Sitting in a Toronto pub, Jonathan Aitken recalls the time when he fancied he’d be the one to “fix” British journalism. It was April 1995, and the then-cabinet minister in the government of John Major was launching a high-profile libel case against the Guardian newspaper and Granada television over allegations he had “pimped” girls for a Saudi prince and taken kickbacks from Lebanese arms dealers. “Wicked lies,” he declared at a dramatic evening press conference in the Conservative Party’s London headquarters. “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”
The now 68-year-old gives a rueful smile, and skips ahead in the story to June 24, 1997, the day his life “went up in smoke.” The libel trial had been going well: “Even their lawyers would admit I was winning,” Aitken says, on a break from a conference of the global Christian ministry to convicts, Prison Fellowship International (PFI). That is, until evidence was introduced catching him out in a lie.
Back in September 1993, Aitken, the minister of defence procurement, had travelled to Paris to meet with an old friend, Lebanese businessman Said Ayas, and his associate, Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia. The son of the Saudi king paid the hotel bill—a violation of cabinet ethics rules. But when news of the rendezvous leaked out, Aitken told the press his wife, Lolicia, had settled the account. Years later at trial, he introduced affidavits from Ayas and his own 17-year-old-daughter Victoria backing up the claim. Then Guardian lawyers dug up airline tickets and car rental records proving his wife and daughter had been in Geneva on the day in question. The case collapsed. “He lied and lied and lied,” was the banner headline above his dour picture in the next morning’s paper.
Aitken had already lost his seat in the 1997 general election. His wife soon filed for divorce. The millions of pounds in legal bills for the libel suit forced him into bankruptcy. And he was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice. In 1999, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. It was a calamitous descent from the heights of British public life, sped by his own arrogance. “Politicians are particularly vulnerable to the temptations of puffed-up pride,” says Aitken. “I believed that I could take risks and get away with them. That I could walk on water.”
Part of that delusion may have been genetic. The only son of Toronto-raised Sir William Aitken, a journalist and Second World War Spitfire pilot who himself went on to become a British Tory MP, and his socialite wife, Penelope, the daughter of John Maffey, 1st Baron Rugby, Jonathan always moved in select circles. His great-uncle was newspaper magnate Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson—or “Uncle Mike” as he called him—a friend of his dad at the University of Toronto, was his godfather. Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, his first job at 19 was writing speeches for Selwyn Lloyd, the chancellor of the exchequer, another family friend. After obtaining his law degree, Aitken joined the Beaverbrook-owned London Evening Standard, serving as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Biafra. (In 1966, with his mother at his side taking notes, he dropped LSD, later writing up his extremely bad trip for the paper.) In 1970, he was charged, and later acquitted, under the Official Secrets Act, for leaking a secret report about British arms sales to Nigeria. He became a successful merchant banker, and well-known man about town. In 1974, he was elected to Parliament. But after the Tories swept to power in 1979, it took him 13 years to make cabinet, thanks in part to a failed romance with Margaret Thatcher’s daughter. “The man who made Carol cry,” was the Iron Lady’s preferred way to refer to him. On the side, he continued to write, producing a sympathetic biography of Richard Nixon in 1993.
Nothing in his swashbuckling past, however, had prepared him for jail. “It was both a breaking and a making experience,” says Aitken. Incarcerated at the notorious, high-security Bellmarsh prison with thieves and murderers, the former MP was forced to confront the “fundamental flaws” in his own character, and his throw-away-the-key views on crime and punishment. To his surprise, Aitken found he actually enjoyed prison life, and the characters he met inside. Nicknamed “Joino,” for his ability to write in cursive, he spent two or three hours a day reading correspondence, and penning letters, for his fellow inmates. (Most were illiterate.) And in what turned out to be just seven months of incarceration, he made many lasting friends, joining a brotherhood he jokingly calls the “Old Bellmarshians.” One cellmate, a bullion thief named Mickey Ajuda, later became a chauffeur to his mother, Lady Aitken, who died at 94 in 2005. “My understanding deepened and my attitudes softened,” says the former MP. “I rather blush when I think of some of the speeches I made as a young Conservative backbencher.”
The greater transformation, however, was a spiritual one. Starting in the months before he entered jail, the self-described Sunday Christian found himself undergoing a halting and often skeptical awakening. Dragged to a Bible study group by an acquaintance, he found comfort and fellowship where he had expected only “happy, clappy” oddballs. “I was constantly worried that I was going slightly mad, or that I was using religion as a crutch,” says Aitken. Chuck Colson, a former aide to Richard Nixon, who was born again in the early 1970s, after serving seven months for obstructing justice in the Watergate affair, became a mentor. (They had struck up a friendship while Aitken was working on his book.) In jail, the ex-cabinet minister taught himself New Testament Greek. And upon his release, he returned to Oxford and obtained a degree in theology from Wycliffe College: “The one place in Britain with worse food and plumbing than prison.”
The press and public were initially suspicious of the transformation. But over the years, Aitken has won a reputation as a committed Christian pundit and scholar. In addition to two volumes of his own life story, he has written a book of psalms and prayers “for people under pressure,” as well as a biography of John Newton, a hell-raising English sailor who went on to co-write the hymn Amazing Grace. These days he spends much of his time preaching, and talking about prison reform. He sits on the board of PFI, the ministry his friend Colson founded after his own release from jail. In 2009, he headed a U.K. prison-reform task force whose recommendations will form the basis for soon-to-be-introduced legislation.
Content with his new calling, Aitken maintains that he has no interest in a political comeback. But in Britain’s hothouse culture of scandal and celebrity, he and his family remain reliable tabloid fodder. His daughter Victoria is now an aspiring actress and dance music artist, with songs like I’ll Be Your Bitch. Her identical twin, Alexandra, a party girl turned yoga instructor, recently converted to Sikhism and now lives at India’s Golden Temple with her new husband. Last month, Petrina, the daughter Aitken fathered with the ex-wife of arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi just around the time he married Lolicia, gave an interview to an Italian magazine complaining about the difficulties of being a “love child.” His current wife, Elizabeth Harris Aitken, is the ex of the late actors Richard Harris and Rex Harrison. And his stepson Jared Harris stars as the uptight Brit, Lane Pryce, on Mad Men.
The “carapace of arrogance” that led to Jonathan Aitken’s downfall was shed long ago. But as he watches some of his former tormentors in the press similarly humbled, one suspects there is a measure of satisfaction. As he says reviewing a momentous life in a Toronto bar, “I’ve done many bad things in my life, but being a pimp, or an arms dealer, are not among them. They were wrong.”
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