Hubris, power and the correct way to topple dictators: an interview with David Owen
David Owen, former UK Foreign Secretary, noticed a tall man weaving his way through the post-Buckingham Palace banquet crowd. Looming over him, he said: “You are Lord Owen aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Owen replied.
It was June 2003 and Vladimir Putin was making the first state visit to the UK by a Russian leader since the time of the tsars. Owen was there because he was then chairman of Yukos International, a subsidiary of Yukos, the giant oil company whose CEO and majority owner was the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then widely viewed as a potential challenger for the Russian presidency.
The long finger stabbed into his chest with each word.
“Tell. Khodorkovsky. To. Stay. Out. Of. Politics!”
Without another word, the mystery man swivelled around and away into the Anglo-Russian crowd.
David Owen, highly experienced politician, former UK Foreign Secretary and international businessman used to testing encounters, was nevertheless mystified and quickly asked around to find out who the finger-jabber was. He was, it turned out, the Governor of Leningrad region and a close ally of Putin’s. “He clearly had a message to tell me and he told it bluntly and forcefully … very Russian … and I made sure that Khodorkovsky understood it … and very soon after he was arrested,” Owen tells me in his office in Mayfair, London. “He was being told that it was not compatible with the situation in Russia at that time to be both a presidential candidate and to be running one of Russia’s biggest businesses.”
Khodorkovsky was released from prison by Putin in December 2013, more than ten years after the Buckingham Palace warning was issued.
The intoxication of power
Owen, who trained as a neurologist/psychiatrist before going into politics, coined the term “Hubris Syndrome” to describe how power can change the personality of power-holders, not just in politics, but in every realm of life ranging from business to the media.
“Bertrand Russell called it the ‘intoxication of power’ which I think captures the concept perfectly,” Owen says. “I have always been interested in Greek mythology since I was 18 and particularly the concepts of hubris and nemesis.”
When Owen started to write a book. about illness in heads of government, quite soon he saw that some political leaders showed not exactly an illness, but a very marked change in personality which led him to write a dedicated book about the phenomenon.
“Hubris isn’t a totally negative concept,” he tells me. “It implies taking risk and having energy as much as it does the more negative connotations.”
But the elements of the “syndrome” outlined by him in the neurology journal Brain are largely negative, for example:
A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and glory.
Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism.
Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness.
Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.
Blair and the Iraq disaster
Owen is at pains to point out that these are not pre-existing personality problems, genetically endowed, which have caused hubris.
“These are changes in behaviour and demeanour,” he tells me. “Take Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, both of whom won three elections in a row before being thrown out by their own MPs. Every person you talk to involved with them point to a change in personality which happened after they had held power for several years. Thatcher was not always hubristic.”
A gently spoken and warm man, Owen’s voice sharpens when he talks about former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“Blair’s personality change came with Kosovo – all these television pictures of him surrounded by cheering troops …”
I ask what the greatest disaster caused by this hubris syndrome was in recent times.
“The Iraq War … I think Bush in a way got hubris too – I mean he used to write about a ‘modest foreign policy’. We don’t know what will happen but if it is the nexus for a Sunni-Shiite war – which might be the history of the next 100 years … it’s far worse than Suez as a foreign policy mistake.”
“I supported it …” he adds quickly. “This guy lied to me. I had two meetings with Blair in identical circumstances. It was in Downing Street, with our wives, the four of us. The second was in June 2002 and it was clear he had decided to go to war. I asked him whether in Iraq nuclear weapons were being built and he replied ‘yes’; Chemical weapons? – ‘Yes,’ he told me. No qualification or doubt. I now know what he had been told in intelligence reports in the weeks before he met me and that he should have told me that the intelligence was far from conclusive.”
Owen continues: “Lloyd George and Neville Chamberlain both had hubris syndrome, as did Generals Patton and McArthur … McArthur lied about the intelligence, claiming the Chinese were already in North Korea because he wanted to use nuclear weapons.”
“Contempt is the classic sign of hubris – like Patton kicking up the arse the two soldiers in hospital in Sicily … and the total contempt which both Thatcher and Blair had for their cabinets.”
“If people say, ‘it takes one to know one’, I don’t dispute that. I believe that I have hubris in my own character and I think many politicians do. But I believe it is in every walk of life and the general public have a way of knowing it.”
Removing Idi Amin
I ask Owen if, as Foreign Secretary, he wanted to assassinate Idi Amin of Uganda?
“Yes, but Sir Anthony Duff, who was in charge of intelligence, told me: ‘We don’t do that sort of thing.’ I told him that we had done [previously], and he responded that that was in total war. I told him that Uganda was in a state of total war. So instead I diverted the relevant aid budget to arm the troops of President Nyerere of Tanzania to allow his army to invade Uganda and topple Amin.”
I ask why some people, and not others, succumb to hubris.
“I have a wife who is quite prepared to tell me I am behaving badly. I have an assistant of 30 years, Maggie, who does the same. I find it easier to be told it by a woman than a man,” he reports in his soft, disarmingly matter-of-fact voice.
“‘Toe-holders’ – FD Roosevelt’s advisor Louis Howe coined the term. You’re pulling them back. You are a stable voice. They are clutching onto the toe, holding you back. They are not a mentor, they work with the person, holding them back.”
Owen has established the Daedalus Trust to raise awareness about the phenomenon of hubris. “It must not be seen as purely negative – it is essential to risk taking. But we must become aware of it as a problem in every domain of life … business for instance. It has taken post-traumatic stress disorder 20 years to become accepted as a real, genuine phenomenon which needs treatment and attention. It may take another 20 years for the hubris syndrome to be similarly recognised as an acquired personality change – and as a huge problem.”
Owen has to rush to another meeting. With his business interests in the USA, Russia and now Africa and his still very active UK political work, he is a busy man, with the energy and appearance of someone ten years younger than his 75 years.
It may be that a healthy degree of hubris keeps you young – as long as you have the toe-holders in place.
This interview was first published in The Conversation
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