Jonathan Aitken: the story of the man who went from high-flying cabinet minister to vilified prisoner to reformed prison chaplain

By William Milne

On a late Monday afternoon in December, I rang the doorbell of the Kensington home of Jonathan Aitken, the high-flying politician turned vilified prisoner turned redeemed priest. Warmly welcomed in, I waited in Aitken’s study, surrounded by a wonderful array of books, touching on everything from the theological to the historical to the biographical. I clumsily set up the recording equipment and Aitken soon entered the room, wearing his dog collar, a symbol of his new life as an ordained minister, something no one would have foreseen 25 years ago when he was Britain’s most despised politician. Aitken was warm and generous with his time, and before the interview we discussed how utterly stunning Durham is, and how he would like to visit. Soon we were sat down, with a cup of tea, and we started discussing Jonathan Aitken the politician.

Aitken’s motives for becoming a politician were twofold: he wanted to follow in the footsteps of a family dedicated to “public service” (which includes the influential newspaper publisher and politician, Lord Beaverbrook), and “the second rather less worthy motive was that I thought that politics was the most exciting game in town. It was full of excitement, newspaper headlines, and so on, and I could see that politicians didn’t seem very often to have dull moments.” Aitken’s career certainly wasn’t lacking in “dull moments,” although they were not always positive. Indeed, the most dramatic period of his career involved fighting a losing battle as he was brought down in one of the biggest political scandals in history.

But Aitken should not be defined by this moment in his career, since there were also the “good times” when he was enjoying parliamentary life, particularly his constituency work in South Thanet in Kent, which was one of the poorest communities in the UK, and, to my surprise, a mining area, as Aitken points out. “I always did get dug into my constituency, I found my constituency interesting… I always enjoyed that.”

“I was 18 years on the backbenches, which is an unusually long time for anyone who is of any competence. The newspapers will tell you that I was kept out of the Thatcher government because I had for two or three years dated very happily Carol Thatcher, Margaret and Denis’ daughter, and then we had not got married.” Aitken is not so sure this is the reason, and does not see his time as a backbencher and not a minister “as a huge negative. Far from it. The life of a backbencher, if you think about it and use it creatively, can be really interesting.” Aitken tells me that during this time he wrote big books (including his popular and well-regarded biography of Richard Nixon); was the chairman of a small bank; and the chief executive of a TV company.

I always did get dug into my constituency, I found my constituency very interesting… I always enjoyed that

Under John Major, “I rose very fast in the government, so much so that I was in the key job of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and then tipped quite often as being a future leader, a future Prime Minister,” although he says that this was a “rather non-exclusive club.” When you are in this club “it makes all kinds of people rather excited about you, often from a hostile point of view, and the Major government was shaky and tottering anyway, and if a newspaper could bring down a cabinet minister, they were quite enthusiastic about doing that.”

At this point, I am aware that we are approaching the climactic moment in Aitken’s political career, when everything came crumbling down. During our conversation, Aitken approached his scandal head on, not shying away from the mistakes he had made.

In his own words, “I was in the wrong beyond doubt because I had told a lie, and the lie was that I had stayed in a hotel in Paris and had my hotel bill paid by a friend, but, unfortunate for me, he was also a Saudi Prince.

The Guardian absolutely got their teeth and their claws into me. And when they did it, instead of what I call rolling with the punches and saying ‘Well that’s politics,’ I got foolishly combative and sued them and that led to the unfolding of a tragedy for me, but the tragedy was entirely my fault.” Aitken is referring to a period of four years from 1995 to 1999, during which Aitken was targeted for his actions by The Guardian and Granada Television, who he subsequently sued unsuccessfully. It emerged that during his libel case, he had committed perjury and perverted the course of justice, leading to him pleading guilty to these offences on 8th June 1999, receiving an 18-month prison sentence.

Aitken does not gloss over the public humiliation he endured, arguably the biggest for a politician since John Profumo. He was locked up in a prison cell, having endured “a drama which consists largely of defeat, disgrace, bankruptcy and jail.” Here, we meet Jonathan Aitken the convict.

As Aitken acknowledges, “Yes, I did think my world had ended.” Millions of Britons hated him, he had lost everything, and now he was locked up in Belmarsh, Britain’s highest security prison. It was unheard of for a cabinet minister to go to jail, so Aitken’s name and face was printed in disgrace on Britian’s front pages.

But Aitken’s world had not ended, and in some ways it had only just begun. Prison marked the beginning of a new life, because this was where he embarked on a new spiritual journey and became a Christian. “Prison was not a wholly bad experience. Of course, it was a disaster for my career, life looked as though it was completely over. On the other hand, I survived it quite happily and got on well with my fellow prisoners, I got very interested in it. Then, the biggest blessing of all was that… I started to get on the road to a committed Christian life.”

People have mocked him for this conversion, suggesting it was what Aitken calls “a foxhole conversion,” but his deep faith is undeniable. I was convinced that he was genuinely a changed man by the gentle way he treated me during my visit; the way his eyes lit up the moment I mentioned that I was considering Christianity; and his detailed explanation of how he came to faith in Jesus.

Aitken first looked within himself, and began to “think sort of where did I go wrong? Not who said what to whom and which newspaper article, but much more, what was fundamentally wrong in my character or in my life.” And it was this that prompted him to see value in becoming Christian.

Finally, we meet Aitken the prison chaplain, a period he describes as “the happiest time of my life.”

“When I came out of prison, I made another interesting career change. I went to the one institution in Britain that had worse food than a prison, and more uncomfortable beds than a prison.” This institution was Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the Anglican theological college, where he tried to “get to know this strange figure called God.”

Aitken was not ordained for 15 years, until he felt God call him to the priesthood. “By the time I was entering my seventies, I was having quite a good life… I was fifteen years out of coming out of prison. I was sort of rehabilitated and doing okay and enjoying life and happily married. And then a sort of thunderbolt happened and I became an ordained priest and prison chaplain.” Aitken has dedicated considerable effort since his ordination to prison ministry, working as a chaplain at Pentonville Prison. Prison ministry is very dear to him, and, as becomes apparent when you research him, so are the prisoners, with whom he has common experience to draw on. This enables him to be by prisoners’ sides through what is an incredibly dark time.

And then a sort of thunderbolt happened and I became an ordained priest and prison chaplain

Aitken’s career was so remarkably varied that we could not properly discuss Jonathan Aitken’s life as a war journalist in Vietnam, the Middle East and Biafra, nor his extensive writing career. But Aitken’s life is best seen through the lens of politician to prisoner to priest. He reached the heights of politics, and the glory that came with it, but he was humbled, died to self, and now serves others. His kindness was apparent throughout our encounter, and he allowed me to take any book I wanted. He spent considerable time searching for three books, writing lovely notes in them, before I was on my way home, having, through this encounter, met one man who has lived a few very different lives, and the life he is now living has been his most fulfilling.

Image: Graham Guy Barratt

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