Adrian Hamilton: Power belongs only to old-fashioned tyrants now

The declining role of the state in our lives has been reflected in an equal decline in the establishment
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The Independent Online

Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer. In the latest of its audience-participation exercises, the Today programme asked listeners to vote on "Who Runs Britain?" The result was a mind-boggling top vote for Jose Manuel Barroso, the embattled President of the European Commission, whom few feel has much power and even fewer believe is using it with much authority.

And yet it's not such a silly question. At a time when people feel increasingly powerless against the forces of multinational corporations and unresponsive political systems there is a real puzzle as to where power lies. The fact that Today's listeners chose the Brussels boss is partly a reflection of the general misunderstanding in Britain of how things work on the Continent, but it is also a reflection of the sense that power in our lives has somehow moved out of our reach and off our shores.

The problem is the definition of power. It's easier to list all sorts of people who have influence. Much harder to determine who has power. A generation ago it seemed much easier. Governments controlled far more of our lives and the whole apparatus of parliament, the law and commerce seemed to lie in a nexus of individuals tied together by common education and class bonds. The trick was to winkle out the names of the people who made up the "Establishment."

Even then it was not that simple. Years ago when I wrote a feature for Vogue on "men of power" concentrating on the eminences grises of the establishment such as Lord Goodman, the late, great James Cameron riposted with a piece arguing that power didn't belong to the great and the good but the official who refused you an urgent new passport, the conductor who pressed the bell just as you ran to the bus stop, the local council who harassed you for payments that you'd already made. The establishment might have political power but officialdom had the power to make or break your day.

The most welcome development of the last two decades has been the steady erosion of both sorts of power. As the state has contracted so has the power of the petty bureaucrat. It still exists in the form of the doctor's receptionist and the officious policeman. However, the kind of power that led peoples to overthrow communism in eastern Europe and which British unions, say, exercised over people's daily welfare - the ability to get to work or to bury the dead - is but a fraction of what it was.

At the same time, the decreasing role of the state in the economy and our daily lives has been reflected in an equal decline in the establishment. No one reading the evidence of the Hutton Inquiry can subscribe any longer to the "yes Minister" view of the role of the civil service.

But then the politicians don't feel much power either, as one can see from the recent wails of David Blunkett and the video diary of the Prime Minister. Nor do judges or academics.

The establishment remains as class bound and restricted as ever but its authority is fast slipping away. What is true within the nation is also true internationally as nationalism gives way to globalisation.

A good deal is made of the power of the press. But in a sense this is a reflection of declining real influence on the side of politicians and the media alike. The less influence they have in the wider world the more they concentrate on image in a smaller one. Rupert Murdoch has power but it is only because politicians over here have given it to him. He doesn't have nearly the same authority in Australia, where he comes from, nor in the new media, which he is late in embracing. The truth is that he and other tycoons fear regulation, and therefore use money and influence in the largely defensive drive to prevent government hurting them.

The huge wealth now coming to individuals, especially in financial services, buys them influence in the arts and sports. In the UK it can even bring you a ministership. Ask Lords Sainsbury and Drayson. But the power to make things happen that wouldn't otherwise occur is much more difficult to pin down to individuals in today's world.

So where has it gone? The answer may well not be to individuals at all. The most important structural change of our times is what in the banking world is called "disintermediation".

This is the elimination of the middleman, the wholesaler and other agents who act between the producer and the consumer, the politician and the public. It has resulted in the development of all-embracing retailers and giant corporations. More important, through the internet and communications technology, it is breaking down the old intermediaries of publishers and even parties.

Individuals may get rich on it as Bill Gates has done, but, so long as technology keeps changing and new competitors come in, they can't be secure in it. Power belongs to movements, to trends, to public tastes, which can be influenced but no longer controlled by individuals.

All the better, one might say. Real power as exercised by the individual is essentially negative; the ability to hurt and hence to arouse fear. It belongs to the old-fashioned tyrants of Uzbekistan and Belarus, to the commercial managers who can fire their employees at will and to the politicians who can take their countries to war but not to the world as it is developing. We shouldn't be seeking it and we certainly shouldn't be admiring it.