Major's support may not be enough for Aitken

Political Commentary
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I HAVE, I confess, always had a soft spot for Mr Jonathan Aitken. During his trial under the Official Secrets Acts in 1971, about which I was writing in the New Statesman, I lunched with him and his mother virtually daily. This was a political trial originally instigated by Elwyn Jones, Attorney-General in the Labour government. It was intended to appease the Nigerian government in its conflict with Biafra. My sympathies lay with Mr Aitken.

He had clearly broken the law during his journalistic activities in Nigeria. Nevertheless Mr Justice Caulfield in effect instructed the jury to acquit. This they duly did. The judge filled the role in Mr Aitken's case which the jury was to fill in Mr Clive Ponting's case 14 years later. It was a great day for the freedom of the press, even if it did raise awkward questions about the proper function of the judge.

The Conservatives did not see matters in quite this heroic light. Indeed, to them Mr Aitken was not a hero of any description. Sir Edward Heath's government regarded the Biafran cause in much the same unfavourable way as had Lord Wilson's. Mr Aitken had stood trial at the Old Bailey. Besides, there were allegations that he had let down a British officer in Nigeria.

The charges were difficult to disentangle satisfactorily or even at all. In this respect they resembled other charges which were to be made against him in the next quarter-century, notably those connected with trips to Paris and arms to Iran. Like some denizen of the deep, an octopus - or maybe it is a squid - he can at times of danger emit a cloud of murky fluid to protect him from his enemies.

This simile is not intended to imply that Mr Aitken is sinister or unattractive, for he is neither. In fact he reminds me of a PG Wodehouse character: I mean a specific character. This is not Bertie Wooster, who was unworldly (and Mr Aitken is nothing if not worldly). Nor is it Jeeves, who was wise (for Mr Aitken is not always wise). It is Stanley Ukridge, who had ingenious schemes for making money which always went wrong. True, Mr Aitken's schemes do not always go wrong in that, unlike Ukridge, he makes money: but, like Ukridge, he tends to find himself in trouble as a consequence of those enterprises.

Mr Aitken maintains that he simply did not know about the exports to Iran through Singapore of the firm where he was a director. But, if he did know, was he doing anything very wrong? His position would have been comparable to that of the directors of Matrix Churchill, who exported arms to Iraq and are now hailed as "innocent" men. They are so acclaimed because they acted with the Government's connivance, even approval, though their actions were in breach of the Government's own "guidelines". Sir Richard Scott will shortly question the legal validity of those guidelines, as our inept Opposition so signally failed to do.

Unaccountably, Sir Richard has not inquired specifically into military exports to Iran. Yet to the arms manufacturers, the Ministry of Defence and the Government, it seemed that these two unhappy Middle Eastern states were much of a muchness. "Iran? Iraq? Who cares, so long as they come up with the money?" This seems to have been the general attitude. If Mr Aitken did know about the exports to Iran, what has he to be ashamed of?

Mr Gerald James, the then chairman of the company of which Mr Aitken was a director, believes that he did know. Mr James has been variously accused of having a grudge against Mr Aitken or, at any rate, a bee in his bonnet. It has been hinted that he is both personally aggrieved and mentally unbalanced. I do not know Mr James. But I have read his memorandum to the Commons Trade and Industry Committee of 5 February 1992. It contains no sign of either of these distressing conditions: quite the reverse. Mr James appears to me to be at least as sane as the Lord Chancellor.

One of the disturbing features, he writes, about the activities of the Government and the Security Services is the deliberate attempt to fudge and confuse the issues by attacking manufacturers and industrialists as if they are entirely to blame, when in reality they are meeting requirements initiated by government.

He goes on to say that, through its BMARC subsidiary in Grantham (of which Mr Aitken was a director), Astra had a contract called LISI to supply medium-calibre armaments, ammunition and tooling to Singapore for transmission to Iran. This project was run by General Isles, who had been a senior officer with the Ministry of Defence. "The project had full government approval and was initiated under BMARC's previous owners."

Mr Aitken, so Mr James tells us, applied to become a director of Astra and was made a director of BMARC instead. Why is Mr Aitken so defensive? Certainly Mr Menzies Campbell and Dr Jack Cunningham go too far in claiming that the directors are more or less absolutely liable for their company's activities. Indeed, the law seems to have framed those duties with Wooster or Ukridge in mind. In a 1925 case the judge laid down three principles. First, a director need not exhibit a greater degree of skill than may reasonably be expected from a person of his knowledge and experience. This might catch Mr Aitken, who is, after all, an expert on the Middle East. But, second, a director is not bound to give his continuous attention to the affairs of his company. And, third, a director is entitled to expect the company's officers to behave honestly. Mr Aitken is probably safe, for the time being.

If there is one quality which he possesses, in addition to the urge to make money, it is shamelessness - a conviction that his somewhat louche charm, properly directed, can enable him to escape from the most unpromising situations. Emerging from Peter Jenkins's memorial service at St Margaret's, Westminster, in October 1992, I encountered him just outside the door. He was wearing a black coat and striped trousers. He looked like an undertaker. The only MPs I could remember attired in this garb, on-duty barristers apart, were SO Davies, William Deedes and Jim Griffiths.

"Why are you dressed like that, Jonathan?" I asked.

"Because I'm a church warden here," Mr Aitken replied.

There had, I reflected, been no more implausible occupant of such a position since the late Tom Driberg filled it at another place of worship. Even so, he gave what Wodehouse would have called a light laugh, so light that it rose to float somewhere over Parliament Square. He turned to engage the next emerging journalist in friendly conversation. At this stage he had been in his first government job for six months. "That lad," I said to myself, "can still go far." So he has. But after the events of last week, it may be that - despite his brave performance on Thursday, the backbenchers' approval and the Prime Minister's support - he has now gone as far as he ever will.