car.

It is true, as the Power List says, that power is "the invisible hands that shape all our lives". But it's truer still that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. All other power, as Dr Cronin so wisely points out, is just some chap's mating strategy.

Comments