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
If he'd stayed in medicine, and not strayed into politics, David Owen would probably be a retired professor of neurosurgery by now.
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.
In it, he argued that the mental health of Blair and President George Bush was undermined by HS. They'd stopped listening and were behaving recklessly, taking their instructions direct from the Almighty.
An almost messianic fervour led to the biggest foreign policy blunder for a century: the invasion of Iraq.
Now Owen has published the whole opus, In Sickness and in Power, as a wake-up call about the consequences of physical and mental decline of our rulers.
He discovers that Sir Anthony Eden was actually on uppers and downers - amphetamines and barbiturates - during the 1956 Suez Crisis and that John F Kennedy was having dilute cocaine injected five times a day into his back muscles at the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
"I couldn't understand," says Owen, "how this man, who had handled the Cuban missile crisis so impressively in 1962, could have made such a monumental mess of the Bay of Pigs. I found it in his medical history. In 1961, a recreational drug user, on massive doses of steroids, he was completely out of control."
Owen doesn't hold that illness should necessarily debar anyone from holding office - President Kennedy had Addison's disease, which left him dependent on hormone replacement therapy to stay alive, but that, in itself, wouldn't have impaired his faculties.
But he comes down hard on leaders who refuse to be open about their complaints for fear of seeming weak. President Mitterrand of France had prostate cancer for 14 years, yet still governed effectively.
However, the false world he created to avoid his illness becoming known, says Owen, eventually skewed his decisions.
Owen sometimes appears a bit show-offy about his personal dealings with afflicted leaders, but he has an eye for telling detail.
When Mitterrand had to be given regular intravenous oestrogen hormone therapy, the president's personal physician considerately "hung the intravenous drip on a picture hook or a coat hanger so as not to have to hammer a nail into the wall of an embassy or another government's guest house".
But it is hubristic behaviour, as an illness of office, that really engages Owen. Neville Chamberlain, David Lloyd George, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher (in her later years), George W Bush and Hitler all had HS in its pure form. Churchill did not.
Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were hubristic, but also had bipolar disorder as did Mussolini and Mao. Yet John Major and Jim Callaghan remained immune.
The obvious question is, what of Gordon Brown?
Owen prevaricates: "It's too early to tell." But he wants HS recognised as a distinct medical condition so that something can be done about it - though quite what is not very clear.
"It would make it more respectable for journalists to question it. We would be more aware of the danger - and we'd start to put blocks in its way."
The voters understand that power corrupts, he says, and when they use words such as mad, off his trolley, unhinged, megalomanic, they are usually right. "There is a gut instinct, a real intelligence, actually, that spots a fraud."
Yet Owen admits he was slow to spot Blair. "I was rather keen on Blair," he says. It wasn't until his daughter, Lucy, saw the former prime minister on television and remarked: "Dad, he's acting." That was when the scales fell from his eyes, says Owen.
Alan Clark once said Owen had "the most engaging grin in politics" and he is still, at nearly 70, wolfishly good-looking, tall and powerfully built with hair like brushed steel.
He may seem relaxed and normal now, but didn't he once have a touch of megalomania himself? Some commentators certainly thought so when his refusal to merge with the Liberals caused the SDP to fall apart.
"I don't think I've got Hubris Syndrome," he says. "I don't think I became more hubristic in office, but I have in my make-up some elements of hubris and some of what people would call megalomania. I worked long hours and was ready to push myself and the issues far. But I'm a pretty rooted sort of person. If I had been so ambitious that it was the only thing that mattered to me, I'd have stayed in the Labour Party."
Roy Jenkins, one of the breakaway Gang of Four, likened Owen to the fabled Upas tree which destroys all life for miles around it. Throughout his career, he was a serial resigner, nicknamed Dr Death because of his propensity to causes fissures in political parties.
After he resigned his Plymouth seat in 1992, John Major chose him to broker peace in Bosnia and it gave Private Eye magazine an irresistible cover. "It's a lost cause," Major was pictured saying. "I'm your man," said the speech bubble from Owen.
Yet Owen doesn't quite live up to his confrontational caricature. He says his proudest achievement in politics was diverting money to save the smallpox eradication campaign when he was minister for health.
When Labour was defeated in 1979 and Owen lost his post as foreign secretary, he says he packed his personal detectives off to London and drove through Plymouth singing. "Absolute freedom! The first time for years that I was able to drive without anybody else in the car."
Now he seems content to be semi-detached from politics. He has business interests in Russia, is chairman of the oil company Yukos International, on the board of Abbot Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, and is Chancellor of the University of Liverpool.
He never participates in television debates or instant punditry. "You need to be younger and politics needs to be your life and your soul. It has not been my life and soul since 1987 [the year the SDP split]."
He believes that if the SDP had kept its nerve and not flirted with a merger with the Liberals, it could have changed British politics. "But it was not to be. So, in a way, I died with the SDP." Quite a bleak confession for a man who served another five years as an MP.
If anything, he says, his wife Deborah was more heartbroken than him when the party collapsed. The Owens have been married for 40 years; a partnership that has survived not just the demands of his office but the magnetism Owen exerted in his day over women campaigners.
Deborah is an astute literary agent, with Delia Smith on her books and has a personal charm that is every bit a match for his. They met on his first day in New York and fell in love on the second. They still live and work in the 18th-century Docklands house Owen bought in his bachelor days in 1965.
On the 25th anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration, which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party, they held a party for 90 people in their Narrow Street home where the Gang of Four had announced their plans to leave the Labour Party and "break the mould of British politics".
This time, there were to be no speeches. But Owen recalls how Debbie stood up and said something short and moving: "I know a lot of you have travelled a long distance to come here - and I don't just mean in miles."
"I can't remember her exact words but it was just so fantastic," he says in a thick voice not quite explained by his heavy cold. "It was a magical evening. People turned the page back and relived moments of happiness."
'In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years' by David Owen (Methuen, £25) is available from Telegraph Books for £23 + £1.25 p&p. To order call 0870 428 4112 or order online at books.telegraph.co.uk
By the way, the shameless book plug was in the original article.