In recent years – certainly since the Blair government – it has become the norm to examine members of parliament for what recent equalities legislation calls ‘protected characteristics’. Looking at national politics through these gimlet eyes is designed to explore how far our political representatives genuinely represent the nation: in other words are they just a bunch of well-educated white, middle-class, ‘happily’ married men or do they refract greater diversity? But of all the ‘characteristics’ for which parliament is scrutinised, facial hair is not often one of them. Is this right? And what, if anything, does it tell us? Are our political representatives too hairy, or just too smooth?
I discovered recently from a very dubious online source that around 18 per cent of the population have facial hair of some sort. This is unsubstantiated, but even so let’s just suppose it is something like this. There are 650 MPs in parliament. If the characteristics of MPs were genuinely representative of the population, then this would mean that 117 MPs would have facial hair. But take a look around the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions and you will quickly see that there are nothing like this number of beardie weirdies.
The foundations of this argument are already insecure: the 18 per cent figure is suspect, and what reason is there to assume that in order to represent someone you have to share their characteristics? But why let that get in the way of a daft argument? The bearded MP is clearly an endangered species, confined to a few hardcore Liberal Democrats and some strange provincial creatures in the Labour Party. So why might this matter? Let’s see if we can’t conjure up a reason, and get all irate and indignant about it.
The crux of any potential argument depends on what it means to be hairy, specifically in the context of contemporary politics. And this, almost inevitably, takes us back to the 1960s – the decade in which The Beatles appeared to collectively reject the idea of a barber shop and allow their hair to just keep growing.
From the early sixties right through to the seventies, increasingly longer hair became a part of the social and political (though mainly social) changes that were taking shape at the time. Long hair became part of popular culture. In the world of popular culture it became popular to rebel. So long hair became the bodily uniform of dissent, and counter-culturalism (except, of course, dissent from growing hair).
But then what happened? Along came, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher, Star Wars, Dirty Hairy, Punk, Postmodernism and all the other incommensurate examples of counter-counter culturalism. And with all these changes people started clippering their hair again. Not only that, but cosmetics companies with their finger on the pulse made a packet out of reinventing Brylcreem and the executive contour. The world turned smooth.
It seems to me that, just as Thatcher and Reagan’s turn to neo-liberalism in the 1980s changed the post-war political consensus and has become a rough consensus for the political elite ever since, so too the model of the 1980s ‘smooth man’ has become the only acceptable (masculine) face for public consumption. It must surely be a culturally significant fact that Thatcher disliked men with beards?
So the argument should, by now, be pretty clear. What does it mean that most of our political representatives don’t have facial hair? It means that our politics – quite apart from party political ideology – are intrinsically conservative, perhaps because our culture is intrinsically conservative.
If you are politically minded this might bother you; but perhaps we should be just as concerned about the way popular culture has raped and abused the hairy. On this score the 1960s has an awful lot to answer for.
Once upon a time (more specifically on and off between 1885 and 1902) Lord Salisbury was our Prime Minister, and also leader of the conservative party. Stepping outside the political boxing ring for a moment, one of the most strikingly mundane facts about Lord Salisbury was that he had a beard. Strike that. He had the beard of a creature from Greek mythology.
Lord Salisbury was very much of his time. In other words a big bearded prime minister was nothing controversial for the political culture of the nineteenth century. Not that beards were the norm for politicians. You might say that the late nineteenth century was not so much the opposite of today, as a happy, prelapsarian time in which facial hair was allowed to grow publicly, free from political scrutiny.
It was only through the politicisation of a shimmering veneer that it became an issue at all. In doing so it reduced something basic, human and natural to an heraldic standard tottering precariously above a Manichean battle.
The story of facial hair in politics is the story of a political monster grown hulking and fat on narrow-minded superficiality, an abuse of nature in the name of an abstraction. Or looked at another way, it is the triumph of politics over people and life.
If it’s a presentational ‘no-no’ to grow facial hair for an aspiring politician, does this not mean that the politics comes before the people? And if that’s the case maybe those missing whiskers suggest that we should only ever use the word democracy in inverted commas.