“I will never get over Rishi Sunak’s height,” was the verdict of one Twitter user. Judging by the likes, she was not alone in being shocked to discover that the pandemic chancellor — face of many emergency lockdown measures and the man touted as a future prime minister — is on the short side.
At a reported 170cm, or 5ft 6in, Sunak is not so far from the average as you might think. According to an NHS health survey from 2016, the mean height of an Englishman was 175.6cm. Perhaps the chancellor’s height came as a surprise, as Sunak has the lanky frame of a taller man. But pictured next to the likes of Simon Clarke MP (see above) who looms over almost everyone at 200cm (6ft 5in) the chancellor looks a tad schoolboy-ish.
Size and authority are linked in many people’s minds. The nudge theorists would tell you that height suggests strength, competence and power — or at least a childhood of eating your greens.
American presidents, to take one example, have generally been taller than the average male citizen, perhaps because wealth, health and height are correlated with your odds of occupying the White House. By my estimate British prime ministers after the Second World War have averaged about 178cm, an average brought down somewhat by Margaret Thatcher, who was reportedly 165cm — that is, just over 5ft 4in.
If, as some have speculated, Sunak succeeds Boris Johnson as the next prime minister, he might well be the shortest man to hold the job since Winston Churchill (5ft 5in). But “Dishy Rishi”, as he is now known, would find himself alongside more than just the old bulldog in the pantheon of short politicians.
To take one contemporary, the recently re-elected president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is of a height with Sunak, which perhaps explains Putin’s penchant for shirtless hunting trips. Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary and another strongman, is reportedly only 5ft 7in. Even Sunak’s boss Johnson claims only to be “only about 5 foot 10 at the outside”, a figure disputed by the Guido Fawkes blog which puts him a bit below the national male average.
Adding a few inches to measurements is common in men, political or otherwise. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (5ft 4in) allegedly chose shorter workers to stand alongside him in a photoshoot and put platforms behind podiums to make himself appear taller. During the debates for selecting the US presidential candidate in 2015, Jeb Bush (6ft 2in) was likewise snapped on the tips of his toes to gain extra height over Donald Trump, whose exact stature is — like much of his presidency — disputed.
Sarkozy knows that short politicians can come in for a ribbing over their height, especially if they try to conceal it. Among the severest examples concerns John Bercow (5ft 5in), the former House of Commons speaker recently snubbed for a peerage, who was once branded a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” by the health minister Simon Burns.
A harsh judgement — and yet Bercow has not been shy in making enemies. As speaker he made a one-man manifestation of “short-man syndrome”, an alleged condition whereby men compensate for their lack of height by being extra pushy. The French statesman Napoleon Bonaparte is the classic example of the complex, British cartoonists of the era having caricatured him as small and belligerent. The image has stayed even as some historians argue he was of average height for the period.
The evidence for such a phenomenon is mixed, although some studies suggest that short people do feel more paranoid about how they are perceived and respond with compensatory behaviour. If so this isn’t without cause: other research suggests that being tall can lead to better life outcomes, loftiness being linked with more earning potential, more sexual partners and the aforementioned political success.
Whether or not height confers such advantages, discussing somebody’s height remains curiously acceptable in a hypersensitive age. As Bercow told the Times in 2014, “Whereas nobody these days would regard it as acceptable to criticise someone on grounds of race or creed or disability or sexual orientation, somehow it seems to be acceptable to comment on someone’s height, or lack of it.” He insisted he wasn’t that bothered, of course.
Excluded from high office, shortchanged by the payroll and sidelined on Tinder, perhaps a Sunak premiership could lead to a rethink in our attitude to the advantages of height.