Earlier this month the Evening Standard unveiled a list of London’s most influential people. The list was compiled by a panel of specialist reporters and critics.
The people on the list came from a wide range of fields including politics, philanthropy, the creative industries, education and sport.
The list is revealing about how the commentators gauge influence: of the top five, only one is not a politician, and it is arguable that more financial figures should have been included.
What is really interesting though is looking at the backgrounds of London’s top 15 most influential to see what they say about the way our society is structured and how the 15 reached the top of their chosen professions.
Five politicians are included in the top 15 on the list: Taking the number one spot is Boris Johnson, he is followed by David Cameron; Ed Miliband is number three and George Osborne, four. Nick Clegg trails behind at number eleven.
Sadly the background of the politicians is not hugely diverse. Johnson and Cameron both went to Eton, while Osborne went to St Paul’s School and Clegg to Westminster, the only one of the five to attend a comprehensive was Miliband, who went to Haverstock Comprehensive School in London. All five went to Oxbridge, and Cameron and Miliband read the same subject, Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Cameron, Osborne and Johnson were all members of the ultra-exclusive dining club, The Bullingdon. At Cambridge Clegg acted for Footlights with Helena Bonham Carter, who has recently been photographed going for a stroll with the Camerons after Sunday Lunch at Chequers. Certainly the politician’s worlds are interconnected.
All the politicians have taken reasonably similar routes into the world of politics. These paths often feature political advisory and journalistic work or both.
Cameron, for example, after leaving Oxford, went straight into the Conservative research department; he was then seconded to Downing Street to brief John Major for Prime Minister’s Question Time. In 1992 he became Special Adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, who he worked for at the time of Black Wednesday, when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. He went on to work as Special Adviser for Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, before becoming Director of Corporate Affairs at the private sector Carlton Communications. He was elected to Parliament in 2000.
Like Cameron, George Osborne worked in the Conservative Research Department after a brief period in journalism. He became Special Adviser to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time of the BSE crisis and later worked in the Political Office at Downing Street, before going on to work for the then Conservative leader, William Hague, as his speech writer and political secretary. He was elected an MP in 2001.
Ed Miliband likewise started off in journalism, as a media researcher for Andrew Rawnsley on the Channel four show, A Week in Politics. In 1993 he began working for Harriet Harman as a researcher and speech writer, before going on to work for Gordon Brown in the same role. After Labour’s 1997 victory he became Brown’s Special Adviser. In 2004 he became Chairman of the Treasury’s Council of Economic Advisers and went on to become an MP in 2005.
Nick Clegg also started out in journalism after studying at the College of Europe in Bruges. He began by working as a trainee for Christopher Hitchens in New York, before going on to win the Financial Times’ David Thomas Prize when writing about economic reform in Bulgaria. Clegg also spent time working for the G24 co-ordination unit in Brussels which delivered aid to the countries of the former Soviet Union and in a similar role at the European Commission. In 1999 he became an MEP and in 2004 an MP.
Boris Johnson also began in journalism, at the Times, although he was sacked, within a year, for falsifying a quote. He later went on to join the Telegraph as a leader and feature writer before becoming the paper’s European Community Correspondent and then its Assistant Editor. In 1999 he went on to become the editor of the Spectator, a position he retained until 2005. While doing this job, Johnson was elected as a Conservative MP, a position he held until he became the Mayor of London.
Johnson, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg all come from extremely privileged backgrounds and are all descended from some interesting characters. Boris Johnson’s father Stanley, worked at World Bank and the European Commission before becoming an MEP. His great-grandfather was Ali Kemal Bey, the Turkish interior minister who was killed during the Turkish War of Independence.
David Cameron’s father was a stockbroker and his mother, the daughter of a Justice of the Peace and Baronet. He is illegitimately directly descended from William IV, by the King’s mistress Dorothea Jordan. Nick Clegg’s family is also extremely prosperous; his father is the chairman of a bank while he is related to Baroness Moura Budberg, who allegedly spied for the British in the Soviet Union in the early part of the twentieth century.
George Osborne has perhaps the most privileged background of the lot, his father is Sir Peter Osborne, the 17th Baronet, who founded the successful fabric design firm Osborne & Little, his mother is the daughter of the rather improbably named Lady Clarisse Loxton Peacock. With backgrounds like these it is easy to see how the politicians fall victim to charges of being out-of-touch with normal people.
Ed Miliband’s upbringing is a real contrast. He is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. His mother, a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust, survived because she was protected by the Polish community. She later became one of the early members of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a social activist. His father Ralph Miliband was a well-known Marxist academic.
Only three of the top fifteen most influential Londoners are categorised as “creatives”. The highest ranking is Danny Boyle at number five; he is followed by Thomas Hetherwick, the designer of the Olympic Caldron at number thirteen. EL James of “Fifty Shades of Grey” fame, is number fourteen.
The backgrounds of the creatives are more diverse than those of the politicians but both Hetherwick and James had the benefit of a private education. Boyle in contrast attended a local school in Lancashire and considered the priesthood, but was persuaded against it and later became involved in drama. He went on to study at Bangor University and is now famous for his bold, critically acclaimed films like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire as well as for his success as the Artistic Director of the Olympics which made England appear decidedly Cool Britannia.
Thomas Hetherwick attended the private Sevenoaks and Rudolf Steiner schools. Steiner schools are contentious, placing more weight on extra curricula activities than traditional schools, where activities like gardening sit alongside traditional lessons. The focus on creative subjects seems to have paid off for Hetherwick though, he went on to the Royal Academy and later set up Hetherwick Studios. Hetherwick is now best known for the Olympic “cauldron” which contained 204 petals representing the countries involved in the games; the petals fused to create a united Olympic flame. He’s also known for other buildings including the innovative East Beach Café in Littlehampton.
Erika Leonard James the writer of the worldwide publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is credited with bringing “mommy porn” into the publishing mainstream, due to the book’s multitude of sex scenes and the book’s focus on BDSM (Bondage Domination Sadism and Masochism). Before the success of Fifty Shades of Grey Leonard read History at the University of Kent, and went on to become a television executive, she got into writing after reading romantic fiction on the tube, and was inspired by the Twilight Series. She only started writing in 2009 and managed to write the trilogy at the same time as holding down a TV job and bringing up her two teenage sons.
There aren’t many women in the top 15. Four to be precise. Two of them come from one category on the list “Deal Brokers, Tycoons and Entrepreneurs”; neither is British. The first, at number twelve, is the Burberry Chief Executive, Angela Ahrendts, the second; number fifteen, is Dame Marjorie Scardino, the publisher Pearson’s Chief Executive. Both women’s careers demonstrate hard graft, while their pictures show they are also impeccably groomed.
Ahrendts comes from New Palestine, Indiana (population 2098). Her father was a small-town entrepreneur and her mother modelled. Ahrendts herself went to Seventh Avenue on a one way ticket and slogged her way up the career ladder, working at the bra maker Warnaco, and Liz Clairborne, before going to Burberry. Ahrendts often worked 80 hour weeks in America while also managing to have three children. She is credited with making Burberry into one of the largest five luxury brands in the world.
Scardino like Ahrendts is from the US, but in contrast to Ahrendts, Scardino had careers in various industries before getting in to management. She started off studying French and psychology at Baylor University before becoming a journalist and then an editor at Associated Press. She went on to study law, and while working as the managing partner of a law firm, she and her husband launched a newspaper, the Georgia Gazette, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The Gazette wasn’t an economic success though and sold for a dollar. She credits the experience with teaching her a useful lesson. She later joined the Pearson owned Economist Magazine and as President doubled its North American circulation. In 1997 she became the heard of Pearson, the first woman to head a FTSE 100 company. She is thought to have been included at number fifteen after recently pulling off a £2billion merger between Penguin and Random House. At the same time as doing all of this Scardino, like Ahrendts has had three children.
The success of this year’s Olympics have brought four of the figures on the list to prominence. Danny Boyle’s and Tim Hetherwick’s roles in the games have been discussed, but the man credited with the UK’s successful bid comes in at number seven, Lord Coe. The Olympics also brought Mo Farah to notoriety as the winner of the Men’s 10,000 and 5,000 metres, he is number eight.
Lord Coe, the Chairman of the British Olympic Association was born in London and his mother was half-Indian. He went to comprehensive schools in Sheffield and later studied Economics and Social History at Loughborough. He first joined an athletics team at the age of 12 and went on to have a successful career in this field, which included him winning Olympic Gold for the men’s 1500 metres and, in 1980, holding all four men’s middle distance world records simultaneously. When Coe retired he went into politics becoming a Conservative MP in 1992, although he lost his seat in 1997. He later returned to politics as William Hague’s Chief of Staff before accepting a Life Peerage in 2000. Coe later became ambassador for London’s bid to the host the Olympics and the rest is a rosy glow of 29 gold medals. Coe also has four children.
Mo Farah has the least privileged upbringing in the top 15 most influential. He was born in war-torn Mogadishu in 1983 and moved to the UK, where his father lived, at eight, speaking barely a word of English. As a result of the language barrier Farah struggled academically but his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, spotted his talent for athletics. Farah won his first major title in 2001 and went on to win gold for the men’s 5000 metres in the World Championships in 2011, before his double gold win at the Olympics. Farah’s dedication to athletics means a hard training regime. He runs 120 miles a week, often at the speed of one mile every 5.4 minutes. He also works with his coach four times a week, often using an under-water treadmill. Following his Olympic success Farah set up the Mo Farah Foundation which provides aid to East Africa.
The remaining three in the list’s top 15 could broadly be categorised as public servants. The Queen, number nine, Bernard Hogan-Howe the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, number ten and Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, number six. The Queen’s background is well known, unlike those of Hogan-Howe and King.
King and Hogan-Howe’s upbringings are remarkable for their lack of privilege when compared to the backgrounds of the majority of the politicians in the top 15. King was the son of a railway worker who later retrained as a teacher. King went to a local school, before attending Wolverhampton Grammar School. Hogan-Howe was brought up single-handed by his mother and went to a comprehensive in Sheffield.
Both men worked hard to reach their current positions. Hogan-Howe, following a brief period in the NHS after school, went on to join the South Yorkshire Police. He was chosen by the police to study for an MA in Law at Oxford. He went on to gain a Diploma in Applied Criminology from Cambridge. He returned to the South Yorkshire Police and rose to be District Commander of the Doncaster West area. In 1997 he became Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside Police. During his four years in Merseyside crime dropped by a third. In 2001, he was transferred to the Metropolitan Police and in 2011 he became the Met’s Commissioner.
King similarly worked hard, from Wolverhampton Grammar School he went to Cambridge where he gained a first-class degree in Economics, he continued his education at Cambridge and then at Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar. He went on to become an academic, teaching economics at the University of Birmingham and then at LSE. King joined the Bank of England in 1991 as Chief Economist; he became Deputy Governor in 1998, and subsequently Governor.
In short, the list of Britain’s 15 most influential people shows people with immense determination. Although many of the politicians have privileged backgrounds their biographies show just how hard they work. Nick Clegg, for example, speaks five languages and has written many books and pamphlets while Boris Johnson at the same time as having a heavy duty political career has managed to have three collections of his journalism and two novels published as well as broadcasting a documentary series. What is more staggering is that most of these people have children. All the woman on the list have them as well as most of the men. Boris Johnson and Lord Coe for example both have four, while David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Danny Boyle all have three. Above all the top 15 of the Standard’s list of “The 1000, London’s most Influential People” displays people with true talent who also work very, very hard.
There are however policy lessons to be learned from the backgrounds of the people on this list too. Of the British in the top 15 Most Influential, seven were privately educated. It seems sad that in a country where only 7% of people are privately educated they are disproportionately represented in the list of London’s most influential. State education needs to improve in order to inject more diversity into London’s powerbrokers. Similarly, women are under-represented and serious policy measures need to be considered to address women’s disproportionate lack of influence.
BY: Catherine Boyd