Frank Johnson

Who is the 16th least influential person in Britain?

Who is the 16th least influential person in Britain?

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The Daily Mirror this week put us all in its debt by publishing a list of the 100 least influential people in Britain. Many of us are tired of those lists of the 100 richest, or most influential, or most powerful.

So many of them are people of whom we have never heard. Those responsible for what we see on television are especially hard to remember, but fascinate the compilers of the lists. ‘Liz Rating: poached from ITV’s Channel Smut to be honcho of BBC heavy entertainment. Inventor of capital television. Thanks to her, televised capital punishment is now mass viewing all over the world. Thought of as the next Dawn Airey.’

The 100 richest in the country, or the 100 most powerful in the City, are even harder to recognise or recall. They have usually done something like selling their hedge-fund boutique at the top of the market for an estimated half-billion to Wall Street giant Simon and Garfunkel. It is not explained why that made them influential or powerful, but if they are on a list solely of the rich, it does explain why they are rich, though never why they are interesting. But the Mirror list was not at all like that. Whoever thought of it was something of a journalistic genius, or at least a genius at the compiling of lists. For, unlike in the case of those other lists, everyone on it was someone of whom most people would have heard. For this rating of the least influential was of people who thought that they were influential, or whom other people thought influential.

I thought the only unfair ratings were numbers one and 16. Number one was Jack Straw. Unfair because, though I have never met him and may therefore be wrong, he has always seemed to be a rather unassuming apparatchik, in so far as anyone who goes into politics can be unassuming. Number 16 was Miss Hurley. ‘Her real skill,’ said the Mirror, ‘is for getting her picture in the papers. Well done, Liz. Here’s another.’

But surely Miss Hurley is indeed influential. She must be influencing thousands of emerging beauties into trying to become rich and famous solely by getting their pictures in the papers, and surely some of them — such are the papers’ appetites for pictures of beautiful girls — will succeed in the years ahead. She has liberated them from the rigours of drama school, or from the necessity of learning lines. A friend with knowledge of the film industry explained to me, as I spotted Miss Hurley’s name on the Mirror list, that film companies give Miss Hurley small parts in their films because they know that she will then appear at the premier, and ensure that the film is mentioned in the papers.

This is, after all, the age of the celebrity. There have always been people who, as the old phrase has it, are famous for being famous. Lillie Langtry was an early example. But our age, being the media age, has a greater demand for them than any previous one. The Hurleys and the Victoria Beckhams meet that demand, and surely inspire others to try to do likewise. Future historians will say that Miss Hurley was one of the age’s most influential women.

Prince Edward was second on the list, and Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was third. Fair enough. Mr Blair came tenth, a position which the paper ascribed to his alleged lack of influence over President Bush, to the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction, and to the resultant Labour mutiny. Mr Duncan Smith came fifth, though the most recent opinion polls suggest that he deserves to be rated lower.

For politicians, naturally anxious to be thought influential, must remember that this is the only kind of list where it is important to have come low down, not high up. Thus the Conservative Member for Henley, and editor of this magazine, came 97th. That means he is 92 places above his leader in influence. On this list, as the modish usage has it, low is the new high.

Last year I wrote here about how Mr Blair was about to become the latest in a line of rulers in these islands, starting with Richard the Lionheart and culminating in Anthony Eden, who had come into contact with Islam. The implication was that most had not come well out of it, and that Mr Blair might not either.

Islam and the Middle East had a tendency to get our leaders into trouble at home and in Europe, not just in Islamic countries. An example of Islam getting a British ruler into trouble in Europe was Richard the Lionheart’s being imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor when returning from the Crusades through the German lands; being released only in return for diplomatic advantages.

An example of Islam, or at least the Middle East, getting a British ruler into trouble at home was that of Eden, whom it did not simply get into trouble but destroyed. That could happen to Mr Blair. But, if it does, he will not be destroyed solely by Islam. He will also have been destroyed by taking too literally the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

Harold Wilson was a ‘special relationship’ Labour prime minister. But he insisted to President Johnson that, in asking for British troops in Vietnam, he was threatening the special relationship, not strengthening it; a position vindicated by Johnson’s having to start withdrawing his own troops, and withdrawing from the presidency, not long afterwards.

Mr Blair was much keener on going to war with the Americans than Wilson was. But the Americans who egged him on, and perhaps turned his head with flattery, have brought about his potential ruin. He could be the victim of unintended consequences.

To sell the Iraq war to the British, and more especially to the Labour party, Mr Blair put what at best could be described as an implausible case for the existence of the weapons of mass destruction. This has caused support for him to collapse in the opinion polls. That in turn has caused the revival of the Tory party under a leader who, until then, was in a permanent leadership crisis. It has also caused much of the Labour party to doubt whether under Mr Blair their seats will be safe at the next election. This means that, to ingratiate himself with them anew, he is abandoning, or might well be forced to weaken his foundation hospitals and university top-up fees, and much else. At least, those Republicans will be able to say that their war destroyed New Labour and revived the Tories, though that was not what they told Mr Blair would happen.