The Hubris Syndrome

Lord Owen, or Dr. David Owen, as he then was, thrashing out a deal with Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe in what was then Rhodesia as a dashing young Foreign Secretary in the late 1970s. Below is a review of his book, In Sickness and in Power, by David Marquand, and an interview by Elizabeth Grice.

Unfit for purpose

David Marquand | New Statesman | Published 29 May 2008

The health of our leaders is important to them – but even more so to us. But, as a new study shows, at critical times our politicians’ ability to take decisions has been seriously compromised – and then covered up.

David Owen has had an unusually rich and varied career. After qualifying as a doctor he became a neurological registrar at St Thomas’s Hospital. At 27, he was elected to parliament as the Labour member for a marginal seat. At 38 he was the youngest foreign secretary since Anthony Eden. In the early 1980s he was the most dynamic and original, though also the most wayward, of the Gang of Four who set up the Social Democratic Party. In 1983 he succeeded Roy Jenkins as SDP leader, and for four years he contrived, with brazen chutzpah and demonic energy, to make the tiny SDP band of MPs look like a serious political force. The collapse of the party after the 1987 election left him without a political home, but as a cross-bench peer he found a new role as a distinguished international statesman and troubleshooter.

But Owen was a doctor before he was a public figure, and his combination of political experience and medical (particularly neurological) knowledge has given him a unique perspective on the crucial role of powerful individuals in history. The first fruits came last year in a mordant, tantalisingly brief analysis of what he called the “hubris syndrome”, particularly as manifested in the Iraq misadventure of George W Bush and Tony Blair. In his new book he has cast his net more widely. In Sickness and in Power is a study of the role of illness, mental and physical, in the careers of a selection of 20th-century political leaders ranging from Stalin and Hitler to JFK and the last shah of Iran. It is a major contribution to historical and political understanding that no one else could have written. I found it utterly absorbing, sometimes unexpectedly moving, and often quite frightening.

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David Owen: Tony Blair and John F Kennedy may have been power crazy

Daily Telegraph | Last Updated: 12:01am BST 15/04/2008

Most political leaders become mentally or physically incapable of sound judgment and lose their grip on reality, argues David Owen in a new book. Elizabeth Grice talks to the former doctor and politician

He may seem relaxed and normal now, but didn’t he once have a touch of megalomania himself?

The former Labour minister and founder of the SDP says he could happily have studied chemistry of the brain in his laboratory overlooking the Thames if his political career on the other side of the river had failed.

“It would not have been a problem for me,” he says. “I loved being a doctor and I adored my time at St Thomas’s. I had a very marginal seat all my political life. At times, medicine has been crowded out by politics but my love for it has never weakened.”

Even when he was foreign secretary he carried on (rather pedantically) calling himself a medical practitioner in official documents, as if politics was a sideline.

Political psychology took hold of him when he was a young medic helping to treat MPs for alcoholism and depression.

He saw the pressures they were under and began to consider how illness affects the decision-making powers of leaders. And he noticed that some leaders who weren’t actually ill in the conventional sense became so intoxicated with power that it warped their judgment.

There were warning signs: unshakeable self-confidence, contempt for advice and inattention to detail. Gradually, they would lose their grip on reality.

There was no name for such a condition, so Lord Owen invented one: Hubris Syndrome (HS). His book of that title, published last year, was really just one chapter of a six-year study of illness in heads of government, rushed out to coincide with Tony Blair’s departure from No 10.

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