Politicians and hubris.jpg

Politicians and hubris

“A MAN’S reach should exceed his grasp,” so poet Robert Browning once wrote. But nothing can justify the delusions of grandeur we are currently witnessing from some politicians. Too many seem to forget that they are elected to serve the people, not to cater to their own vanity.

When British Respect MP George Galloway defeated Labour MP, Oona King, in last year’s general election, some people hailed him as a courageous anti-war candidate squaring up to the Blair/Bush tyranny. Even his opponents grudgingly conceded he had earned a partial rehabilitation since his infamous grovelling before Saddam Hussein, in 1994, when he had saluted the tyrant’s “courage” and “indefatigability”.

Then, just weeks after the Battle of Bethnal Green, Galloway appeared before the American senate hearings, accused of profiting from Iraq oil dealings. “Get a ringside seat,” Galloway told journalists as he arrived in Washington, implying the event would make for great theatre. And he was right – the proceedings, in which he laid into senators on Capitol Hill, made him into a star.

His New York debate with Christopher Hitchens about the Iraq war consolidated his box office appeal. Next thing we knew, he was touring with actress Jane Fonda, preaching his anti-war views (or pro-appeasement views, depending on one’s viewpoint) to large audiences across America.

Revelling in the spotlight

But Galloway has always enjoyed publicity. Four years ago, actor John Malkovich was asked at the Cambridge Union Society whom he would most like to kill. No doubt with his tongue firmly in his cheek, the Hollywood star named Galloway – then Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin. Galloway feigned indignation, but then added (secretly chuffed by the whole episode, one feels): “I’m amazed he’s even heard of me!”

Now Galloway enjoyed the limelight once again, this time on British TV’s Big Brother, pretending to be a cat, dressing up in a red leotard and subjecting housemates to his Elvis impersonation. All this comes at a time when the House of Commons is in session and his constituents need a voice to represent them. How long will it be before Galloway leaves parliament altogether and has his own television talk show?

Next came news that Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten, who had stood for his party’s leadership, had resigned as his party’s Home Affairs spokesperson, after the News of the World printed allegations about his private life. What was amazing was not the revelations in themselves. It was that Oaten had deluded himself that he could sustain a high profile, front-bench position – and even become party leader – without the news breaking.

Equally surprising was the breathtaking unoriginality of Oaten’s rallying cry to the party faithful when he announced his candidature. “I want to take traditional liberal values and make them relevant to the 21st century,” he declared to applause. Oaten is, by all accounts, a capable and promising politician. But, how could anyone listen to that without seeing it as an obvious plagiarism from Blair and Cameron?

Hubris brings nemesis

Some politicians never seem to realise that their time has passed. Mário Soares was a respected figure in Portugal, having served 10 years as President and two spells as Prime Minister.

Ambition had been satisfied, one would have thought. But Soares, emboldened by the backing of his party, decided to stand for the presidency once again, at the age of 81. Has there ever been an example in any democracy of a politician being elected to high office when they were over 80? All recent Presidents, including Soares, have served two terms. Did Soares really consider he would be robust enough to withstand the demands of the presidency, as he approached 90? Did he really think that Portuguese voters would elect an octogenarian to an office that he had already held twice? It would appear that none of this had occurred to Soares. For a politician of Soares’s calibre, his decision to run again was an act of monumental folly. The fact that he finished a poor third was perhaps a case of inevitable nemesis following hubris. And some of us will be hoping that, like Oaten and Soares, Galloway meets his nemesis too.