August 5, 2011 10:22 pm

The Inventory: Jonathan Powell

‘All the things I’ve done are about duty and guilt: trying to better people’s lives’

Jonathan Powell, 54, joined the Foreign Office in 1979 and was appointed Tony Blair’s chief of staff in 1994. Since leaving Downing Street in 2007, he has worked for Morgan Stanley and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He recently founded Inter Mediate to work on international conflict resolution.

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What was your earliest ambition?

The earliest I can remember is wanting to be a filmmaker.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Public school: King’s School, Canterbury. I hated it. I had a great time at University College, Oxford, then did a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania. I started off in radio, then made little films for Granada. I applied for a job at Weekend World and they turned me down; I’d also applied to the Foreign Office, which accepted me.

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Who is your mentor?

My brother Chris. He was the lefty in our family and the one I aspired to be like.

How physically fit are you?

Not nearly as fit as I should be. I travel a huge amount and never have time to do any exercise.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

This is one for Machiavelli. It’s what he calls intelligence, which is a bit more than intelligence, combined with application and luck.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

Not to the best of my knowledge.

How politically committed are you?

I’m a solid Labour party supporter. I aspired to be a Labour MP but it’s difficult to make the leap from the Foreign Office.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I do, and I cycle to work when I can.

Do you have more than one home?

A bungalow in Cornwall as well as our house in London.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

I’d love to have a proper sailing boat and go around the world.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

My Nespresso machine.

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

Cross

I would never accept a coat of arms. I strongly object to the British obsession with a title. I also believe in the abolition of the Lords. So my coat of arms would simply be a great big cross.

In what place are you happiest?

In my sailing dinghy with my family – my wife and my two little girls – preferably on the River Fowey and preferably the right way up.

What ambitions do you still have?

To dedicate myself to Inter Mediate and getting a process going in difficult circumstances, particularly between insurgent groups and governments. I learnt in Northern Ireland that if you don’t have a process, that vacuum is filled by violence.

What drives you on?

All the things I’ve done are about duty and guilt: trying to do your best to better other people’s lives.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Definitely my contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. It was the politicians who made peace but helping to bring that about is likely to bring me the greatest satisfaction of anything I’ll ever do.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

The only soundbite I ever gave to Tony Blair was “education, education, education”. We improved things, but I wish we could have made even more of a difference.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

That I’ve become very establishment and sedate.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

I’d rebuild my life with a different balance.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

That would vary from case to case.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

No.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Five so far – but I’m hoping to make up the other five over the next 50 years.

The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World’ by Jonathan Powell is published in paperback by Vintage

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