Too much style, not enough substance

On Friday, I went to two separate events at the Edinburgh Festival. The first was at talk by Jonathan Fenby, ex editor of the South China Morning Post and author of Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got Here and Where it is Heading (which I think, by the way, we should all be reading). Later, I went to the Nicholas Parsons Cabaret (which was oddly funny) and watched him interview an American comedian.

The two talked about different things. Fenby talked about the problem of overcapacity and sliding economic growth in China and the coming property crash; and the American comedian about the difficulties of making people pay to watch comedy. But their talks had one unexpected theme in common – the fabulous hairstyles of China’s group of leaders.

Pictures of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee show them – to the untrained eye – as looking almost identical. Think glasses, red ties, dark suits and slick jet-black hair. There is not a grey hair among them (“grey hair in China,” said the comedian, “is a bit like human rights – to be plucked out at the roots”) thanks presumably to copious quantities of black hair dye (for more on things the Chinese like to dye, this is a must read).

What’s the black hair all about? The usual – style over substance. Chinese leaders need to show that they aren’t too old for the job (they serve for ten years or until they are 68) and that they are in good health. More on this here.

But before we giggle too much at the ludicrous picture of a group of nine oldish men with not a grey hair between them, we might remember that our own politics is just as much the politics of style.

Dr Tim Morgan of Tullett Prebon points out that when Nick Buckles of G4S was about to appear before a Commons committee, Alistair Campbell’s top bit of advice to him was to “get a haircut”, (Buckles doesn’t need a dye job quite yet).

And David Cameron appears to have fewer rather than more grey hairs as the months go by. The truth is, says Morgan, that “image does trump substance in modern Britain.”

The UK economy is in deep trouble with growth non-existent and the fiscal plan failing as well (thanks to the fact that it was predicated on the kind of growth you can’t have during a period of post crisis deleveraging). Yet all we are getting from our politicians is a whole load of “silly season spats” with the likes of Tim Yeo doing the government down in the Telegraph, and pictures of Cameron having a rainy holiday in Cornwall.

What we need is action. What we are getting – and likely to get more of – is “a mixture of ideological sound-bites, waffle, and short-term stratagems determined by focus groups”. Shame really.

PS Subscribers should look out for a full interview with Fenby in the magazine in the next few weeks.