PROFILE
Volume 17 Number2
Pride, Perjury and the Psalms
01 April 2004

Twenty-three years in Parliament, nine months in the Cabinet, seven months in prison—Jonathan Aitken talks to Mary Lean.

For a British national newspaper to print an extract from a new book on the Psalms* is unusual, to say the least. All the more so, when the book is by someone who has waged an acrimonious libel battle against the paper—and when the interview accompanying the extract is largely sympathetic.

When I meet Jonathan Aitken, a former Conservative defence minister who spent seven months in prison for perjury, he is amazed by The Guardian’s decision to run the extract. ‘They said that they would like to extend a hand of reconciliation,’ he says. ‘When that comes your way, you have to seize it gratefully.’

Society today is stronger on tolerance than it is on the possibilities of redemption and change once the intolerable has been committed. So it’s perhaps not surprising that when I told friends I was going to interview Aitken some of them were skeptical.

He resigned from John Major’s Cabinet in 1995, after The Guardian and Granada television accused him of corruption and sleaze involving his links with the Arab world. At the press conference which launched his suit for libel, he portrayed himself as a crusader wielding ‘the simple sword of truth’ against the ‘cancer of bent and twisted journalism’. This claim rebounded on him when he was found to have lied on oath—and to have persuaded his teenage daughter to lie in his support. In The Guardian’s reconciliatory interview, he agreed that his pre-prison life had ‘followed a pattern of deceit’.

So how, I ask him, do you win back trust in such circumstances? He doesn’t quite answer the question, but says that he tries not to be bothered either by those who see his conversion as a ‘charlatan’s trick’ or by those Christians who are ‘wildly enthusiastic’ about it.

‘As far as the cynics are concerned, I’m rather sympathetic. I think in my old incarnation I would have been a bit cynical if I’d had a colleague who’d got into the same sort of trouble as I did, gone to jail and come out saying, “I’ve found God.” ’

However, he says, God is the only audience that matters to him now—and he presumably knows his inner motivation. ‘If he knew that I was putting it all on for some charlatan, cynical, public relations purpose, He would be very hard on me on the day of judgement.’ And, he adds, all through history high profile converts have had to cope with cynicism.

PRISON FELLOWSHIP
So he tries not to be swayed but to get on with what he believes God is asking him to do. This includes serving as director of a number of Christian charities, among them Prison Fellowship International, whose founder, the Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, supported him during his trial and sentence. He earns his living as an author and journalist and also speaks unpaid at a large number of Christian events. Many of these are connected to the Alpha Course, a programme which played a key role in his conversion. These occasions, he says with some surprise, draw ‘what a politician would regard as enormous audiences of 700 or 500 people’.

He traces the first steps of his path from ‘self-centredness’ towards ‘God-centredness’ to taking part in a series of Lenten ‘Parliamentary Prayer Retreats’ while still in the House of Commons. At that time, he maintains, he was a member of the ‘Church Reticent wing of the Anglican church’. The ‘sin of pride’, he says, blocked him from a real relationship with God.

What does he see as the main turning points on his spiritual journey? ‘Remorse, repentance, adversity, brokenness, pain were a sort of crucible in which God spoke to me. I listened and started to form a relationship which became of fundamental life-changing importance. It’s very difficult to pinpoint any one moment, it was much more a journey of stumbles and falls. People sometimes say to me, “Oh wonderful, you’re a born-again Christian,” and I say, “Yes, but I’m very conscious I’m a failed-again Christian.” ’

By the time he arrived at Belmarsh, Britain’s highest security prison, in June 1999, Aitken was ‘trying a different path in life’. He had been through defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy (later annulled) and jail—‘a royal flush of crises by anyone’s standards’. On his first night, as he listened to his fellow prisoners shouting out what they planned to do to him, he found reassurance by reading Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’. He writes in Psalms for People under Pressure, ‘Suddenly, I realized that I was not as lonely, scared, helpless or vulnerable as I had thought. The author of the psalm had been there before me.’

After this frightening start, Aitken soon found himself much in demand as letterwriter and reader for fellow inmates who —like some third of Britain’s prison population— were illiterate.

One night a young burglar, Paddy, invited him into his cell for a coffee and offered to give him a present ‘on behalf of all the lads’. From under his bed, he pulled out a pile of hardcore porn magazines and offered Aitken his pick. Aitken demurred, saying that although he used to like such magazines, he was now trying to follow Christ’s teachings. After a long silence, Paddy said, ‘I’d really like to try that path myself.’

Against all his former instincts, Aitken found himself suggesting that they pray together. After they had done this for a couple of nights, Paddy—‘who had in him the qualities of a good recruiting sergeant’— persuaded a burglar, an armed robber, a fraudster, a pickpocket and a murderer to join them. By the time Aitken left, their numbers had grown to 20—giving a new meaning, he quips, to the term ‘cell group’. He is still in touch with several of its members.

His entry in Who’s Who lists Eton and Belmarsh under ‘education’. Prison was a humbling experience, he says, but also a learning one—in that it expanded his horizons—and an enriching one. ‘I saw the power of the teachings of Christ to change lives, as real today in the 21st century as back in Galilee in the first.’

These days, keeping his head down doesn’t seem to be part of his rehabilitation plan. In January, he shocked many by speaking out in defence of Robert Kilroy-Silk, an outspoken chat-show host who resigned after expressing inflammatory anti-Arab views. ‘I thought what he said was rubbish,’ he tells me. ‘But what sort of a country are we living in now where you can’t express vigorous and wrong opinions?’

In February, he was back in the news when Conservative activists in his former constituency of South Thanet, Kent, petitioned for him to be allowed to stand for selection as their candidate in the next general election—a suggestion hastily quashed by the leader of the Conservative Party.

Aitken’s connections with the Middle East date back to 1966, when as a young journalist he was sent to cover a coup in Abu Dhabi. As a ‘born-again’ Christian, with many Muslim friends, what is his take on interfaith issues? ‘As a Christian I of course believe that “No one comes to the Father except by Me”,’ he says. ‘But I’ve been enough in the Muslim world to understand a bit about the power of prayer by a completely different route, and so I’m respectful of other people’s faiths and commitment. There are many routes to God’s grace and I don’t think we know all of them.’

THE FIRST SEEDS
Just as, he says, we don’t always know who plants the first seeds of faith in us. In his memoirs, Pride and Perjury*, he describes the influence of a nun who looked after him when, as a small child, he spent three years in hospital in Dublin with TB.

Some years later, as a law student in Oxford, he used to visit my parents’ home, which acted as a centre for Moral Re- Armament (now Initiatives of Change). At much the same time, he toyed with the idea of entering the church, but was put off by the ‘cold academic Anglicanism’ he encountered at the university.

‘I think your father and others sensed that somewhere in me there was something interested in serving God,’ he says now. ‘Looking back on it I think it was a door which came open and I closed it. Why I can’t really explain—I was too interested in the worldly prizes, enjoying an immoral life too much probably.’

Does he reflect at all on what might have happened if he had gone through such a door at that stage?

‘As I now look back on it, I think it was fairly clear from an early age that God was giving me various wake-up calls. Service of God can take endless forms. If I had been better at it I could have been a perfectly good servant of the Lord through politics. But along the way I rejected many a seedplanter, many a wake-up call. Perhaps the old Lutheran dictum, “it is in our pain and brokenness that we come closest to Christ” was true of me.’

*Psalms for People under Pressure, Continuum, 2004, ISBN 0-8264-7275-3 Pride and Perjury, Continuum, 2003,


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