The parting in David Cameron’s hair is another example of the baleful influence of marketing on UK political life. It started on the left, then lurched to the right, and was most recently seen occupying the centre ground.
Why this uncertainty? Why this ceaseless restlessness? The leader of the opposition must be experimenting with the look that will make him most attractive to voters. To politicians of a bygone era, this would have been ridiculous. Did Churchill or Attlee fret about their looks? But that was before television became so dominant that its only strength – visual communication – relegated the written and spoken word to a poor second. It was also before US marketing techniques were applied to politics and imitated on this side of the Atlantic.
Today, there are two determining factors in UK politics. First is the economy – if voters feel reasonably content with their material wellbeing they will stick with the party in office; if not, they will wreak their revenge. Second is the personal appeal of the party leaders. One of the most telling phrases in all of US politics damned Richard Nixon – “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Tricky Dicky looked shifty, and appearances count.
In the UK, when William Hague fought a general election, it was successfully argued by his opponents that his facial features and bald head made him unelectable. If Gladstone were alive, he too would not have stood a chance.
A shallow and superficial society judges its leaders and elects them on shallow and superficial grounds. Blair’s youthful good looks were popular with the female voters, which counted for a lot. David Cameron is hitching his star to a similar appeal. But, whereas Blair dispensed with his left-side parting early in his career and swept his hair back in an exciting contemporary way, Cameron is showing a characteristic indecisiveness.
One can see his problem. Has the swept-back, centre-parting look had its day? Is it yesterday’s parting? Is a nation chastened by economic malaise ready for a return to the comforting security of a conventional side parting?
It’s a difficult decision, not least because the centre-parting has showbizzy connotations and, after the Blair years, we have had enough of that. To take just one example, Alan Titchmarsh’s transmogrification from amiable TV gardener into full-blown, ubiquitous, all-purpose and infinitely tiresome media star took place immediately after he changed his parting from side to centre. That was no accident. Similarly, the hair that sits on the most empty head in the world of celebrity belongs to David Beckham and has appeared in so many different styles over the years that even his most enthusiastic admirers have lost count. While David Cameron must envy the other David’s popularity, he would be well advised to avoid his reputation for cheap attention-seeking.
Two possible solutions to the problem suggest themselves. First, Cameron could seek the advice of an image consultant – one of the strange professions born out of the age of economic illusion that has now passed. Luckily for him, one has already offered her opinion gratis. Jennifer Aston, who owns the firm of image specialists Aston & Hayes, says his centre parting “looks ridiculous” and “has the effect of making his nose look big”.
So, we must add outsize noses to the list of qualities that debar their holders from high office. Not in France, however. President Sarkozy is well equipped in the hooter department and it did him no harm. It certainly did nothing to dampen the ardour of his lovely wife Carla Bruni, who says in a new book that she was won over by his “physique, charm and intelligence”. She says he was so bright he appeared to have “five or even six brains”.
Which brings us to the second possible solution to Cameron’s dilemma – focus groups. Had the French electorate known at the time that their presidential candidate had that many brains, they could have decided which one to vote for. A simple marketing survey would have indicated their preference.
So, a carefully selected focus group of Britons – some hirsute, others bald, some men, others women; in short, a cross-section of socio-economic types – could determine the optimum location of David Cameron’s parting. Once decided, he could stick with it, confident that he had the whole-hearted backing of the British people. I am no political pundit, but my guess is that in these straitened times the left-side parting, smaller-nose look will win the day, and, when the time comes, the election.