Have you noticed that some politicians are remembered as much for an accoutrement as for what they actually achieved in office? Take Winston Churchill and his cigar, or Harold Wilson and his pipe. They both had their moments of political influence, of course, over things like war and social liberalism, but we rarely picture them without their smoking accessories.
I’ve never heard it said that Churchill was making a political point with his cigar, but it is widely understood that Wilson, in smoking a pipe, despite apparently preferring the cigar, did so to remind the electorate of his working class bonafides. His efforts were recognised by no less a civic body than the British Pipesmokers’ Council, twice.
A little later, Maggie had a handbag, which, while useful for holding her cudgel, reminded us that this supremely determined politician was still a woman. There was Michael Foot, too, with his donkey-jacket; but I don’t think he wore it trying to make a point, rather to stay warm; and it turned out to be more of a duffel-coat, anyway.
Today, such demonstrations of individual identity are frowned upon. Indeed, most front-bench politicians seem to have decided it’s best to look as much like a middle-ranking executive as possible; that way, they might restrict the offence they give the electorate to that which comes from simply being a politician. Any more than that and they really have no chance.
It’s a matter of public relations. Focus groups, no doubt, offered their assistance: coloured shirts were smug, better a simple white one; well-tailored suits too privileged, better off-the-shelf and not quite fitting; blue ties too tory, red ties too socialist. Look as inoffensive as possible and as similar as possible, and no one can pick you out for special abuse. Perhaps they remember the ridicule William Hague got for wearing that baseball cap. It’s a wonder that Theresa May didn’t get more stick for her shoes.
Who can blame politicians for their reserve? We seem to be living in an age of rage. Or is that an age of e-rage? If you’re clever with your searches, Twitter will provide you with an endless torrent of bile. If it’s your thing, you can have it on your desktop, your laptop, your tablet and your phone, all at the same time: quadrovisual rage. And when Twitter-rage gets to the television news, it’s probably because the perpetrator’s got nicked for crimes involving hate and-or terrorism.
There are other forms of anger, too. There are idiots currently living outside captivity who think holding a party on the death of an old lady is the apogee of freedom of assembly and speech; there are children, some unfortunately trapped in adult bodies, who think bumping a song up the charts is a rad way to make a serious political point; and there are some people who don’t like politicians saving money, and others who don’t like them wasting money (though the bilious outbursts, it has to be said, mostly come from the former group).
Anyway, the nub is that politicians have learnt mostly to run with the herd, lest a big-cat picks them off for prancing differently from the other antelope, or for wearing some bright garb to catch his eye.
There are, however, always a few that delight in ignoring the crowd – or convention, or what is expected of them. Boris Johnson needs no explanation. He’s an anti-politician politician; someone people seem to warm to despite their political prejudices; in other words, he seems authentic, or at least he doesn’t seem hidebound by the rules of political presentation. Nigel Farage is another one. His entire PR operation seems to be based on doing exactly what his image consultant tells him not to do.
‘I’d avoid the pinstripe suit, Nigel,’ says Gideon. ‘It makes you look like a banker, and everyone’s hating bankers just now.’
‘Coloured shirts, too. Big no-no! Especially the pink ones.’
‘I see,’ says Nigel. ‘Anything else?’
‘Well, while we’re on the subject, I’m concerned about the message your trilby, tweeds and cords are sending to the New Affluent Workers and the highbrow Established Middle Classes.’
‘Are you now?’
‘And the beer! What are you thinking? No one will vote for a drunkard.’
‘Now just you wait a minute!’ howls Farage. ‘You go too far with the beer, Gideon.’
And that’s where Gideon loses his job. Because if Farage is cultivating any sort of image, it’s an anti-image: one of not being like the rest of those politicians who created this god-awful mess and don’t seem able to clear it up. If people hate politicians as much as they hate journalists, bankers, lawyers, traffic wardens, policemen and dodgy DJs, then who in their right mind would want to look like one? It stands to reason: the cannier image consultant might advise him to ignore Gideon and do something completely different, if for no other reason than people might vote for him simply because he is thumbing his nose at the politicos.
Except I’m not sure Farage is putting it on. He doesn’t look like a man who cares what people think of him. He has his approach, and that’s that. It just so happens that he is fortunate to be an image consultant’s nightmare just when that’s probably a good thing to be. The question, however, that only time will answer is this: Will he be remembered for achieving something, or simply for his accoutrements?