Jonathan Aitken's confession
This week the fall of Jonathan Aitken, once a star in British politics, was complete when he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Earlier he had given an assistant editor of The Tablet access to a revealing text in which he bares his soul.
I am a man of unclean lips. The speaker is Jonathan Aitken, and he is referring quite explicitly to his perjury, for which he was sentenced on Tuesday to eighteen months in prison. He is, of course, quoting Isaiah 6:5, but he hastens to add, I'm not for one second comparing myself to Isaiah.
Jonathan Aitken has been described as a 24-carat villain. He is certainly someone who has provided a great deal of media entertainment over the last few years. Tall, dark, handsome and Etonian, masterly in his charm, famed for his affairs, notorious for his secret financial negotiations with Arabs, eminent for his political success, humiliated by his political crash, ground into the dust by his conviction for perjury, shaken by a mini-stroke, stripped as a bankrupt of his Rolex watch, still able to draw from an unspecified source living expenses of ?11,400 a month, and now facing the prospect of putting on prison uniform and being locked up in a cell . . . he still has the panache to lift his head high and say it will not be too bad for someone who has been at Eton.
The trouble with Jonathan Aitken is that the public will never take him seriously again. He held a press conference to launch his libel action against the Guardian and Granada television with these words, I will cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth, only to be impaled upon his own sword. The Guardian were able to uncover evidence to prove that he had lied over the question of who had paid his hotel bill in Paris. It might seem a small matter, but on it hung allegations of taking secret commission for multi-million-pound arms dealings, over which Aitken had lied not only to the press but also apparently to his own Government. The deceit even involved the corruption of Aitken's own daughter, 13 at the time of the hotel incident, whom he had persuaded to sign a false statement saying she was in Paris. Corruption of the young, and self-enrichment from arms dealings, are commonly put high on the list of mortal sins.
How do you emerge from a reputation as a mega-liar? Whatever new tale you tell will be treated with as much scepticism as the old lies. Nothing you say can ever break the walls of the labyrinth, just as the Greek could not be believed who said, All Greeks are liars. You may even have lost touch in your own mind with the difference between the mot juste and the truth. Aitken has now opted for the only sensible course: silence.
But Aitken does have immortal longings, and though he has been driven more needily to God in his present discomfiture, he has been a church-goer for years. It is a surprise, however, to hear that he has done the Alpha course, not once but three times, graduating from a humble student to a helper who pours coffee. Even more astonishing, he has done Ignatian retreats. His first experience was in the Westminster retreats in daily life, for MPs and others working at Westminster, and in due course he went away to the Coach House in Inverness to make an individually directed eight-day retreat with the Jesuit Gerry W. Hughes.
Aitken trawled through the state of his soul in an address to the C.S. Lewis Foundation and the Prison Fellowship Ministry on 2 August last year. Only God can judge its level of sincerity but, if nothing else, it shows that he is enough of a Christian to know what a penitent sinner should feel. Aitken forbade its publication before his sentencing, lest he be thought to be trying to win sympathy from the judge, but has now given me special permission to quote from this hitherto private material.
Here, then, in a shortened version, is Jonathan Aitken in his own words:
In the early 1990s I suppose I could have been described as a successful politician. I was in my fifth term as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and had held two portfolios as a Minister of the Crown. One of them was Minister of State for Defence, and the other was the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. They were powerful posts. And I was getting quite frequently tipped as a possible future leader of my party and as a successor to John Major.
The political graveyards are littered with the long-forgotten corpses of ex-future prime ministers, so any such label should have made a wise man humble. In fact, it did quite the reverse. The combination of what Shakespeare in Hamlet calls 'the insolence of office' and in Macbeth 'vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself', gave me a surfeit of hubris. Pride is the deadliest of sins, but I was bursting with pride. I took myself far too seriously, especially when I was made a target of a campaign by the Guardian.
It does not really matter now what the Guardian said in their attacks, because all feelings of resentment about them have long since left me. Suffice it to say that, in a long series of articles, they made a number of allegations against me, some of which were true, some of which were untrue, and all of which were given a strongly negative spin. In the face of this campaign I was full of prideful anger and went for the journalists' jugular. I initiated a big law suit for libel and announced my libel law suit in a ferocious television speech which contained the peroration, 'I will cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth'. These were insensitive words of pride which came back to haunt me.
Let me pause here to tell you where I was as a Christian when I was riding high as a politician. To put it simply, I called myself a Christian without actually being one. I was strong on the externals. I went to church fairly regularly; I supported Christian causes; and was even a church warden in St Margaret's church Westminster. However, I do not think I had fully appreciated the simple truth that being a Christian has little to do with external appearances and everything to do with the internal commitment of the heart.
I think I bore a disturbing resemblance to that Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the publican who go into the church to pray (Lk 18). Even if I did not boast about my external piety quite as loudly as that Pharisee did, the humility of the publican was far removed from me. I was certainly not saying 'God be merciful to me, a sinner' nor was I doing the will of the Father. And that brings me back to the libel case. In order to win it, I felt I had to do something that was against the will of the Father. I told a lie.
It did not seem at that time a terribly important lie, at least in relation to the lies I was accusing others of telling about me. It was a lie about who paid a $1,500-hotel bill of mine in the Ritz Hotel in Paris while I had been a government minister. I told this lie. I told it on oath in my evidence in court. To my eternal shame, I even got my wife and daughter to back me up with witness statements supporting my lie. But then my opponents ambushed me in the middle of the trial with clear documentary evidence that I had told a lie on oath. My credibility as a witness was shattered.
I had to withdraw from the libel case. And within 24 hours my whole life was shattered too. The former Cabinet Minister had impaled himself on his own sword of truth, with explosive and apocalyptic consequences. Some people have expressed surprise that I am still in one piece after being so torn to shreds in the onslaught of media vilification and castigation I received at the height of my dramas. A great deal of the criticism of me was vitriolic; some of it was vicious; and I deserved most of it.
When these thunderbolts were raining in on me from all directions, I turned to my Christian faith, imperfect though it was, and began to ponder more deeply than ever before on the great themes in the gospels of love, penitence, redemption and resurrection. Although I am sceptical of fox-hole conversion, nevertheless the time when I was at the nadir of my misfortunes was the time when I turned more humbly and penitently than ever towards Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I had escaped from the hot pursuit of the British paparazzi by travelling incognito to one of the remotest and most beautiful parts of the United States that I know - Somoma County, California. There amidst the majestic stillness and silences of unspoilt nature at its most glorious, I felt the first glimmerings of metanoia - which is the Greek word for repentance. The starting point of my metanoia was the rock bottom I had hit in terms of defeat, disgrace, dejection and despair.
One of the books I had taken with me to northern California was C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity and a passage in his talk 'The Perfect Penitent' struck a special chord with me: 'It needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are, the more you need it and the less you can do it.'
I was such a worst case myself. I could not even pray because my concentration wandered about in a sludge of self- recrimination. But then I remembered hearing in some long-ago sermon that if you ever found yourself unable to pray, you should try reading the Psalms. If I was to pick out just a couple of examples of the sustenance I gained from the Psalms as I read them looking out over the Pacific Ocean, I would highlight the opening verses of Psalm 37 which begins, 'Fret not thyself. . .', and Psalm 84:6, 'If you are going through a vale of misery - use it for a well'.
Now I was certainly in a vale of misery - but what did 'using it for a well' mean? In my case it meant going deep into the waters of traditional Christian disciplines such as prayer, fellowship, scripture reading and changing direction by making a commitment to Christ.
On prayer, St Teresa of Avila used to say, 'When you start to pray, get yourself some company'. When I came back to England I went - very reluctantly, I must admit - on a Christian teaching holiday, as it was called, in a retreat place named Launde Abbey. I met and prayed there with wonderful new friends, real Christian brothers and sisters. With even greater reluctance, I went on an Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton and found great inspiration from its fellowship and the teachings of the course on the Holy Spirit. And most important of all, I formed one or two prayer partnerships, some with the individuals I had met at Launde Abbey and one with a group of five friends who have been meeting regularly on Thursday mornings for bible study, breakfast and prayer.
Out of these experiences came profound change. Gradually I have found my prayers moving away from my own self-centred concerns; away from selfish requests for holy electrical energy to come down and help me fulfil my purposes and solve my problems. Instead I have been slowly turning from self-centred prayer to God-centred prayer. And as I do so, I have begun to understand those great words of St Augustine, 'In his will we find our peace'.
21 May 1998 was Ascension Day. The earthly meaning of this particular Ascension Day was that the balloon had gone up. My house was surrounded by reporters and photographers, all of whom missed a good scoop since they failed to recognise Chuck Colson [of Watergate], apparently believing him to be one of my many lawyers.
An hour or so later I was in Chelsea police station where I was charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert public justice. I spent the next five hours alone in a police cell while waiting for the various formalities such as finger-printing and photographs. I used that time to pray, to meditate and to read all sixteen chapters of St Mark's Gospel, something I had long meant to do at one sitting. This should have been a time of deep despair. The worst day of my life. Not so. For I had such an overwhelming sense of God's presence in the cell with me that I was at peace.
I would like to end these remarks by sharing with you some brief reflections on a famous passage of Scripture which has spoken to me, Isaiah 6:1-8. Isaiah saw and understood that he was going to be purified by something far beyond his own power. The purification that came Isaiah's way was the placing of a live coal in his mouth by the seraphs. It does not require much imagination to see that having a live coal put in your mouth must have been an extremely unpleasant experience. Yet surely there are times when such suffering has to be part of the repentance. Indeed, it may well be true that there can be no true penitence without pain and no real contrition without courage.
Then Isaiah heard the wonderful words: 'This has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.' And the Scripture goes on: 'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said: Here am I! Send me.'
Note the total unconditionality of that response, 'Send me'. It does not mean, 'Send me, I was going that way anyhow', or 'Send me, I was planning to do that', or 'Send me, I rather like the sound of that idea'. It may mean something much more disagreeable. In my case it means, 'Send me to prison'.
What do we make of this? Humility? Yes. Firm purpose of amendment? Not so easy to say. The Guardian might insist that Aitken demonstrate the sincerity of repentance by repaying the whopping legal bill of one-and-half-million pounds he landed on them by his dishonest libel action. He was allowed to drop the case on promising to pay costs, but then escaped from the liability when he declared himself bankrupt and revealed that most of his apparent assets turn out to be conveniently owned by other people. The Guardian still believe he has more resources than he will admit.
But the fact remains that none of us could do much better than this in the confessional.