Leading Article: An old-fashioned tale of hubris punished

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Nothing unites the nation quite like the ruin of a wealthy and well connected man. A good court case, preferably with dramatic last-minute evidence, and a strong sub-plot of family anguish, add immeasurably to the appeal of the story. For a journalist, and for many others, the Jonathan Aitken story has all the qualities of a ripping good Saturday-morning read. For the dramatist, it has all the qualities of proper tragedy to the full Greek prescription.

Central to the tragedy is Mr Aitken's flawed character. We do not know yet, of course, the precise mixture of foolishness and culpability which makes up his flaw. We do not know precisely why he lied about what he was doing in Paris that weekend. Was it greed and fear? Was it simply political arrogance, which did not think that receiving hospitality from foreign friends and business associates was a problem? Whatever, once he had started down the path of duplicity, the drama unfolded in the ancient Greek fashion, as if inevitable (with a touch of deus ex machina about the late statement from the British Airways investigator). Along the way to the denouement, lots of bathos (the allegations of pimping), a bit of pathos and lashings of irony. When Mr Aitken spoke, misty-eyed, about "the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play", he already knew that he had the dagger of deceit concealed on his person. And what of the shield? It turned out to be his family, not ``fair play'' at all. His wife and daughter were expected to perjure themselves to back up his story, and his son was brought up to underscore his outrage at being accused of procuring prostitutes for Arab businessmen.

There are plenty of piquant ironies in the flashback scenes of the play, too, the scenes where we look back at the hero's early life. Here we see the journalist in an earlier court appearance - this time really fighting for truth and fair play - when he took on the Labour government's hypocrisy on the Biafran war and defied the oppressive Official Secrets Act. For that bravery he was forced to give up a parliamentary candidacy. In his early life and his politics there were always strong streaks of genuine principle and even idealism: he was, and is, a complicated man.

So this is a tragedy with strong moral messages. One of them is that traditional staple of tragedians, the danger of hubris. In 1967, at the age of 24, Mr Aitken wrote a self-aggrandising book called The Young Meteors. Its thesis was that the elite of his generation were poised on the threshold of power, in politics and business. It predicted glittering futures for the likes of John Gummer, Roy Hattersley, Peter Walker, Tony Newton and, by implication, himself. It was not to be: but that kind of self-confident arrogance is not so distant from the arrogance of cover-up, bluster and perjury. It is a bad idea to tip yourself or to encourage others to tip you for the top. Even the apparent exception to the rule, William Hague, turns out only to prove it. Michael Crick tells the story of how, when Mr Hague arrived at the Oxford Union, students were determined to hate him because of his precocious speech to Conservative conference two years earlier. But his modesty and charm won them over, and he never showed the overweening pride that is the essential ingredient in tragedy.

Another moral is the danger of a grand family. The Aitken-Beaverbrooks have cut rather a glamorous, powerful dash across the history of 20th- century Britain. Their raffishness, courage and occasional ruthlessness must have infected Mr Aitken with a sense of Destiny. More prosaically, however, he found himself representing one of the poorer branches of the Beaverbrook dynasty, and found it hard to come to terms with that. He searched hungrily - too hungrily - for the income to support a grand political lifestyle, symbolised by his Westminster house and lavish, generous, parties. The ``meteor'' image and a certain assumption about the life he deserved surely encouraged the corner-cutting that brought him into court.

His heroes tended to be great driven characters such as Nixon and Beaverbrook himself rather than democrats or reformers. He wasn't put off by their seedier side: indeed, he rather enjoyed it. His background, politics and self-image made him a man in a hurry. Latterly, he was haunted by a feeling that he had reached the first rank too late. So he cut corners, striding towards what he thought life owed him. Like so many who have been broken in the courts, he thought his great charm, good looks and intellect would see him through - that little people's rules weren't for him. And but for a painstaking investigator, he might have been right. He had seemed a very good witness in court. He is a very good actor indeed.

But the final, inexcusable part of his story is that exploitation of his family, the drawing of loved ones into deceit. How often do we find that public figures who brandish wives and children when under attack turn out to be (the old-fashioned terms are irresistible) bounders and cads? We must, of course, be properly respectful of the pain suffered by Mr Aitken's children and his wife. It may seem rather brutal, indeed, to try to draw a lesson from this particular morality tale, as if we are kicking the man when he is down. Nor are we gloating. But Jonathan Aitken, who was born handsome, talented, relatively well-off and politically well- connected, who is charming and clever, has been destroyed not by newspapers or barristers, but by his own greed, cynicism and arrogance. That is his personal tragedy. But it would have been a tragedy for the country had this man succeeded in his political ambitions. He has always been an attractive man. But he is a bad man.