Would you put a drunk in charge of a gin factory?

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
Emerging from St Margaret's, Westminster, after Peter Jenkins's memorial service in 1992, I came upon Mr Jonathan Aitken standing just outside the porch. He was wearing a short black coat, a white shirt, striped trousers and a silver tie. The Welsh Labour MPs SO Davies and Jim Griffiths used to be similarly got up, as today is the chap who opens the front door at a posh dentist's. "Why are you dressed like that, Jonathan?" I asked. "Because I'm a churchwarden here," he replied. I was, I confess, impressed by his sheer cheek - for there can have been no more louche occupant of the historic position of churchwarden since Tom Driberg, whose vices were different but similarly well advertised.

I have always had a soft spot for Mr Aitken. I would (would still) buy him a drink, though like most people seriously interested in power, money or both he is abstemious in his habits. I would even lend him a book, a more stringent test of my regard. What I would not do is lend him any money, in the unlikely event of his having an eye on the, to him, tiny sums at my disposal. I should certainly not put my name to any document he might present to me, saying: "Kindly sign this piece of paper - a complete formality, I assure you - while I put on my running shoes."

In short, I am not greatly surprised at what has happened over the past week or so. Certainly it would not have happened if it had not been for the Guardian's persistence, Ms Wendy Harris's diligence and a fair amount of luck. But that Mr Aitken thought he could get away with it does not surprise me in the least, any more than it did that he thought he could be simultaneously a churchwarden and what the Prayer Book calls an open and notorious evil liver.

Truly, whom the gods wish to destroy they first make initiate an action for defamation in the High Court: Oscar Wilde ... Jonathan Aitken ... Michael Meacher, who, however, suffered only removal from the National Executive of the Labour Party and the subsequent fate of being the only elected member of the Shadow Cabinet to be denied a place in the real one by Mr Tony Blair. Mr Aitken has suffered more, though certainly not as much as Wilde did.

But we should try to see matters in proportion. When a politician is disgraced, the newspapers always exaggerate the height from which he fell. Thus when his case is resurrected for the umpteenth time, Mr John Profumo is now invariably described as a "possible future leader of his party". He was not that at all. He was regarded by his contemporaries as lucky to have become Secretary for War. Even allowing for the Conservative predilection for choosing the unlikeliest characters to lead them - Lord Home, Lady Thatcher, Mr John Major, Mr William Hague - Mr Profumo would have been a long shot. So would Mr Aitken.

This is not to say that his contribution to politics has been negligble. He has written two good books, one on official secrecy, the other on Richard Nixon. In the case which inspired the first of these works he behaved bravely and, as a journalist, correctly. The chairman of the Yorkshire constituency where he was a candidate lent him a document showing that the 1966 Labour government's involvement in the Nigerian civil war was greater than ministers liked to pretend. Mr Aitken copied it and supplied it to Hugh Fraser MP, with whose wife Lady Antonia he had an affair, and to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, whose own wife, as far as we know, remained safe from Mr Aitken's attentions. The paper duly published the document. The editor and Mr Aitken were then prosecuted under the Offical Secrets Acts on the insistance of the Labour Attorney Sir Elwyn Jones, who had begun his political life as a fellow-traveller and ended it as an even more conservative Lord Chancellor than Lord Hailsham. Mr Aitken resigned his candidacy not because he had betrayed his local chairman but because he faced prosecution.

He got off after Mr Justice Caulfield had virtually directed the jury to acquit. There was to be no such unashamedly political prosecution until Mr Clive Ponting's, which came similarly unstuck, even if the judge was to behave in a manner more agreeable to the government of the day. The papers which on the earlier occasion had depicted Mr Aitken as Mr Integrity, the Fighting Journalist cannot now turn round and say he was nothing of the kind after all. They are, as the lawyers say, estopped.

As a backbencher from 1974 to 1992, his activities were largely admirable. He spoke strongly against the European Community. Numerous other Conservatives did likewise. But they did not speak, as Mr Aitken also did, against the octopus influence of Mr Rupert Murdoch, which was not such a popular cause in Conservative circles, any more than it is today among Mr Blair's entourage. And, with Mr Richard Shepherd, he tried to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill. This, you may think, was rich, not to say fruity: for if Mr Aitken believes in information about government, he clearly does not believe equally in information about Mr Aitken. Nevertheless he embarrassed the Thatcher government. In 1987 he and Mr Shepherd deservedly won a Spectator award for their activities in this area.

Whether Lady Thatcher disregarded him because he "made Carol cry" or (as I think more likely) because she perceived other deficiences we do not know. But in 1992 Mr Major appointed him Minister for Defence Procurement and, in 1994, to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. His Arab connections were or should have been known to Mr Major. They were certainly known to everybody else. As well put a child molester in charge of Cheltenham Ladies' College or make a dipsomaniac works manager of Beefeater Gin! But perhaps this was intended - not least because the Defence Secretary at the time was Mr Malcolm Rifkind, who is Jewish.

Did Mr Major really expect Mr Aitken to drop all those new chums of his with expensive habits and dishcloths round their heads? Was his appointment, so to speak, a test of character? Or was it precisely because he knew lots of rich Arabs that he was given the job in the first place? These are deep waters, my old friend. We are dealing with some desperate characters who will stop at nothing. But I have noticed that the most pacific Labour MPs respond indignantly if the government is going to close an arms factory in the constituency. Was it Mr Aitken's function to sell arms as well as to procure them?

In a roundabout way, Mr Aitken has performed yet another public service. By successfully urging Mr Justice Popplewell to hear the case without a jury, a decision upheld by Lord Bingham in the Court of Appeal, he has drawn attention to a scandal: that under the Supreme Court Act 1981, even a libel case can be heard without a jury if the judge decides that it "requires any prolonged examination of documents" which "cannot conveniently be made with a jury". Thus if a plaintiff believes, as Mr Aitken did, that he can get away with it before a judge alone, all he has to do is flood the court not only with documents but (as Lord Bingham made clear) with witnesses as well. I wonder what those easily impressed judges think now.