So who is the real power in the land?

It's not politicians or newspaper editors who decide things, but the faceless financiers and arms traders

Share

Simon Raven's novel The Judas Boy (1968) contains a terrific scene in which an historian named Tom Llewellyn, then engaged on a BBC television series, rings up his friend Professor Robert Constable, head of the fictitious Lancaster College, Cambridge, for an intellectual chat. Llewellyn's great interest is the nature of power, and his thesis that, here in the third quarter of the 20th century, power is an increasingly random affair. "It is almost impossible to see it as concentrated in any definite person or persons," he crisply informs the man on the end of the phone, "if only because the world has long since become too complicated for even the most determined and intelligent individual to exert his will, except in very limited areas."

Constable, not immediately convinced by this argument, is brought into line by an illustration from his own professional life. He is the Provost of Lancaster, Llewellyn reminds him, and by definition the most powerful man in the place. On the other hand, his power can never be exercised outright. He can recommend, he can persuade, he can influence, and he can intrigue, but when it comes to doing or acting he cannot dismiss a servant without ratification from a sub-committee. Nonsense, Constable demurs, he can easily get what he wants if he goes about it in the right way. In that case, Llewellyn explains, he is essentially a diplomat, exercising the kind of authority that exists only in so far as the wielder of it is seen.

This exchange leapt back into memory as I began reading some of the publicity attending last week's publication of Power Trip, a book in which Damian McBride, the one-time Downing Street spin doctor, attempts to lift the lid on Rebekah Brooks's allegedly malign influence on public life during Gordon Brown's time as Prime Minister. According to McBride, the former Sun editor was at this point "the most powerful person in Britain", able to throw her metaphorical weight about in such episodes as a campaign to ensure that Paul Stephenson became the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and a government reshuffle in which, against expectation, the Blairite Tessa Jowell kept her post.

McBride also maintains that a Sun journalist told him that Brooks wanted to see the Labour MP Tom Watson "dead" (politically that is – those involved seem to have stopped short of a murder plot) for scheming to force Tony Blair to resign in 2006. It is a bravura exercise, which makes Mrs B sound like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, and yet, judged by the Raven paradigm, it is hard to imagine that Rupert Murdoch's principal henchwoman was quite the behemoth that McBride represents her to be. She could pull strings, she could utter numberless quiet words in favourably disposed ears, she could make one hell of a fuss on her employer's behalf, but when it came down to it the only direct exercise of authority in which she could engage was to ensure that certain words were printed on pieces of newspaper.

Which, as media historians hasten to assure us, is an enviable form of power, however diminished by falling circulations and the rush to cyberspace. At the same time a glance around public life in 2014 is enough to demonstrate that most of the old sources of direct authority have been emasculated, either by that tantalising abstract democracy, or by the diffusion of power into oligarchy, or merely by way of the administrative complexity by which nearly all contemporary life is waylaid. Certainly, Brooks in her prime was a force to be reckoned with, but did she have as much power as, say, Hugh Cudlipp, the editor of the Daily Mirror in the 1950s, when the paper had a circulation of five million and Labour leaders quaked in their boots when criticised by it?

As for the other authority figures at large in the public sphere, politicians long ago became ciphers. After all, how much real power does David Cameron exercise? He is the first minister of what is supposedly a sovereign state, but unable, owing to our EU membership, to control who passes back and forth across its borders, and uncomfortably aware that much of the military hardware dotted around the nation is owned by one of our allies. He is, additionally, part of a coalition, which severely limits his room for practical manoeuvre, and while he may, more or less, be able to decide who he wants to see around him at the Cabinet table, scarcely any action that he undertakes, from the appointment of the humblest junior minister to the view he takes of President Putin, can be pursued without a series of consultations, diplomatic bunfights and inches given and received.

And so Cameron, like the chief executive of a public company, the senior partner of a Big Four accountancy firm, the vice-chancellor of a university, or the manager of a Premiership football club, is essentially a co-ordinator, esteemed, and occasionally revered, never likely to be ignored by his colleagues or the world at large, but about as capable of genuinely autonomous action as Mr Punch.

Curiously enough, the proof of this long-term retreat from the concept of individual authority can be found in art, and especially literature, where its absence has left a thematic hole that has never been filled. The Victorian novelist, for example, was intensely interested in power, to the point where certain 19th-century novels turn into a causative chain of who owns and can therefore direct the actions of whom. On the other hand, these threads were usually very easy to gather up, a matter of the Queen sitting on her throne, her ministers assembling at Westminster, great landowners administering their estates, and a handful of financiers controlling the money supply.

But the "state of the nation" novel, in which the Victorians excelled, is almost impossible to carry off these days, if only because the sources of power – financial power especially – are so difficult for the non-specialist to locate and, if found, to understand. Even John Lanchester's Capital, for instance, a work by one of the few modern novelists with sufficient knowledge to be able to explain how the modern City of London operates, sometimes reads like a collection of fiscal essays, so esoteric is the information that Lanchester is trying to get across.

Naturally, there are other forms of power – familial, emotional, generational – but the citizens of a supposedly free country with a fine democratic tradition are entitled to know who directs the course of their lives, and whether or not these entities are accountable. It is a cliché, of course, to remark that one of the great drawbacks of a world in which "power" consists of backstairs intrigue and inference, is that it can't be brought to judgement. Simultaneously, you have a suspicion that there are still large numbers of individually powerful people, but that they sit not in No 10 or the White House but in the offices of commodity broking firms and arms traders.

It would be nice if a journalist like Brooks, rather than caballing over the status of some favoured Cabinet minister, could tell us all who they are. We may not be able to do anything about them, or limit their influence, but merely being able to identify them would be a comfort of a sort.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Broker / Purchaser

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos  

Greece debt crisis: Trouble is, if you help the Greeks, everyone will want the same favours

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy