How to list Britain's powers the slow way
Sunday 25 October 1998
How does one choose the 300 most powerful people in Britain? Such lists are themselves problematic, and prone to glaring omissions and eccentric inclusions, as we have seen from lists like The Best Books of The Century, the 100 Best Albums Ever or even the Turner short list. One imagines that any jury impanelled to select the 300 most powerful people might quickly realise the absurd enormity of the task, before agreeing to pull a few hundred names out of a hat.
The opening programme of The Power List seemed very keen to show us that its selection committee, the eight-member "Power Panel", took its task very seriously, employed no shortcuts, and thoroughly argued and justified even its most obvious choices. Even the running time of one hour and 15 minutes had an unconstrained earnestness about it: to hell with time slots - we'll finish when we finish.
The Power Panel was convened last summer at Leeds Castle, and included Lord Hattersley, Will Hutton, Peter York and former Smash Hits editor Kate Thornton. The programme decided to begin at the beginning, with a mysteriously over-long segment showing the panel checking into their rooms. By the time they all sat down together I feared the extra fifteen minutes wouldn't be enough. Each had brought along a little film they'd knocked up in their spare time about a potential candidate. This seemed like a slow way to start, especially when panelist Sara Morrison kicked things off with a film about why The Duke of Westminster shouldn't be on the list.
The question of how to define power looked to be a real stumbling point, but in the end the panel glossed over the issue. They simply decided to go with something that somebody had typed out earlier: "the ability to define the quality of people's daily lives". This definition is, like any other you might care to come up with, severely flawed, and makes selection more subjective, rather than less: is Bill Gates defining the quality of your life?
Anything like an accurate measure of influence would require a very strange formula and the sort of research and number crunching in which no one is interested, probably with good reason. The panel approached the whole exercise with sufficient cynicism that you knew anyone who said "Hey! What about Tony Blair?" would be written off as grossly naive.
The pervading idea was that many of the most powerful people are behind the scenes, and largely unknown. They even came up with a few examples, but not surprisingly, their names didn't ring any bells. Peter York made a good, if characteristically smug, case for Sir David Frost's unparalleled toadying power, but in general the inclusion of media figures got a little out of hand. Kate Thornton had no trouble convincing her colleagues that Alan Magee, head of Creation records and the hand that rocks Oasis, was on the verge of ruling the world. Suddenly Noel Gallagher himself was being talked up. I began to think that Denise Van Outen might be in with a chance. I felt like shouting "Hey! What about Tony Blair?"
Blair and his cabinet got only the briefest mention late in the programme, perhaps because originally Roy Hattersley was meant to present a little film about Frank Field, who has since been shuffled out of his job as Minister for Welfare Reform. The fact that the film and all subsequent references to Mr Field had to be excised from the programme may explain its occasional choppiness and the extended shots of everyone arriving. When they did get round to Blair, the panel only wanted to talk about Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. The power behind the throne is much more interesting, even when it is less powerful.
In the end not one contender was assigned a firm place on the winner's board. The actual Power List is being saved for next week's two concluding programmes, and there was no hint last night of who might be on it. In an hour and 15 minutes they didn't quite managed to commit to six people. Perhaps they're afraid that some more of them will be sacked before next week. I may not be able to do any better, but I could do it a lot faster. Is the Duke of Westminster one of the 300 most powerful people in Britain? No. Is Alan Magee? No. David Frost? No. Roger Penrose? No. And who is the most powerful person in Britain? Tony Blair. See? Easy.
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