What did four of the last five British Prime Ministers have in spades? So offensive a vice (or quality) that it was a crime in ancient Athens, that even children, slaves and women – who had no rights to bring lawsuits – were protected from in law.
In Shakespeare, kings died of it. In classical texts, it led to unmitigated disaster, such as in Herodotus’s account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion and attempt to subjugate ancient Greece.
In modern life, it meant Margaret Thatcher could not fathom the reaction she got to her riot-inducing poll tax policy in the early 1990s, nor Tony Blair the consequences of the Iraq War early this century.
It was the disease of kings, the surfeit that sovereigns died from, and the characteristic that Britain’s current prime minister, Theresa May, stands accused of?
After winning – but yet losing – in the UK’s general election last month, headlines in media outlets the world over invoked an ancient Greek word and concept in relation to the current political chaos in the UK, that of hubris, or hybris (with the ancient Greek spelling).
‘From hubris to humiliation’ heralded the front page of UK newspaper The Guardian on 10 June, after the UK election results showed that although incumbent prime minister Theresa May had won the election, she had hugely weakened her own position.
By calling an election, which crucially she didn’t have to for another three years, May lost her majority in Parliament. Just after the vote, opposition leaders called for her resignation, and members of her own party gleefully bestowed epithets like “dead woman walking” upon her.
But when May called the UK’s snap election she had a 20-point lead in the polls ahead of the main opposition party Labour. Confident of her own clear victory, her intention in calling an election appeared to have been to gain major validation and endorsement politically and publically so that she could steam ahead with Britain’s Brexit from the European Union without having to kowtow to dissenters.
So confident was she, that May’s now heavily criticized election campaign focused on denigrating the opposition; trotting out policies in her manifesto that served to alienate core voters like the elderly; and not putting in the time or public appearances to win over voters. She decided not to participate in a televised debate days before the election, when her main rival Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did, sending instead her rather unpopular Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Within the space of a few weeks, May’s 20-point lead dwindled. Rather than get the strong public backing to do what she wanted as prime minister, she failed to get an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons.
The situation in Britain is currently turbulent. The country feels in chaos after a spate of sudden and horrible events including terrorist attacks and the UK’s worst disaster in decades at Grenfell Tower in London on the night of 14 June. What should have been a contained household fire in one apartment ran amok and scorched the whole tower block with hundreds of occupants – many still missing, within hours, and which many are saying was as a result of years of neglect and austerity measures put on social housing and local government by May’s party.
To boot, May came in for more criticism when she visited the accident site and failed to meet a single member of the public affected by the tragedy, speaking with only emergency services staff. Just days later, Brexit negotiations with the EU started and are ongoing but Britain has not yet got it’s own house in order.
While hundreds of people are being evacuated from tower blocks with the same external cladding – a possible cause of the Grenfell Tower fire’s rapid spread, some worry about civil unrest and controversy still mires Theresa May’s government.
Pre-election, perhaps on a wave of hubris, May told an NHS nurse who had not had a pay rise in eight years that there was no “magic money tree”. This week, her offer of a £1 billion sweetener to the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to form a government with her party, unsurprisingly has been met with derision that the tree has been found.
Without the support of the DUP, the Conservative party will have a minority government and its power will be severely curtailed.
So, rather than bolster her position, May’s decision to call an early election has disastrously weakened her. Was it hubris that led her down a path she didn’t have to take? To her spectacular “own goal of the season” as one UK sports commentator noted?
But what is hubris?
It is an ancient concept that the academic world can tell us much about, yet it is far from abstract and it has indubitably modern connotations.
The UK’s Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) in London, ran a fascinating and timely conference in the month before the UK election: Power, gender, hubris: success and arrogance as risks to leadership in healthcare and beyond.
Insights at the meeting organised by the RSM’s Psychiatry section in association with the Daedalus Trust and Medical Women’s Federation, came from an eclectic line-up of speakers including doctors, scientists, economists and classicists.
Professor Douglas Cairns, professor of classics at the University of Edinburgh, gave delegates a crash course into the concept’s origins.
Ancient hybris was more nuanced than the modern idea, though it still has huge connotations for the modern world.
Hybris could be the over-exuberant excess that literally grew from plenty, an overtipping of nature’s balance that labelled as hubristic luxuriant vines or fruit trees that flourished with abandon in rich soils without bearing fruit.
Even horses could be hubristic – and frequently were, turning their long noses up at humans, until they were tamed.
In ancient Greek terms, where plants and animals were considered inferior, this hubristic behaviour meant that they were failing to fulfil their purposes. For example, a fruit tree which produces plenty of leaves and branches, but no fruit fails in its social role (from an ancient farmer’s point of view).
Hubris comes from “too much of a good thing”, as Professor Cairns put it. And ancient hybris is inextricably linked with the concept of honour. He said that “hybris is a way of going wrong about honour”.
It is a distortion of balance in the respect between yourself and other people – what they owe you and you owe.
So in ancient Athens, hubris could be prosecutable in its intention to shame or dishonour another person. Professor Cairns gave the example of the case of Demosthenes Against Meidias.
The 4th century BC orator Demosthenes was involved in organising a major musical and civic festival at a theatre when he was punched in the face by his enemy Meidias. He brought criminal proceedings against his aggressor – not for assault, but rather for the manner of it: for the hubristic demeanour that Meidias displayed as he delivered the blow.
Often the perpetrator of hubris would be a person in position of power, but not necessarily. But hubris in leaders can lead carry overconfidence and excessive self-belief that can skew decision-making, distort reality and justice and lead to a shipwreck of disaster. In simple terms, perhaps the old proverb – Pride goes before a fall.
In ancient Greece hubris could stem from ‘koros’ (the word for indigestion or satiety) – and to hubristically carry on ‘consuming’ or indulging yourself when you were already sated led to ‘atê’, or ruin.
So Xerxes’ father says in Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 BC, just eight years after Athens was rescued from Persian invasion:
“For Hybris has burst into bloom and borne fruit in a crop of disaster (atê), from which it reaps an abundant harvest of tears.”
But is the modern hubris always bad?
A degree of hubris may be necessary for a person to become a powerful leader in the first place. Ordinary people do not want to be prime minister, as political historian and biographer, and vice-chancellor of Buckingham University Sir Anthony Seldon pointed at the meeting.
But the huge self-belief that drives a person to political success, if it then grows to excess, may also lead to their downfall, personal unhappiness and tarnished legacy. Hubris, according to Seldon, is excessive self-confidence and risk-taking.
In the career game generally, a degree of hubris may carry benefits that drive a person who believes unerringly in themselves forwards. It may be something you see in politics, healthcare and even higher education and academia. Hierarchy and power are hubris’s natural home.
Indeed sometimes a small dose of hubris can be helpful – though not, of course, in kingdom-destroying quantities.
So which one of the last five UK prime ministers was not hubristic? (And arguably might have been helped by a little dose of hubris).
While Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all suffered from hubris, according to Seldon; the answer, unsurprisingly, is John Major.