Something is happening to David Cameron’s hairline. Simon Carr has kept an eye on it, and on what voters expect from politicians’ hair. Lastly, a few policy options ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
Will a man in a wig ever be prime minister of Britain? Could a white person with curly hair become president of the United States? Has a bravely bald woman ever been elected to anything? And moustaches, what about moustaches—will they ever return to office? Research shows that the answers to these questions are, with variations around the mean, no.
Political trichology sounds like a dismal science, but in the age of “The X Factor”, it probably influences as many votes as policies do. As at all dog shows, the condition of the coat is one of the most essential point-scoring categories. It is clear too that there are positive elements and productive strategies in the art and science of political hair—such as layering, colouring and dealing with the cover-up, which, in politics, is always worse than the original crime.
There will be advice for the new prime minister, David Cameron, here—more and more urgent as the years pass. Cameron is certainly alert to the importance of the subject: his political journey has been mirrored—some say led—by his coiffure. He began parliamentary life on the right of the Conservative Party, which is saying something, as the protégé of the former leader Michael “Prison Works” Howard. Then he struck out leftwards through “Sunshine Conservatism” to his current Conservative communitarianism. At the same time, his parting went from his right, through the centre, to the left. It remains unclear which of these presentations the electorate found the most persuasive.
Politico-trichology is a discipline with sub-disciplines—the law, for one. Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, sued over suggestions that he had falsified his hair. In China there would be no need to take out a civil action: claims that the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao (aged 67), has dyed his hair black may well constitute a criminal offence.
And beyond the law there is a hint of the theological. Silvio Berlusconi endured the transcendental pain of hair transplants (we have his word on that), and the suffering was a public way of maintaining his bond with his family, his extended family, and the electorate. In order to cover the bleeding implants, he had to wear a bandana for a while. A red and white bandana. That took courage, for a man of his age.
The collapse of authority in the 1960s made a bald leader impossible in the West, ending the era when baldness was a sign of virtue. Alec Douglas Home was the last in a tradition of bald prime ministers—preceded by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee—who felt entitled to admiration for their age and experience. And the converse was also true. Downing Street’s most luxuriant hair of the past century belonged to Anthony Eden (Suez), Neville Chamberlain (Munich), the young Tony Blair (Iraq) and Lloyd George (back parlours all over the Welsh valleys).
Today, baldness has many subsets, each sending its own sign depending on the barely perceptible differences in not having hair. There is alopecia-bald, chemotherapy-bald, bald like a marine, bald like a Burmese monk, bald like a gay-bar bouncer, bald like Bruce Willis and bald like an old man. Each is distinct from all the others, but none is an electoral asset.
In a government “of the people”, leaders need to be of the right sort of people. They need to be in the middle of things, not out on the edges with the eccentrics. An expanse of skin-covered bone is the single largest thing about a face, and the qualities it projects are hard, implacable, other-worldly, sacerdotal. Or as voters tend to put it, “kind o’ creepy”.
Hair says youth, but young hair says youth more loudly than anything. Cameron, at 43, is the youngest British prime minister since 1812. His deputy, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, is a few months younger still, and has the youngest hair of any political leader in the West. It is frequently tousled in an informal way which—along with his time as a member of the European Parliament—suggests to voters sex in the afternoon. A lot of people like that.
For years, the best hair in the House of Commons belonged to Ben Bradshaw, who was culture secretary until the election in May. Thick and gently contoured, Bradshaw’s barnet had a lustrous, lanoline appeal. It’s the tragedy of public life, how quickly these signs of youth are taken from us. Age and effort, power and pressure, a working week of 130 hours—all these had their dulling effect.
Bradshaw’s shine declined. The gloss went off it. Having lost office, he has now to reorganise his philosophy, to restructure his roots. It’s what time in opposition is for.
The Bruce Willis tactic has its place in political life—most obviously in the person of Britain’s new foreign secretary, William Hague, who was the Conservative leader from 1997 to 2001. When his hair started under-performing, Hague reasoned that attack was the best form of defence and cut it all off. He sacked his barber and engaged a French polisher.
It was a step into another world. The shape of his skull became the most prominent thing about this humorous and engaging politician; and as his features peeped out from under that overbearing superstructure, he suddenly projected the character not of a clever, state-educated, convivial Yorkshireman, but of Dan Dare’s ancient enemy, the Mekon. The voters felt this was too far ahead of their time. And it probably always will be. Hague’s personal qualities are many. Did his hair bring him down? Did the same go for Ian Duncan Smith, who succeeded him as Tory leader but never made it to an election? Will David Cameron’s hair bring him down too?
Three years ago, a gap started opening up in the back of Cameron’s hair, which at times was seen to be expanding aggressively. An area of white flesh was spreading below the generous, Old Etonian canopy above. The area fluctuated, but at each reappearance observers pronounced it bigger than before. There was a period of weeks when it seemed that a shelf or a wedge at the back of his head had fallen off. As before, a sort of binding, or weaving, or splicing took place, and the gap was concealed. At one point there was a flash of grey at the back, but then it vanished, like an exciting new policy put before a focus group.
Lately the empty quarter too seems to have shrunk. The sink hole has been filled. Whether this was the result of covert transplants or whether it’s a natural, tidal phenomenon is one of the little mysteries of modern politics. Time will tell, as it always does.
At 43, David Cameron is the youngest prime minister since 1812. But that doesn’t keep his hair on. Here are four ways Cameron could go:
The William Hague
Chop it off
The Silvio Berlusconi
Paint it black
The Prince Charles
Whip it up
The Nick Cave
Paint it black and grow it long
(Simon Carr writes the parliamentary sketch for the Independent. His memoir of life as a widowed father, "The Boys are Back in Town", was made into a film, with Clive Owen playing him.)