The pitfalls of pride

David Marquand asks whether hubris is an occupational hazard for modern politicians. Should we be qu

As always, the Greeks had a word for it. For them, "hubris" was a wilful, impious and ultimately self-destructive refusal to respect the limits of the natural order and the human condition. It led men to behave as though they were gods, or even to imagine that they actually were gods: to indulge their passions, and particularly their passion for glory, exorbitantly, irrationally and with contempt for others. It was punished by Nemesis, goddess of divine retribution and due proportion.

In the secular societies of today, the notion has been domesticated. The gods have disappeared from the scene, and so have piety and impiety. But though "hubris" and "hubristic" have become part of the small change of political invective, the words still carry a flavour of their classical origins. The hubristic display "inordinate" ambition, "exaggerated" self-belief, "recklessness" in the pursuit of power or glory and contempt for "mere" calculation. They defy the odds set by nature and discoverable by reason; they are puffed up with pride; and they think they are infallible, or divinely inspired.

But the notion is wreathed in ambiguity. "Pride goes before a fall," we say. But we also speak of "proper pride". Pride is a sin and humility a grace, but exaggerated humility can be nauseating, and proud defiance in the face of hopeless odds can inspire. Milton's Lucifer was nothing if not hubristic; that is why he was thrown out of heaven. But there is something magnificent about his indomitable will. Macho bullies are loathsome, but so are insinuating creeps. In truth, pride is double-edged: destructive and ludicrous in the wrong place and the wrong proportions, but heroic and admirable in the right ones. Even hubris can be a strength as well as a weakness. In the terrible days of May 1940, when the Churchill cabinet considered negotiating with Hitler, the voice of rational calculation and sober common sense belonged to the old appeaser, Lord Halifax, who would have sold Britain out as Marshal Pétain did France if he had won the argument. It was Winston Churchill who recklessly defied the odds for the sake of the nation's honour; if he hadn't, Hitler would have won the war.

Was Churchill gripped by hubris? Perhaps not, but he displayed many of the traits normally associated with it. He was impulsive, wild, reckless, over-confident and prone to episodes of astonishingly bad judgement. One of the reasons why so few people took his philippics against appeasement seriously is that, in the early 1930s, he led the ultras of the Conservative right in a long, doomed campaign against dominion status for India, which made his name stink in the nostrils of the liberal-minded. Similar ambiguities shroud the career of Britain's greatest peacetime prime minister, the self-flagellating, prostitute-saving and awe-inspiring William Gladstone. In the terms of quotidian common sense, Irish Home Rule, the great cause of his life, was a disastrous failure. It split the Liberal Party, procured 20 years of Conservative hegemony and did nothing for Ireland. There was something almost unhinged about Gladstone's conduct during the Home Rule battle - in part because he believed he was doing God's work. Yet Britain would have been saved decades of bitterness and bloodshed if he had prevailed.

At which point, enter David Owen. In this fascinating and important, but tantalisingly short book, he brings a unique range of experiences to bear on what he calls the "hubris syndrome". At first sight his own career seems a textbook example, not of hubris perhaps, but certainly of Nemesis. His rise to the political heights was meteoric. He was foreign secretary at 38. Four years later he was the most original and dynamic, as well as the most wayward, of the Gang of Four who created the SDP and paved the way for Tony Blair and new Labour. He led the SDP for four tumultuous years from 1983 to 1987 and contrived, by dint of demonic energy, an extraordinary grasp of detail and an unsleeping will, to make it appear as a potential party of government instead of the tiny handful it really was.

But he flew too near the sun, and after a disappointing election result in 1987, the party and Owen's leadership both came crashing down. He has been a figure of some consequence in public life since then, but as an elder statesman, not as a player. However, he is much more than an unusually distinguished former politician. Before he went into politics he was a neurological registrar, and if he had stayed in medicine he might have become an equally distinguished neurologist. What makes this book a unique contribution to political understanding is that Owen the sometime politician has joined forces with Owen the sometime neurologist and doctor.

The thesis is more nuanced than the title suggests. Owen thinks that George W Bush and Blair were right to topple Saddam Hussein by force. He parted company with them over the rationale for the war, not over military action per se. For him, the alleged Iraqi WMD were a side issue. Like most people he thought Saddam had them, but in his eyes that was not the point. He wanted a war fought explicitly and honestly for regime change, and believes that such a war would have won public and Labour Party support. He thinks Bush and Blair showed signs of incipient hubris before the war, particularly in their bombastic talk of a "war on terror" and (chiefly in Blair's case) in their extraordinary belief that the Security Council would pass a second resolution explicitly authorising a war on Saddam. But these faults, he implies, were comparatively venial. Their real crime, from which all the subsequent disasters have flowed, was to assume, with brazen indifference to the complexities of Iraqi society, that there was no need to plan for the aftermath of the war; that American power was so overwhelming that the Coalition could do whatever it liked; and that there was no danger of an anti-American insurgency. This, Owen thinks, was pure hubris; and the results for Blair and Bush, their countries and the Iraqi people were disastrous.

It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, but there are serious flaws in the argument leading up to it. Owen believes that Bush and Blair succumbed to hubris after the war had started, when their early triumphs went to their heads. By implication, at least, he thinks a war of hard-headed realpolitik, fought for regime change, would have been justifiable in international law and therefore non-hubristic. To put it mildly, this is a very odd argument. In times gone by, it might have been legitimate for a small group of western nations to arrogate to themselves the right and duty to discipline lesser breeds without the law, in the name of the international community. But by the end of the 20th century this was no longer true. "Cool", Owen-style interventionism would have outraged the international community as much as did the "hot", Rambo-like interventionism of Bush and Blair, and it would have been at least as hubristic.

But it would be wrong to end on a sour note. The real value of Owen's book lies in its psychiatry and neurology, not in its politics. His central premise is both startling and original. He thinks it is time to rescue "hubris" from everyday political language, and to give it a rigorous, analytical, scientific edge. It is, after all, an occupational hazard for political leaders, even in democracies where its most dangerous manifestations are usually held in check; and it can have terrible consequences for all concerned. For self-protection we need to understand hubris better than we do; ideally we need screening procedures to weed out likely sufferers before entrusting our future to them. It is hard to see this happening at all soon, but that is not a reason for refusing to think about the problem. Owen has put all believers in pluralist democracy in his debt by setting the process in motion.

The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power, David Owen, Politico's Publishing, 160pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?