Comment at end
16th March, 2008
“DOCTOR DEATH” – DAVID OWEN – PSYCHOANALYSES TONY BLAIR
On ‘Dr David Owen: Expert on hubris’
‘I once recounted a story on my blog about an encounter with Owen at a journalists’ lunch during the late 90s. I found myself sitting next to the great man and couldn’t resist asking him whether, had he stayed in the Labour Party, he thought he would have become Prime Minister instead of Blair. He replied: “Oh, there isn’t a doubt about that.” ‘
So, back to today. Is Owen’s disparaging of Tony Blair when he implies that the former Prime Minister almost killed himself through his vanity (in using dangerous drugs for hair retention) to be taken seriously? Are we to believe that, presumably in the knowledge that he had a heart condition and thus should have avoided this product, Blair would ignore the advice on the bottle and put his own health, even life at risk?
Is this a genuine medical diagnosis, given in the old “trust me, I’m a doctor” fashion? Or is this analysis no more than a manifestation of Owen’s own failed ‘hubris’ with a touch of envy thrown in? I think it is the latter, and I’d like to explain why.
OWEN BURNS HIS BRIDGES OVER SDP/LIBERAL MERGER
I happened to be present at the SDP conference in 1987 when the decision of members to merge with the Liberals was passed and announced. The Liberal Democrat party was conceived and about to be delivered. The press was there in force awaiting blood on the carpet, in the usual Left way. The party(ies) obliged. I recall Shirley Williams pleading with Owen not to refuse to listen to the party members. She begged him not to think of continuing the SDP as a separate entity as there would be no likelihood of accommodation now that the Alliance (which was to last from 1981 – 1990) had been deemed by the Liberals & SDP to have had its day. She implored him NOT to put a spoke in the wheel of the new enterprise of centrist politics. It was dramatic stuff and the essence of politics in action AND in the open. This, (for those not accustomed to British politics) was pre-Blair and pre-New Labour days and a time when the Conservatives were clearly of the Right, and Labour of the Left.
Despite Mrs Williams’ eloquent and moving pleas, the hubris of Owen would have none of it. HE was the man to lead to a new tomorrow the former Labour centrists and previously uncommitted. HE would lead the nation in its natural direction; that he made clear. HIS moment of (inexcusable) hubris.
And so it was to prove. Owen was fooling himself if he thought he was the epitome of the emerging centrist politics, shunning both Thatcherism and old Bennite Labour. He was even LESS typical of the quintessence of the SDP, although he believed otherwise. And the emerging new Liberal Democrats? They were largely Liberal and thus largely pro-Europe, some even calling for a United States of Europe. Roy Jenkins, moving gladly from Labour to the SDP then SDP/Liberal Alliance and on to the new merged party – the Liberal Democrats – was probably the most committed of all on Europe, and the clearest voice on this kind of European future.
Much less pro-Europe than the Liberals and even most of the SDP, David Owen was at the least misguided, and possibly intentionally guilty of misleading others. True leadership it was not. If he felt so against a deeper and wider Europe, he should have been able to read the runes, and opted out before they opted him out. But, possibly, like the hero about to be undone by his own denial and choices, (something of which he accuses Blair) he chose to sacrifice his own future political career rather than fight the good fight for centrist politics in or out of a stronger Europe. Or perhaps he believed HIS continuing SDP could outflank the already precariously situated third force, composed mainly of old Liberals. And the pride of the never was leader of Labour, could not risk losing a forthcoming leadership election to David Steel (from the Liberals), an outcome expected by most in the forthcoming leadership contest.
His reward for clinging to the remnants of the SDP and shunning the merged party – the Liberal Democrats – was the comeuppance of the man guilty of exaggerated self-importance. And it may even have set the Liberal Democrats back decades.
So David Owen, who as one of the Gang of Four led the Social Democratic breakaway from the Labour Party in March 1981 (My goodness THAT long ago?) has dug out his old doctor’s smock and is perched compassionately on the edge of his chair. He has psychoanalysed the previous Prime Minister, the man who got it right over how exactly to move the political agenda to the centre in Britain.
I DO hope he is not charging the former PM for this consultation. If I were the patient I’d want a refund.
A little more history
In March 1981, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, all highly respected and senior MPs, led a breakaway group – the SDP – out of the Labour party with the aim of rescuing Labour from its old Left then under the leadership of Michael Foot. The new party intended to appeal right across the political spectrum, leaving the backward-looking policies of the left and class warfare itself behind.
“The Social Democrats have launched their new political party pledging to “reconcile the nation” and “heal divisions between classes”.
Six years later, in August 1987, Owen resigned as leader of the SDP.
The leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Dr David Owen, has resigned after members of his party voted to merge with the Liberals.
In his resignation statement, issued within an hour of the result of the vote being announced, Dr Owen said: “We (the SDP) are now deeply and predictably split.”
Nearly 60% of the party, 25,897 members, voted for a full merger with the Liberal party.
At the 1987 General Election, just prior to this conference, the Alliance under the leadership of “The Two Davids” – Steel & Owen – won 23% of the vote, though only 22 seats, a result of the limitations of the ‘first past the post system’. Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives won for a third consecutive time. And in the 1992 election the Tories won a fourth election under John Major. The split nature of the Left of politics, it is argued, ensured this victory. At the same time, Owen in his inimical way, claims that HIS breakaway SDP was the catalyst for change which ushered in New Labour following the defeat of Neil Kinnock in 1992, and his successor’s sudden death (John Smith) in 1994. This despite Neil Kinnock setting the wheels in motion for New Labour by purging the Left, a task which John Smith continued until his sudden and premature death. Tony Blair was elected leader in 1994, and the rest is recent history. Blair re-branded Labour, probably forever.
Blair, July 21, 1994: “I shall not rest until the destinies of our people and our party are joined together in victory.”
BLAIRISM HAD BEGUN
But for, or despite, his efforts Dr Owen claims that Labour’s revival was HIS doing. This, notwithstanding the fact that Tony Blair managed to win, historically, three elections in a row for Labour and set a centrist agenda which the Tories are now following. And, as if to isolate Owen even further, one of the original Gang of Four – the late Roy Jenkins – was to take the New Labour leader under his wing. Blair saw Jenkins as his mentor, learned much from him and admired and praised him highly.
So, Dr Owen, is your damning of Blair anything other than self-deception, self-justification or even bitterness? Being as generous as I can to a man to whom the word “charisma” was often attached, before Blair made it his own, I’m afraid I conclude that this is exactly what it is.
‘There has been speculation that for some years Blair had been on betablocking drugs for his heart arrhythmia. I asked a scientist with long experience of these drugs whether he knew of any long-term side effects that might predispose Blair to hubris in that the normal alerting mechanism in the body to strain and stress was being damped down. He claimed to have had a similar request from the Foreign Office about Saddam Hussein!
One doctor wrote to me speculating on the medication Blair might have been taking, that having watched him on television for many years, he had noticed how his receding hairline had moved forward and then, after his announcement of his treatment for tachycardia, had moved back again.
The doctor wondered whether Blair might have been taking Regaine for hair growth, which has a recorded side effect of triggering tachycardias. He postulated that when the doctors realised he was on Regaine, they told him to stop using it.
Whatever the truth, the likelihood is that it is Blair’s personality rather than his heart condition that has contributed to his developing hubris syndrome.’
Owen goes to extraordinary lengths to find SOME reason for Blair’s personality characteristics which led him to agree with Bush on Iraq. Why? I am sure that his research was only ever meant to be helpful to Mr Blair and not an exercise in traducement.
But having failed in his anti-Blair/anti-Iraq /anti-Europe tirades to reduce Blair in public perception to a man lacking substance, Owen seems to be clutching at straws. Or, several bunches of straws, in the hope that just one of those frail straws will help secure his own place in political history, and help minimise that of Blair.
In short …
Blair was mentally unbalanced which led to hubris, because he was so vain that his hair-loss treatment exacerbated an heretofore concealed heart condition, and the chemicals resulted in bad decision-making over Iraq;
Blair’s personality was such that self belief and arrogance, leading to hubris got the better of his political judgement. (The political judgement that compelled him to go to the aid of Muslims in Kosovo, the tortured in Sierra Leone and, right at the end of his time in office, to finally settle the decades long Northern Ireland conflicts.)
Are you sure it is not Blair’s political internationalism, interventionism, leadership, courage, vision and Europeanism that bugs you, Dr Owen? Or his statesmanlike attributes displayed for the willing world to admire, even now, out of office, when he would in all reality – (had you become Labour leader) – have been no more than a second-rate minister in an Owen-led government?
In other words Blair was mad, bad and sad … as well as ill, and a liar to boot.
And because he was so determined to hang onto power, even if it killed him, Tony Blair kept his heart condition a secret. (Presumably you, Dr Owen, in this position, would have called a press conference?)
Sorry Dr Owen, most of those accusations have been thrown before and from those without a political axe to grind. The hair-raising one is a good ‘un though. Must be the way you tell ’em!
Others with stronger grounds for criticism have found that they have never really stuck to the Teflon. You’ll have to do better if you want to sell your book.
But what about a genuine explanation of this claim? When you were asked if staying in the Labour party would have led to your leading it rather than Blair, what made you respond like this?
“Oh, there isn’t a doubt about that.”
AND WHY EXACTLY CHECK UP ON SOMEONE ELSE’S HEALTH?
Most of us have to wait until we are ill to get around to seeing the doctor. You have to wonder why Owen is so concerned about Blair’s health! It seems that one of the doctors (how MANY were there?) whose advice he sought has the good former doctor (Owen hasn’t practised for decades) overly excited.
Having fired his best shots – he leaves us hanging. Was Tony Blair the inevitable victim of irrational hubris or the chastened survivor of a near-death experience brought on by drug misuse due to vanity?
‘Whatever it was, I’m jealous’, might be a suitable Owen phrase here.
THE VAIN MAN, VAINLY CHARGED
It must be verging on clinically depressing – (time to see a doctor, Doctor?) – to watch the sick man of Europe rushing around the world unstoppably forging new careers and contacts in all sorts of areas and countries, as well as founding Sports and Faith Foundations, making influential noises in business and learning circles and taking on the biggest issue of our time – the future of the world’s climate. And to top it all – to rub salt into the wound – the insult of insults – he is the international peacemaker in the Middle East!
And then of course, there’s EUROPE! Who knows what he’d do there if ever he presided …
Just a heartbeat away from complete failure too.
Need any more Regaine, Mr Blair? Dr Owen knows a doctor who knows a doctor…
Excerpt from here – Owen on hubris:
‘In ancient Greek drama, a hubristic career proceeds something like this: the hero wins glory and acclamation by achieving unwonted success against the odds. The experience then goes to his head: he begins to think himself capable of anything. This leads him into misinterpreting the reality around him and into making mistakes. Eventually he gets his comeuppance and meets his nemesis, which destroys him.
The conduct of George W Bush and Tony Blair in deciding to go to war in Iraq five years ago and in handling its aftermath illustrates hubris syndrome.’
Though following the populist view of Blair, with which I disagree entirely, Simon Hoggart at least recognises ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ essence of Owen’s claims.
‘A new book lands on my desk. It’s titled Hubris (Politico’s, £8.99), and it’s by Lord Owen. For David Owen to write a book about pride leading to a fall might be thought something of a hostage to fortune. On the other hand, we buy cookery books by people who are famous for cooking, we’d take driving tips from Lewis Hamilton, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t learn about overweening pride from Doctor Death.’
He was not known as ‘Doctor Death’ for medical reasons.
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Tags: 1. Tony Blair, alliance, david owen, doctor death, George Bush, heart condition, hubris, Iraq, labour party, leadership, liberal democrats, liberals, prime minister, regaine, roy jenkins, sdp, shirly williams, vanity