Aitken is a bad lot but I have a soft spot for him

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There is no intention to turn this column into a weekly edition of the sayings of William Whitelaw. But this Sunday it is relevant to recall another Willieism. It was at Brighton during a Conservative conference in the 1970s, with the party in opposition and Margaret Thatcher leader. The Labour government was being threatened by the miners. Edward Heath, beginning his Great Sulk, told the assembled Tories that they ought not to gloat. Afterwards Lord Whitelaw remarked to Mr Frank Johnson and myself: "Ted said we shouldn't gloat, wrong to gloat, mustn't do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I'm gloating like hell."

This is what the Guardian has been doing over the fate of Mr Jonathan Aitken. In a way it is natural enough. There are few more exhilarating experiences for a journalist than to be the successful defendant in an action for defamation. That is because it is so rare. This branch of the law is biased in favour of plaintiffs and against defendants, especially journalists.

I know, because I was successful too in the leading case of Meacher v Trelford and Others in 1988, where I was one of the others. Afterwards you tend to go on rather about your famous victory and become a bit of a bore to your friends.

One way of getting the affair out of your system is to write a book about it. I wrote A Slight Case of Libel. Three Guardian writers involved in the Aitken affair have also written a book, The Liar. Alas, in their case it does not seem to have done the trick. The paper goes on about Mr Aitken's iniquities ever more remorselessly. Off with his head! Alternatively, crucify him! The Guardian should now perhaps heed C R Attlee's rebuke to Harold Laski: "A period of silence on your part would be welcome."

Certainly Mr Aitken's iniquities were real enough. He is a bad lot, always has been. Even so, I have a soft spot for him. This was implanted during his trial under the Official Secrets Act in 1971 for disclosures in the Sunday Telegraph about the conduct of the Biafran war. It was a political prosecution set in train by Elwyn Jones, the Labour Attorney General before 1970. Its purpose was to demonstrate that the British government was behind the government of Nigeria. A feature which no one has mentioned is that the Telegraph's story had been approved by the secretary of the D-Notice Committee.

Anyway, Mr Justice Caulfield summed up heavily against the Crown and virtually instructed the jury to acquit Mr Aitken and his co-defendants, as they did. Though he did not emerge from the court without a stain on his character exactly - for he was shown to have let down several people - he and the judge struck a blow for freedom which was not to be equalled until the acquittal of Mr Clive Ponting on similar charges 14 years later.

Before his trial, Mr Aitken had written a pioneering study of official secrecy. As a backbencher for Thanet from 1974 to 1992, when he became Minister for Defence Procurement, he was both independent and libertarian. With his ally Mr Richard Shepherd, he undoubtedly deserved his backbencher's gong in the Spectator's "Parliamentarian of the Year" awards.

Notice the length of time Mr Aitken spent on the back benches: after five years of Labour government, another 13 in which he could have been promoted to a Conservative administration, but was not. His lack of advancement under Lady Thatcher was not due to his having "made Carol cry", as she is supposed to have said of an affair with her daughter. Prime ministers do not behave in that way - though if he had made Mark cry it might have been different.

Mr Aitken went unpromoted for 13 years because he was thought to be unreliable, not quite 16 annas to the rupee. Certainly his supposed ruthlessness in his relations with women would have played a part in this unfavourable assessment. It cannot have helped either that Selwyn Lloyd, whose private secretary he had been, was in love with him. But between 1979 and 1992 it was the Tory whips, not Lady Thatcher, who kept him out of office.

Even Mr Aitken, in his valedictory article in the Tablet, now subscribes to the current journalistic fantasy that he was at one time considered a possible future leader of his party. In fact he never was, any more than Mr John Profumo was before 1963. When he was given his junior post at Defence by Mr John Major, people were puzzled.

The possibilities were as follows: either Mr Major did not know of Mr Aitken's connections with the sheikhs of Araby, a bunch of no-good boyos if ever there was one, though endlessly flattered and indulged in the upper reaches of English society on account of their great wealth. In this case Mr Major was as innocent as they had always suspected him of being. Or, alternatively, he knew perfectly well of Mr Aitken's shady connections, which he was determined to exploit in the interests of the state. Indeed, they provided the principal reason for appointing him in the first place. In this case Mr Major was being shrewder than they had suspected. We still do not know precisely what Mr Aitken was up to in Paris. But if he was on Her Majesty's service as a minister, there does not seem to be any constitutional reason why the bill should not have been picked up by his admittedly dodgy hosts - so saving the British taxpayer some money - or, alternatively, by HM Treasury. It is incredible that he felt it necessary to lie about it in the first place. Mr Justice Popplewell tells me he did not believe him, though the learned judge's demeanour towards Mr Aitken at the trial led some observers to infer that he did.

There is another mystery. The papers said last week that Mr Aitken resigned from the Cabinet as Chief Secretary in 1995 to pursue his action against the Guardian and Granada Television. It was also stated that no minister could sue for libel and remain a minister.

This is not so. Even the most cursory examination of the precedents shows otherwise. Certain prime ministers, true, try to discourage members of their government from suing. As Harold Wilson showed, this does not prevent them from doing some suing themselves. Edward Heath most unfairly made ministers resign if they were being sued by somebody else: a fate that befell Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith when he was assaulted by the Moonies. Yet other ministers have been not only allowed but positively encouraged to sue. Norman Tebbit sued the Guardian. Norman Lamont was provided with money out of public funds to take on the News of the World over "Miss Whiplash". Richard Needham at the Northern Ireland Office was advised by the Attorney General to instruct solicitors to write to the Daily Telegraph after he had been reported calling Margaret Thatcher an "old cow". Public funds were used again to pay for letters from Lord Young's solicitors to the late "Tiny" Rowland.

In 1995 Mr Aitken consulted the Law Officers and Mr Major, and secured their agreement to the actions against the Guardian and Granada. He duly began them but did not leave the Cabinet immediately. He departed in a reshuffle a few months later, ostensibly to devote his full energies to the case. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first lure to the libel courts.

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