A list of the world’s most powerful people is produced each year by the US magazine, Forbes. Four questions are considered. Does the person have power over lots of people? Does the person command substantial financial resources? Is power exercised by the person over multiple spheres? Finally, is power actively used by the individual?
On this list, Vladimir Putin is currently in first place. But are these criteria relevant when thinking about power at a more local level?
A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber described power as “the probability that one actor in a social relationship will carry out his own will against the resistance of others.” This suggests power is more than achieving influence, and requires the ability to secure goals in the face of opposition.
Conflict is not always overt and observable. The ability to ‘set the agenda’, and terms of any debate, can be one of the most important forms of power, but is not always apparent.
In this piece I refer to three dimensions of power – wealth, politics and ideas – to consider how these might contribute to understanding the nature of power in the region.
First, there is something ambivalent about British attitudes towards power. One aspect is deference to status, brilliantly captured in Ronnie Corbett’s laconic observation in the 1960’s television sketch on social class: “I know my place” .
There is also a dislike of ostentatious displays of power. Writing in the darkest days of World War Two, George Orwell considered the question, “Why is the goose-step not used in England?” He suggested that, “What English people of nearly all social classes loathe from the bottom of their hearts is the swaggering officer type, the jingle of spurs and the crash of boots.”
The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, put it more directly:
Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that
Touching on a similar theme, former Plymouth Devonport MP, Lord (David) Owen has written of the hubris that power can generate, and in a 2008 article in the journal Clinical Medicine suggests this should be recognised as a medical condition: “Hubris syndrome is inextricably linked with power, indeed power is a prerequisite, and when power passes the syndrome will normally remit.”