The 50 people who matter today: 31-40

31-40 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

31.Sonia Gandhi

The kingmaker

Italian-born and a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi is the unexpected matriarch of India's ruling dynasty. In the 18 years since the assassination of her husband, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, she has become a formidable force in the world's biggest democracy. Leading the Congress Party to victory in 2004, she declined the prime ministership, instead nominating the economist Manmohan Singh for it, yet she is widely accepted to be the real power behind the throne - particularly given that in 2007 she also selected the president, Pratibha Patil. Gandhi's influence looks sure to continue into the next generation, as both of her children, Rahul and Priyanka, have been manoeuvred into public life.

32: David MacKay

Power ranger

The Cambridge physicist David J C MacKay used £10,000 of his own money to publish Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, which, thanks largely to a word-of-mouth campaign that had it circulating like ecological samizdat, very quickly entered Amazon's top 60 bestsellers. (It is also available as a free download from MacKay's website.)

Much of MacKay's research has been in the field of information theory, neural networks and software development. Among the many achievements that earned him a professorship in 2003 and election to the Royal Society this year is Dasher, a data-entry interface that enables disabled people to use computers. But Sustainable Energy is the reason MacKay really matters, and the reason he has just been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

For too long, he argues, the climate change debate has been disastrously polarised: between those who think the point of "peak oil" is imminent and those who insist we are not heading for an energy crisis any time soon, and between proponents of renewable energy and supporters of nuclear power. He cuts through all the noisy polemicising by settling on a simple unit of measurement that allows us to calculate a country's power consumption. If we know how much power is consumed by land area, then, because most kinds of renewable energy are harvested on land, we will be able to "quantify the potential power production from renewables".

MacKay does the maths and makes an empirically watertight case for the use of energy crops, windfarms and solar power. He calculates that if Britain adopted a mixture of wind, solar and nuclear power, 10 per cent of the country would have to be covered by wind turbines; the area occupied by solar power stations would be five times the size of London; and the 50 nuclear power stations needed would occupy some 50km². "The effort required for a plan like that is very large," he says. "But [it is] imaginable." The argument over energy will never be the same again.
Jonathan Derbyshire

33. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Political trailblazer

If one good thing emerged from the civil war in Liberia, it was the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. When she took office in January 2006, she became the world's first black female head of state. In her three years as president, she has led the charge against corruption in her country and worked tirelessly to attract investment to Africa, particularly by building relations with the US. In 2007 George W Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour. In return, two years later, Johnson-Sirleaf made the US television host Jon Stewart a chief.

34.Simon Cowell

The X man

He could be on the list for The X Factor alone. The queues across Britain, the thousands lusting for stardom, are an annual fixture. Millions tune in every week to watch the judges weed out the mad or the painful of voice. All the while, Cowell pockets a fortune by signing the winners to his label, Syco. His influence extends beyond the music industry, however: the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent TV formats are now copied around the world. He might not be loved (he came in at number 33 on Channel 4's list of the all-time 100 Worst Britons), but he shapes much of the world's entertainment.

35. Oprah Winfrey

Chatelaine of chat

Some - Vanity Fair, Time, CNN - have said that Oprah is one of the most influential women in the world. Oprah isn't just a name, a TV show, or a brand - it's a culture with millions of followers. Her approval can turn a book into a bestseller, or even elect a president (one academic study suggested that she delivered roughly a million votes for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, essentially winning him the nomination). And now, there is talk of her entering the Senate. But Oprah also represents the ultimate American story: the self-made woman from the humblest of beginnings who became, at one point, the world's only black billionaire. Now she's giving back - her extensive philanthropy includes setting up a girls' school in South Africa.

36. Muhammad Yunus

Loan star

As a young economist in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus became interested in microcredit, the idea that small loans could make a disproportionate difference to the lives of those too poor for banks to lend to. In 1976, he raised the funds to set up the Grameen Bank on these principles, advancing nearly all its credit to women, whom he thought were more likely to use the funds responsibly. He was proved right. The concept was so successful in helping lift customers out of poverty that it has been copied around the world, and Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

37.Carolyn Porco

Star gazer

Carolyn Porco, a Nasa adviser with an asteroid named in her honour, holds the future of space travel in her hands. Renowned for her work in exploration and imaging of the outer solar system, she was part of a mission to Saturn's moons that, in her own words, "possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration" by finding an environment in which there could be living organisms. Porco bridges the gap between scientific discovery and popular culture, acting as consultant for the 2009 Star Trek film. There is even an online petition to get her a cameo appearance in the sequel. How many scientists can say that?

38.Yukio Hatoyama

Prime mover
Japan's new prime minister is spearheading the most progressive political shift in his country's postwar history, which includes plans for a 25 per cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, not to mention high-profile talk of a modern international "fraternity" (cemented, perhaps, by an Asian single currency), both of which would have been unthinkable in Japan just two months ago. Unlike Barack Obama, Hatoyama has a huge parliamentary majority to support his ideas.

39. Rex Tillerson

Oil swell

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest non-state energy company on the planet, Rex Tillerson is the quintessential villain of the
environmental camp. Since taking over the company in 2006, he has abandoned his pre­decessors' hardline approach, openly acknowledging the possibility of global warming - this year, he sanctioned a $600m investment in ­algae fuel research - but even this is a drop in the ocean of Exxon's oil reserves. He stands firm on saying that energy demand will increase in the next 20 years, and that Exxon will supply the oil and gas to satisfy that need.

40. Usain Bolt

Mr Lightning

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth. His tauntingly casual stride across the finishing line has become one of the resonant images of the 21st century: his yellow Jamaica vest alone at the front of the pack. He is now recognised as the most extraordinary athlete in the world, ever. His success, combined with his humour and popularity, has reignited the world of athletics and the Olympic Games, tainted in recent years by drug scandals. Bolt's performance signals the end of US dominance in track and field sports. But most of all, he has shown the peak of physical ability - a human being at the limit of his bodily powers.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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