The bumper book of political myths has a new entry. Filed under ‘Campbell, Menzies – reasons for resignation’, it states that Ming quit as leader of the Lib Dems because people thought he was too old.
This is nonsense.
Born in 1941, Michael Howard is the same age as Ming Campbell. Yet at the last election, few people were saying that he was too old to run the country. They may have said a lot of other things, but his age was not a problem. Howard’s greying hair may even have been an advantage, helping to soften his image – these things are relative.
Other prominent figures born in 1941 include Bill Oddie, Jackie Collins and Richard Dawkins. I’m not suggesting that any of these should run for high office. After all, one is a wildlife presenter, one writes trashy bestsellers and the other is Joan Collins’ sister. But despite being in their mid-sixties, all of them seem lively sorts to me.
The brutal truth is that Ming Campbell had to go because people thought he looked too old: His hair, complexion and physiognomy, when viewed through the distorting effect of television, gave the impression of a man older than his years. Thus it was aesthetic imperfection that the people took against not the year of his birth.
Of course, it didn’t help that he was a bit dull for our modern day media. He was, let us not forget, the first politician in history to have his career damaged by an entirely wholesome toilet-related incident. However, I’m willing to bet that if he’d been blessed with the spry good looks of a Ronald Reagan or a Jacques Chirac, he’d still be leader of the Lib Dems.
So am I saying that the public judge their politicians on looks alone? Well, no. Advancement to the ranks of the political papabile depends on a wider spread of qualifications. However, it does seem to me that a certain level of physical attractiveness, though not sufficient, is becoming increasingly necessary. If you look too frail, thin, fat, florid or just plain butt-ugly, then you might as well forget about your leadership ambitions.
It goes without saying that this is deeply unfair, but does it matter? It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the standardisation of our politicians’ faces and the standardisation of the words that come out of them. As an equation it plays to the ‘good looks / vacuous personality’ prejudice that makes most of us feel better about our own aesthetic imperfections.
However, the evidence does not support this assumption. For instance, the blogging MP Nadine Dorries only has to make an appearance to brighten up a dull day on the Tory backbenches, but she also speaks and writes from the heart, eschewing the pol-speak that does so much to deaden public discourse. As such, she’s breath of fresh air and better value than any number of identikit MPs.
Then there’s David Cameron, whose looks apparently meet with female approval (though in my opinion he’s a deadringer for Iggle Piggle of CBeebies fame).
Can he be described as dull and formulaic? Some have tried, but I’m afraid they’re just venting their spleen. Yes, he’s a master of presentation – but he’s also the change-maker in British politics today, in contrast to his enemies on the Left (and on the Right) who remain stuck in their same old positions.
So, attractive doesn’t have to mean unexciting. However, I am concerned that the raising of the beauty bar restricts the talent pool from which future party leaders might emerge. The current Lib Dem leadership race rather proves the point. The vaguely handsome Nick Clegg is already eclipsing the plainer-looking Chris Huhne – who’s the ballsier candidate by far. As for Steve Webb and David Laws, the most intelligent and interesting of the Lib Dem MPs, they’re not even standing. It’s not that any of these gentlemen is a physical monstrosity; just that the best-looking among them automatically takes poll position without any serious analysis of what he actually stands for.
They used to say that politics is showbiz for ugly people. Not anymore it isn’t