ROBERT LOUIS Stevenson thought the soundest test of a man was the memory you carried of him: "It is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble friend," he once wrote. A surprising number of Jonathan Aitken's friends seem prepared to say the same. They excuse the lies, the disgrace, even the exploitation of his daughter Victoria, because, to them, the ties of loyalty outweigh the reality of deceit and betrayal. It is remarkable how friendship seems able to survive the one thing that should undermine it: the breakdown of trust. To spring to the defence of a friend is as natural and admirable as any human action ... Once the case against him is clearly proved, however, all this is challenged. Friendship relies on trust, and once that trust has been abused, one imagines that it must simply wither away. Yet here we have dozens of Aitken's friends and colleagues, all of whom must have been lied to directly at some stage over the past few years, writing to the judge in his perjury trial, testifying in glowing terms to his sterling qualities ... Yet they must all by now be aware that this is not just a case of one man's pride and a little lie about a hotel bill. Those who have gone to the barricades on his behalf must, in consequence, have found it a disturbing experience. Not just because they have had to revise drastically their views of someone they once trusted, but because it has induced a more general cynicism about human nature ... Anyone who has betrayed the trust of his country, his family and his friends to the extent that Aitken has, deserves to meet the full weight of the law ... In the end, Aitken's greatest fault may have been that, by portraying himself as an honest and upstanding human being, he has introduced the virus of doubt into the way we think about our friends, and the loyalty we owe them.
IT COULD easily have been Jonathan Aitken who defeated Ken Clarke for the Tory leadership. If that had happened, the Tories would have made fewer tactical misjudgments over the past two years. On grounds of age alone, he would have found it far easier to exert his authority than Hague has ... If Aitken were Tory leader, Blair would still be ahead in the polls, but not by so much ... He is determined to regard [his prison sentence] as an opportunity for spiritual renewal. His many friends will wish him well in that, but they will still regret the might-have-beens.
OF COURSE it's impossible to watch his fall without feeling some pity. Whatever he says about Eton being a good training for prison - which is ludicrous - the loss of freedom for a man accustomed to his levels of self-esteem, privilege, money and power is especially sharp ... But sympathy is rather less easy to summon because it requires an understanding of a person's plight and a sense too that, given their circumstances, any of us might have made the same mistake. This is simply not the case. Most of us lie on occasions, but Aitken's lie was a huge edifice of fabrication, elaborated over years and involving his family, party, colleagues and friends. Some of Aitken's friends have expressed doubts about his sentence, saying that he is the target of envy and inverse snobbery. They take little account of the chances he threw away in his quest to nail the Guardian, and shiftily ignore what he was up to in Paris ... Aitken's dishonesty was breathtaking, to be sure, but in the end it was his arrogance, not public envy, that carried him to prison.
IN PRISON over the next few months, he can read The Bible and dwell on Christ's words: "Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance." He will have a chance to make amends, rebuild his life and re-establish his reputation, like his mentor, Richard Nixon, who ended up a respected elder statesman ... So we shouldn't feel too sad for Aitken as he departs for jail. In many ways, he is a lucky man: he can face his critics in his lifetime ... In one hundred years' time, The Importance of Jonathan Aitken may yet be wowing the West End with its tales of how the establishment hounded a man when he was down.
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