Bill Carmichael: The ugly truth about politics

Labour leader Ed Miliband had to defend himself this week from a suggestion – from the BBC’s John Humphrys no less – that he was too ugly to become prime minister.

I’m all for robust questioning, but was I alone in thinking the intimation more than a little impertinent? Ed’s certainly not my type, but I would describe him as a bit weird in a geeky sort of way, rather than downright ugly. It’s true I can’t imagine him in Number Ten in a month of Sundays, but that’s because of his blinkered deficit denial, rather than his looks.

And since when did politics become a beauty contest anyway?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The answer is that judging our leaders on their physical attractiveness is very much a modern phenomenon. For example, in recent years we have rejected Neil Kinnock (too Welsh and too ginger), William Hague (too bald and too Northern), Michael Howard (too saturnine) and Gordon Brown (too grumpy and too Scottish) in favour of smoothy-chops matinee idols such as Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But look back only a few years ago and a pretty face was not an essential prerequisite for high political office. Margaret Thatcher was said to set some pulses racing among her cabinet colleagues, but I doubt if her steely glamour won her many votes in the country. Neither James Callaghan nor Edward Heath could be described as oil paintings, and to modern eyes the chinless Alec Douglas-Home looks decidedly odd.

Winston Churchill had the demeanour of a bulldog chewing a wasp, Clem Attlee appeared as though he’d come to read the gas meter and no one mentioned Harold Macmillan’s looks one way or another, probably because in those more enlightened days it wasn’t considered the slightest bit relevant.

In fact out of all our post-war prime ministers perhaps only Anthony Eden, who looked like he could play the romantic lead in a classic British film – Brief Encounter perhaps – would pass muster in the beauty stakes, and he was very much the exception rather than the rule.

Why such a remarkable and rapid change? I suspect the increasing importance of television in political campaigning is at least partly to blame. We now expect our leaders to look good on the small screen. We’ve even invented a word for it – “telegenic”.

We should beware and resist this impulse – history demonstrates time and again that a cute smile is no guarantee of political competence or strength of character.

If we are to reject Miliband, then we should do so because of his policies, not because he isn’t easy on the eye.

Of course, the Americans reached this point many years before we did. They opted for the dazzling Hollywood allure of John Kennedy, while we Brits were content with the rotund, pipe-smoking Yorkshire homeliness of Harold Wilson.

But the American experience also illustrates the dangers of judging a book by its cover. If you opt for the best looking guy in the race you may just end up with a vacuous, value-free, empty suit – just like Barack Obama.

Winter’s tale

I took one of my favourite walks in the Dales last weekend and found daffodils in profusion everywhere.

I can’t remember the blooms coming out so early in January and it has certainly been unseasonably mild for the time of year.

This has led our climate alarmist friends to begin bleating that the end is nigh and we are all going to die as a result of global warming. The mistake they make is to confuse climate with weather. They are very different. A brief temperature spike in midwinter really has little impact on long-term climate trends, nor does a chilly day in August. And I suspect winter may yet have a few nasty surprises in store before spring.

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out, as my nan used to say.