Terence Blacker: The voice of the people? Just ask a hairdresser

That stupidity has a hot-line to truth is the destination to which politics has been heading for some time
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The Independent Online

The think-tank Demos, which proudly describes itself as "a greenhouse for new ideas", has come up with an absolute ripper of a new idea for the New Year. Government should start introduce hairdressers into the heart of the political process.

"Our research has led us to conclude that hairdressers are the most authentic voice on the high street," says a new Demos report. "Politicians should use the 99,000 hairdressers in the UK to assist in decision-making ... They should be given a formal role in urban policy making."

One or two people might think that those behind this paper may have rather spent too long under the hair-dryer and that some ghastly microwaving mishap has burnt their brains to a crisp. Others might suspect that a publicity-wise think-tank has been having a quiet laugh at the expense of news editors.

If so, they have managed to keep a commendably straight face. Commissioned by Glasgow Council to work on a year-long research project into what the town will look like in 15 years' time - and what an excellent use of public money that is - Demos is now, according to a newspaper report, setting up a series of public meetings with stylists, clippers and blow-driers with a view to canvassing their views on the issues of the day.

Why hairdressers? Apparently, the profession experiences "high social engagement" - what you or I might call "chat" - in its everyday work. In the intimacy of the salon, members of the public confide their aspirations, worries and bugbears. If the fruits of this high social engagement could only be fed into the political system, then Glasgow - and later, perhaps, the world - would be a happier, better-run place.

There has been much skipping about among the crimpers at this news. Asked the kind of issue which had recently been illuminated by his customers, one stylist revealed that several of them had been unhappy at the phasing out of Routemaster buses. From another salon came the hot news that some clients believed that young girls on housing estates were getting pregnant in order to jump the housing list queue. The artistic director of Michaeljohn added a proposal a "hairdressers' ambassador" should be appointed.

Eccentric as it may seem, the Glasgow hairdressing initiative is genuinely revealing, if not in quite the way that its proponents may have hoped. It confirms the increasing importance given to stupidity in the political life of the nation. Those who cut hair for a living, even their artistic directors, are of course neither more nor less wise than the rest of us. The fact that they are obliged to listen as people rattle on about buses or one-parent families makes them no different other members of the community - cab drivers or bar staff or those working for an escort agency - but no one has suggested that these groups should be given a formal role in urban policy making.

Where the hairdressers have clearly impressed the researchers is in their ordinariness. The key word in the Glasgow report is "authentic", today's ultimate adjective of compliment. Authenticity suggests a person uncontaminated by excessive knowledge or educational over-qualification. Those with above-average knowledge and intelligence are deemed to be essentially inauthentic and therefore not to be trusted - it was the reason why David Willetts and Oliver Letwin were quickly ruled out of the Tory leadership contest.

Today it is more important to be "grounded" than to have ideas. An ounce of down-to-earth common sense is worth a pound of intelligence. A degree from Hard Knocks College, the University of Life is worth more than any first from an authentic (that is, inauthentic) egghead university. The idea that stupidity has a hot-line to truth is the destination towards which the politics of focus groups has been heading for some time. The fact that it takes some bright sparks from a think-tank to articulate it - a trahison des clercs, if ever there was one - merely confirms that what matters today is not what is right but what is popular.

Ordinariness wins votes; it makes the ordinary feel better about themselves. When someone on a reality TV show is revealed to be more than normally dumb - Lord Brocket, Tony Blackburn or whoever - the public immediately warms to him. It is no coincidence that the most spectacularly gormless of Big Brother contestants, Jade Goody, is the one who who has effortlessly attained celebrity status. Even non-voting shows like Faking It depend on the contemporary truism that any expertise is essentially inauthentic, a trick that can be learnt.

Inevitably, those whose job it is to maintain standards of one kind or another have become afflicted by the stupidity bug. Critics praise books, films or TV programmes that may not be good but have an oafish integrity. Any model, actor or sportsperson who shows signs of intellectual curiosity is mocked for pretension. A senior police officer cheerfully defends the right of North Wales Police to investigate the allegation that Tony Blair, while watching a TV report of Labour's feeble performance in the Welsh Assembly elections, may have uttered the words "fucking Welsh" at the screen and therefore have been guilty of racism.

Now stupidity is everywhere, anyone with a degree, or even a capacity for independent thought, should, logically, be discouraged from entering the "greenhouse for new ideas". Perhaps, in fact, it has happened already.

Terblacker@aol.com

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