Magazine article The Spectator

My Advice to Ambitious Politicians Worried about Whether They'll Ever Be PM: Keep Your 'Air On!

Magazine article The Spectator

My Advice to Ambitious Politicians Worried about Whether They'll Ever Be PM: Keep Your 'Air On!

Article excerpt

Everyone knows that this is the media age, and that television is all-powerful. The image is all. In the modern age politicians are judged not so much by the fineness of their minds or the nobility of their ideas as by the appearance of their faces. Although in possession of an unusually sharp and incisive brain, poor Robin Cook was excluded from the last Labour leadership contest because he was believed to resemble a distressed garden gnome. He was not 'telegenic'.

These thoughts passed through my mind again as I attended the Tory Party conference in Bournemouth last week. It was, of course, a time for rallying behind the Prime Minister. Unity was the catchword. But there was also talk about who might succeed Mr Major in the unfortunate event of the Tories losing the election. The attractions of many candidates were considered. Would so-and-so carry the vote of the centre of the party? Whom would the Right prefer? Rarely mentioned was a factor which I believe to be of pre-eminent importance in this television age: the state of a man's head.

I am prepared to stick my neck out and say that there is unlikely ever again to be a bald prime minister of this country. It is, after all, some 32 years since we last had a baldie in charge. Alec Douglas-Home admitted that he resembled a skull in appearance but, at a time when most people still did not possess television sets, which were moreover all still black-andwhite, this little deficiency was thought not to matter. Since Lord Home, however, none of our prime ministers have been follicly challenged. Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher (naturally) and John Major have all had a very decent covering.

Leaving aside Lady Thatcher for obvious reasons, these men assumed the highest office at an age when at least two of them would have been expected, on the law of averages, to be bald. None was. Going back a little further, into the pre-television era, we have no problem in finding a fair proportion of bald prime ministers: Churchill and Attlee spring to mind. It is true that in recent times Labour has had two bald leaders, Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Mr Smith was unfortunately never given the opportunity to test the b-question at a general election, but Mr Kinnock was, and failed twice. Might Labour have done better had its leader possessed a full head of hair?

If you still have any doubts, look at the United States. Eisenhower was the last bald president. Perhaps an exception was made in his case because he had won a world war. Ronald Reagan showed that it was possible to be elderly and assume the presidency, but he had ample locks, which he was alleged to have dyed black. Bill Clinton has a small forest on his head, and even Bob Dole is surprisingly hirsute on top for a man of his age. In America it could not be otherwise. As in this country, by way of a bare minimum, leaders are expected to sport a respectable thatch. I suppose that we, the television viewers, must associate luxuriant head-hair with vigour and masculinity -- attributes we want our leaders to have.

By contrast, in post-war France it is almost impossible to be a leader unless you are bald. Mitterrand and de Gaulle had lost most of their hair by the time they became president; Giscard d'Estaing was always as bald as a coot, and Georges Pompidou didn't have much of the stuff. …

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