Exploring the nature of power

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.”

Dr Mike Sheaff

The exercise of power is essential in any organised society – and it’s important that we’re all aware of those making key decisions affecting our lives.

Mike Sheaff profile

Wealth is an important dimension of power. In Devon and Cornwall it’s not always controlled by those within the region. Scrutinise last week’s Western Morning News’ top 150 businesses in Devon and Cornwall and you’ll see that of the top ten, two are foreign-owned (Princess Yachts, originally founded in Plymouth, and Imerys), one owns a former public utility (Pennon Group), and one is a regional company with a UK-wide parent company (Babcock). The other six are based in the region, and together they employ a little under 7,000 workers. Significant investment comes from outside the area, such as ownership of Exeter airport by the Midlands-based Rigby Group.

The china clay industry has seen ownership change from over 42 companies in Cornwall in the 19th century to the single ownership by Imerys today. The acquisition of local clay company, Goonvean, by Imerys earlier this year, completed this process. When Imerys switched investment to Brazil it led to 800 job losses in Devon and Cornwall in 2006. Power has moved globally. 

The main shareholder of Goonvean, Lord Falmouth, represents a traditional source of power, owning 40,000 acres of Cornwall. Aside from the more famous Tregothnan Estate, a substantial part of this lies in the mid-Cornwall clay country. Opponents of the incinerator at St Dennis pointed out that the land being used was leased to the council by Lord Falmouth. There is also the Duchy of Cornwall itself, although its land ownership in the county is half that of Lord Falmouth’s. More substantial is the 70,000 acres owned in Devon.

There are notable examples of more recent business growth by companies with a strong local identity, such as St Austell Brewery and Warrens Bakery. There are also several locally-based individual entrepreneurs and developers. The former includes Plymouth businessman Chris Dawson, who rose to 77th place in the Sunday Times Rich List for 2014. Starting with a market stall, and going on to build a major retail company, Dawson has been described as the south west peninsula’s first billionaire. His proposals to develop a new centre in Plymouth are reported to herald the creation of 450 jobs.

The power of developers has been a mixed story over the years. The collapse of Peter de Savery’s property company in 1994 was a significant example. Machiavelli noted that those exercising power requires good fortune, a reminder again of the dangers of hubris.

The historian Lord Morgan commented that former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, “seemed a political colossus,”  but, “as times became tough following the Iraq imbroglio, he became an exposed solitary victim . . . Blair discovered, like Lloyd George and Thatcher before him, that British politics do not take easily to the Napoleonic style.”

Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset, return 31 MPs to the House of Commons. Some hold ministerial or other office, although none are full members of the Cabinet. When it comes to challenging and scrutinising the Executive, it may be members of Select Committees who hold greater power. This would put MPs such as Sarah Wollaston and Andrew George (both members of the Health Committee, the former its recently elected Chair) to the fore.

Local government remains a source of political power, although one considerably weakened over many years. An important question for the future is whether and how local powers might be regained.

Politics provides a very good illustration of the tenuous basis upon which power can rest. Writing in 1948, Winston Churchill recalled how in May 1940, “I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever growing measure,”  but five years later: “I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.”

Consent is generally a stronger basis of power than is coercion, as many erstwhile power-holders have come to learn. Isaac Foot noted, in July 1935, at an event to celebrate his twenty-five year association with the Bodmin constituency: “It is upon the loyalty of what John Milton called the ‘common people’ that I depended.”

Dr Mike Sheaff says:

The exercise of power is essential in any organised society – and it’s important we’re all aware of those making key decisions affecting our lives. There will be contrasting ways of defining the basis of power, and the meaning of power may itself change

Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon suggested, “knowledge itself is power.”  In many respects, westcountry scientists such as Trevithick, Davy and Cookworthy left more powerful legacies than many with greater visible authority.

Traditional sources of power often relied upon subservience and ignorance. After a visit to Penzance, on 30 July 1744, Charles Wesley recounted a statement by one of the local clergy opposed to the spread of Methodism. Wesley wrote: “he wished the Bible were in Latin only, that none of the vulgar might be able to read it.”

Sunday 13 July, is the annual commemoration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, with well over 5,000 gathering to remember the six farm workers from Dorset, sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Technically this was for administering a secret oath, but in reality it was for setting up a trade union. Powers of the local ‘squirearchy’ secured their conviction and sentence, but popular protests overturned these decisions. Mass demonstrations, and a petition signed by 800,000 people, led to their return, with four arriving back in Plymouth on 18 March 1838.

The power of the ideas that stimulated the Martyrs was captured in a verse written by their leading member, George Loveless, also a staunch Methodist:

God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country's rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction's doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!

Ideas gain power through application. This may involve the material world, through science and technology, or the social world, through movements and campaigns. The ability to bring about change without financial resources was a key element in the growth of the labour and trade union movement, but has a decline of social solidarity made collective power and action less relevant today?

It would be too easy, and almost certainly wrong, to make this assumption. New social movements have developed around a range of concerns, from war, poverty, social injustices and environmental issues.

“When people take action, politicians have to listen,” wrote Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, about the ‘Fish Fight’ campaign launched in 2010. Appalled at the discarding of half of catches back into the sea, a petition was launched which gained nearly 900,000 signatures. Using emails, tweets and social media, three years later the campaign secured a vote by Europe’s politicians to ban discards.

The exercise of power is essential in any organised society – and it’s important that we’re all aware of those making key decisions affecting our lives. There will be contrasting ways of defining the basis of power, and the meaning of power may itself change. Thought and discussion about this can only be for the good. 

Finally, in thinking about power, rank and status, we should reflect on Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man For A’That:

A prince can mak a belted knight, 
A marquise, duke, an' a' that; 
But an honest man's aboon his might, 
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that! 
For a' that, an' a' that, 
Their dignities an' a' that, 
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, 
Are higher rank than a' that.

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