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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Jonathan Aitken"

Interview: Lamont describes how the belief that Britain should leave the EU entered the Tory mainstream

A quarter of a century ago Norman Lamont became the first senior Conservative to warn that Britain might one day be obliged to choose, quite reasonably, to leave the European Union.

In this interview, conducted on Monday, Lord Lamont recalls how until then, the idea of withdrawing from the EU “had been akin to believing that the Earth was flat”.

And he describes how, while serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, he came to realise, from talks with his opposite numbers in other European capitals, that they were determined to create a political and not just an economic union: “I realised I had been deceiving myself.”

Lamont therefore went on to warn, in a speech delivered on 11th October 1994 to a fringe meeting organised by the Selsdon Group at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth:

“We deceive the British people . . . if we claim that we are winning the argument . . . the 11 other members want a European Union that is a European state.”

The Times reported that the former Chancellor had “shattered” the Tory truce on Europe, and had taken aim at the Prime Minister, John Major, who earlier that year had described the idea of leaving the EU as “unthinkable”. As Lamont told the fringe meeting,

“It has recently been said that the option of leaving the Community was ‘unthinkable’. I believe this attitude is rather simplistic.”

Lamont here relates that in 1994, he was acting on his own: “I was very much on my own after Black Wednesday,” 16th September 1992, when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the economic credibility of the Major government was destroyed.

Indeed, after Lamont spoke, “one of the people who attacked me was Bill Cash”, for Tory Eurosceptics were at this point careful not to call for British withdrawal.

Lamont defends David Cameron for calling the EU referendum – “I think he gets a very unfair press” – and attributes the vote for Leave to the realisation of older voters “that basically the country had been lied to” when it was assured that the EU was a purely economic venture.

The former Chancellor is delighted that Britain is out of European political union, is content to leave Boris Johnson to negotiate the details of Britain’s future trading arrangements, but calls on the Prime Minister to remain wedded to free-market economics: “I didn’t much like the helping hand that was extended to Flybe…I don’t want Boris the big spender to undo the good that George Osborne did.”

ConHome: “What happened in 1994? You’d first raised the idea of leaving the EU at a meeting earlier that year of the Conservative Philosophy Group, at Jonathan Aitken’s house in Lord North Street.”

Lamont: “Yes, I do remember Jimmy Goldsmith was there, and Zac was there. I know Rodney Leach was there, together with Jessica Douglas-Home.”

ConHome: “And what impelled you to take that line?”

Lamont: “Well I began to think about Europe when I was Chancellor. I mean I did think about it obviously before, but my doubts really grew – I often recount my very first meeting with one of my opposite numbers in Europe in New York in 1990, with a man called Pierre Bérégovoy who subsequently became Prime Minister of France.

“He was a Frenchman, but here he was in New York, telling me that we were inevitably going to have a United States of Europe.

“Now I of course spent a lot of my time as Chancellor negotiating our opt-out on the Maastricht Treaty from the single currency. But it was that experience that put me over the line, because I’d always worried whether Europe was political rather than just economic, but good friends of mine like Kenneth Clarke would say, ‘It’s all rhetoric – they don’t mean it.’

“And when I came face to face with this, I was shocked. I realised I had been deceiving myself.

“And OK, we had I think a perfectly sensible and rational policy of having a series of opt-outs, opt-out from the single currency, opt-out from the Social Chapter, opt-out from Schengen.

“But the question was, can you really just go on and can you guarantee that these opt-outs won’t be eroded, will Labour reverse them, could we be driven further down the road towards – I mean I try to avoid using the phrase ‘federal Europe’ – but a political Europe.

“And what I said in my speech at the party conference was that we had a choice. We could have opt-outs, or we could withdraw.

“But I also said, which I had come to believe, that I felt the economic advantages of the so-called Single Market were vastly overstated. To this day, I am still influenced by the fact that Switzerland, not a member of the European Union, is more integrated with the European economy than we are.

“And I note how the United States sells more to the Single Market and increases its share of the Single Market faster than we have, despite not being a member.

“And I can’t see, and couldn’t see then increasingly, why we had to be members in order to benefit. One can say that a single regulatory area is a public good, and take advantage of it, while being an outsider.”

ConHome: “Who did you discuss this with at the time? And in particular, which Conservatives, possibly of an older generation, influenced your thinking? Or were you really working it out for yourself? You must have tried to talk it through with various people.”

Lamont: “At that stage I was very much on my own [laughter]. I was very much on my own after Black Wednesday.”

ConHome: “Yes, you weren’t at the centre of a great band.”

Lamont: “Well there was all the speculation about the leadership. No, I was working on my own. I had a very good PA called Rupert Darwall, Rupert and I worked closely.

“But other than that, it was quite interesting, when I made that speech at the party conference, one of the people who attacked me was Bill Cash.”

ConHome: “Why?”

Lamont: “Because I’d advocated leaving, and they were very careful not to advocate leaving. They were in favour of renegotiation. Well, you know, renegotiation was an option which I myself acknowledged.

“I didn’t say we should leave. What I said was we may have in the future to choose.

“And I was also saying it was not impossible to thrive economically outside the European Union, which I did believe and I profoundly believe now.”

ConHome: “So Eurosceptics of an earlier generation like Derek Walker-Smith or Enoch Powell were not a particular influence on you?”

Lamont: “Enoch was, definitely. How could he not be? I knew him. Funnily enough, I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons in favour of joining the EEC.

“In 1972, I got in in a by-election, and I had an Anti-Common Market candidate I had to defeat in the by-election, and in my maiden speech I actually rather playfully quoted Enoch.

“Enoch once made a speech, which I heard, in favour of EEC membership, at Cambridge when I was an undergraduate. I referred to this, just as a joke really, and Enoch was very nice about it. Afterwards he congratulated me on the speech and so on, blah, blah, blah.

“So I voted that way, but I did have doubts on the political side which came from two sources. One, I followed what Enoch said, and he saw very clearly that Europe was going in a political direction, political union. And yet the evidence wasn’t all that clear.

“But I began to have doubts about it for two reasons. I remember shortly after I had become a member of the House of Commons, Ted Heath came back from a summit and announced that we were signing up to the Werner Plan for monetary union.

“I was absolutely shocked by this, but I think the Werner Plan envisaged it happening over 20 years or something, and although I was shocked, again, people said ‘well, nothing will happen, blah blah blah’.

“And then the second thing was, I had a constituent called Mrs Horsfield, who used to write to me all the time about this, and she cottoned on the Werner Plan, and then she cottoned on to majority voting with the Single Market.”

ConHome: “That’s really encouraging, that a persistent constituent could have that effect.”

Lamont: “She lived at Liverpool Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, but I don’t know if she’s still alive. Charlotte Horsfield I remember was her name.

“But the catalyst was just the experience of being Chancellor, and the way they refused to believe me when I said, ‘We won’t join the single currency.’

“I just could not understand that.”

ConHome: “You mean all your European opposite numbers?”

Lamont: “Yes, they were all, ‘Norman you say this, but…’. I remember in particular there was a Greek finance minister, the head of the Greek central bank, he just could not believe, he said, ‘You’ll show solidarity with Greece when the moment comes.’”

ConHome: “So what happened after you’d said at the party conference in 1994 that leaving the EU was an option?”

Lamont: “Well nothing happened. But what Matthew d’Ancona says [in his account in The Guardian of ‘how a fringe idea took hold of the Tory party’] is that it made the issue of leaving intellectually respectable, simply because I’d been Chancellor.

“Whereas it had been akin to believing that the Earth was flat.

“I remember I chose my words very carefully. I remember I said I can see no unambiguous advantage in our membership. I was saying well, you know, there may be a bit of argument that it mildly increased exports, I personally don’t believe this.”

ConHome: “What are your relations now with David Cameron?”

Lamont: “Oh, very good.”

ConHome: “And how do you think as party leader he handled the whole European issue?”

Lamont: “Well I think he gets a very unfair press. I don’t think he had any alternative but to call the referendum.

“And when people say it was the internal politics, the party management of the Conservative Party, you know, I think Balfour once said the first duty of a Prime Minister is to remain in office.

“The object of a party leader must be to retain power and get power, and there is no way he would have won the election with an out and out majority if he hadn’t gone for the referendum.

“And worse than that, I think the Conservative Party was haemorrhaging support, people tend to diminish it, but the European elections spoke for themselves, the two MPs who defected, there would have been others, I don’t think it was a tenable position.

“So I think people who criticise Cameron for that are quite wrong. Where possibly they could have a point is that I think he could have been tougher with Mrs Merkel in the actual negotiation on freedom of movement of labour.”

ConHome: “What do you make of the period after the referendum, when Parliament tried not to do what it had said it would do?”

Lamont: “It’s something I’d rather forget. It was terrible, and it was a terrible advertisement for Britain as well. But fortunately, because of the spectacular election result, that’s all been dramatically stood on its head, and the dysfunctional Britain is now an island of stability.

“The referendum really went the way it did, unexpectedly to most commentators, because older people, by which I mean people of my age and more [Lamont is 77], voted very strongly for Leave.

“Why did they do that? I think it was above all about independence and sovereignty. My generation remembered, even if they were not very political, how Europe was sold to the British people as an economic venture, which would not lead to political union.

“As everybody knows, the 1975 White Paper said there’d be no question of monetary union. And they could see that basically the country had been lied to.

“When people talk about the lying on the referendum campaign and the lying allegedly about the amount of money we paid, it was nothing like the lie of not addressing the question of Europe being a political union.

“And I think the mistake that the Remain side made was thinking that people were going to be moved by silly claims that after 15 years we were going to be five per cent worse off than otherwise we would have been. I mean who the hell knows over 15 years?

“I think you had a combination of older voters and Labour, if I can use the phrase, working-class voters who had old-fashioned values about identity and sovereignty, and thank God for them, salt of the earth.”

ConHome: “What should Boris Johnson do now?”

Lamont: “On Europe, I’m happy to leave it to him. As far as I’m concerned, we’re out of political union and I’ll leave it to him to make the judgements on the precise type of trade agreement that we have.

“More generally, I read all this stuff that he’s more Reagan than Thatcher, more Heseltine than Thatcher.

“All I would say is that in this new world in which we’re going to live, Boris I’m sure is a liberal Conservative, but I hope he will also see that in a world where we are on our own, I think it’s very important that we remain very anchored in a free-market philosophy.

“I didn’t much like the helping hand that was extended to Flybe.

“Of course low interest rates mean you can have more infrastructure, although nobody can guarantee that interest rates will be low forever, and I would say just don’t go wild.

“I don’t want Boris the big spender to undo the good that George Osborne did, and I think George Osborne does deserve credit for the very, very difficult situation to get the deficit down in the way that he did.

“What worried me about Flybe is how you are perceived matters enormously in fostering confidence. If Britain’s going to attract inward investment, it must show it’s going to be hard-headed about the type of economic policy it follows. I think it’s very important.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Profile: The unusual Rory Stewart, self-declared contender for the Tory leadership

Rory Stewart enjoys walking with a calm and purposeful air into danger. While other ministers keep their heads down, he has been out and about on the airwaves, defending Theresa May’s Brexit deal as one to which all moderate, sensible people should assent.

And while other contenders for the Conservative leadership keep up the threadbare pretence they are not competing for it, he told Katy Balls of The Spectator, and has repeated since, that he would like to be Prime Minister, and reckons he has what it takes.

His promotion a week ago to the Cabinet as International Development Secretary suddenly makes him look a more plausible candidate. He has fewer enemies than his longer established rivals, which in Tory leadership contests can be a decisive factor, as Michael Heseltine will tell you.

But few people at this level are entirely without enemies, and his career so far as a departmental minister, which began four years ago, will now come under scrutiny, in a way that was not possible when this exotic figure, who in his life before politics had a number of unusual adventures, was first profiled for ConHome in 2015.

Andrew Mitchell, who served as DFID Secretary under David Cameron, told ConHome:

“I think he will be a very good DFID Secretary. He already has significant development experience outside the political system as well as within it, and will bring some new and updated ideas to the way Britain makes its contribution to solving some of the big international problems that beset us.”

But others who observed Stewart when he was Minister of State at DFID from 2016-18 report that some of the senior officials there “literally hated him”.

One former colleague predicted that his appointment as DFID Secretary will be “a disaster” and “could well lead to the death of thousands of the world’s poorest people”.

Stewart is accused of “not listening to advice”, “saying things that weren’t realistic”, “going with ideas he’s just made up on the back of a napkin”, and horrifying the civil servants who were sitting beside him as he spoke.

This capacity for challenging the departmental orthodoxy, and refusing to accept what his officials say, could be a great strength or a mortal weakness. He is committed to thinking things out for himself, and tenacious in defence of what he thinks are the right ideas.

Almost everyone agrees that Stewart is tremendously articulate and engaging, and has “very good big ideas”. Some add that he is not at home in large organisations, though they often remark in the same breath that he has excellent manners.

In The Places in Between, his acclaimed account of the walk he made across Afghanistan in 2002, Stewart is scathing about the post-conflict experts who set out to solve that country’s problems without any knowledge of the people they purport to be rescuing.

In an impassioned outburst on pages 293-4, consigned to a footnote because it is polemical rather than descriptive, he writes:

“Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single nation…

“Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organisation long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.”

Many readers will cheer these sentiments, and will reckon they help to explain why international intervention so often fails even in its own terms.

But oddly enough, Stewart is himself open to the charge of not staying put long enough to be adequately assessed.

From January 2018 to May 2019 he served as Minister of State for Prisons. In August 2018 a BBC interviewer asked him, in an incredulous tone, if he would resign, if in a year’s time he had failed to reduce the level of drugs and violence in ten prisons which had just been targetted by the Government, with a million pounds to be spent in each of them on new measures.

Stewart replied, after a fleeting pause: “Yep, I will quit…I will resign if I don’t succeed.”

No one can just now know whether in August 2019 he would have had to resign as Prisons Minister, for he no longer occupies that post, and can no longer urge the vigorous implementation of the measures he set in train.

A prison reformer told ConHome it is impossible to know what will happen in the ten prisons, but remarked that turning round a prison usually takes longer than a year.

Mark Fairhurst, Chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, said:

“Rory Stewart has been given a get out of jail free card.

“The pledges [Stewart] made and the way he engaged with us and listened to us were positive, but the question is what happens now?

“This is the problem. You forge a good working relationship with these ministers, and you start to make progress, because certainly the things he’s implemented are things that we’ve been calling for years. But then all of a sudden, just as you’re moving forward, they get replaced or promoted.”

Stewart himself said in the Commons on 23rd April that “the figures are looking reasonably positive”, and indicated that he hoped to survive in his post after August. He has not, incidentally, been replaced yet. Whoever takes the job will be asked whether he or she will promise to resign.

Jonathan Aitken, who knows the prison system from the inside and has served for the last year as chaplain at Pentonville Prison, reckons that “as a prison minister, Stewart has been a considerable success, but part of that is just sheer luck”, because the spending needed to increase the number of prison officers from dangerously low levels had already been approved, and staffing levels have dramatically improved over the last year, though there has not yet been a corresponding drop in violence.

Aitken said that at Leeds, one of the ten prisons targetted by Stewart, the extra million pounds is having a good effect, for example by putting in better windows to replace those through which drugs were being smuggled, and installing an X-ray body scanner to search for drugs.

In Aitken’s view, “As a dark horse bet [in the leadership race] Stewart is quite interesting. He’s cut from a different cloth. He’s got a most unusual mind. They’re all going to be looking for someone who can unite the party a bit.”

Although his pledge to resign will not now be put to the test, it did attract a lot of attention to what he was trying to do. His approach is different to that of the standard career politician who seeks to avoid anything which might be regarded as new or alarming.

More conventional spirits doubt it can be good politics for Stewart to advertise his leadership aspirations so openly.

But a considerable number of people at Westminster said yesterday that although this was “naive”, it was also “charming”. There is something refreshing about a man who ignores the usual hypocrisies.

Not since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1963 has an expert on foreign affairs, who knows next to nothing about economics, become Conservative leader. The precedent is not encouraging for Stewart, who seems more cut out to become Foreign Secretary than Prime Minister.

Stewart admits that having voted Remain in the EU Referendum is a drawback for him, and this aspect of him renders him intolerable to those who think the next leader simply must be a Leaver. He offers himself as a centrist who would implement Brexit while striving to maintain close economic ties with the EU, and to retain the support of the four million Remain voters who also voted Conservative:

“If the Conservative Party make the mistake of trying to out-do Nigel Farage, which I am sure we won’t, but it is something that a few of my colleagues are talking about, then we would lose those four million Remain votes.

“We’d lose young people, we’d lose Scotland, we’d lose London and we’d lose a lot of the most energetic parts of this country.

“We’ve got to be a broad party…”

Could Stewart speak, for example, to Leave voters in the Midlands? The only answer to that question at the moment is that nobody knows for sure, but it seems a bit unlikely.

Stewart loves traditional institutions such as the monarchy (he acted as tutor to Princes William and Harry) and the armed forces, but also displays a boldness and an independence of mind which were perhaps more often found in the Victorian period than they are now.

When Margaret Thatcher fell, the relatively obscure John Major swept to victory as the stop Heseltine candidate.

When Theresa May falls, it is not yet clear (at least to the present writer) who will be the Stop Boris Johnson candidate. Timing can be almost everything in such contests, and Stewart has reached the Cabinet just as the race is starting.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

The Establishment hated Beaverbrook, Churchill needed him

Max Beaverbrook: Not Quite a Gentleman by Charles Williams

Max Beaverbrook is one of the most entertaining figures ever to have sat in a British Cabinet. He did so twice, during both the First and the Second World Wars, despite being detested and distrusted by a large part of the Establishment.

And yet the Beaver, as he was known, has slipped almost into oblivion, a name but not much more to most people under the age of 70. This book performs the valuable task of bringing a strange and gifted figure once more before the public.

Charles Williams provides, at the start of this biography, a useful list of some of the people who loathed Beaverbrook. They included Kings George V and VI, Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee, Lords Alanbrooke and Curzon, Hugh Dalton, Ernest Bevin and “a large segment of the Canadian political and industrial establishments”.

But Winston Churchill decided he was just the man to put in charge of aircraft production in May 1940, and David Lloyd George entrusted propaganda to him in early 1918, when the Germans were gathering themselves for a last attempt at a knockout blow in the west.

Beaverbrook was an adventurer who spotted opportunities where others could only see problems; a businessman of genius whose early fortune was founded on attaining, by devious manoeuvres to which this author devotes too much attention, a near monopoly in Canadian cement.

He was born Max Aitken in 1879, the third son of the Reverend William Aitken, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had emigrated to New Brunswick, in Canada, as there were no jobs going in Scotland. Max was a rebel who started out with nothing except a knowledge of the Bible, but who soon displayed astonishing gifts as a financier.

Having made large sums and a reputation for sharp practice in Canada, he moved to Britain, where in December 1910 he was elected Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. At the same time he made friends with Bonar Law, like him the son of a minister in New Brunswick, who the following year became Conservative Party leader.

Aitken was at the heart of the manoeuvres which at the end of 1916 saw Asquith supplanted as Prime Minister by Lloyd George, after which Aitken was raised to the peerage as the first Lord Beaverbrook.

The King was not pleased, nor were the upper reaches of the aristocracy. But Beaverbrook had taken control of The Daily Express, and was turning it into an enormous success, the greatest mid-market newspaper of its time, smart and popular and a source for its proprietor of great influence, for there could be no doubt who decided the editorial line.

Beaverbrook sent jolts of electricity through any outfit where he took control. He was a malicious bully who was also capable of great generosity, and who stood by friends when they got into trouble. He had a brilliant eye for talented subordinates.

He despised Stanley Baldwin, who dominated the Conservative Party for the 14 years after Bonar Law’s death in 1923. Baldwin tempted Beaverbrook into overplaying his hand, and gave him and his fellow press baron Lord Rothermere a bloody nose by accusing them of exercising “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

It seemed as though Beaverbrook’s career, except as a newspaper proprietor and a writer of vivid and perceptive books about Lloyd George and other men of power he had known, might well be over. Then the nation turned to Churchill, an outsider in Conservative Party terms, and Churchill needed to recruit other outsiders who could help him to grip and dynamise Whitehall.

This is the most exciting part of Williams’s account. The pace quickens as Beaverbrook seeks to ensure that the RAF gets the planes it needs. He picks tremendous battles within the bureaucracy, threatens at frequent intervals to resign, but is told by the Prime Minister that he is indispensable.

For Churchill, Beaverbrook is a boon companion, a friend with whom in the darkest days of the war he can find relief from the almost intolerable burden of leadership, an ally who can be sent to negotiate with Stalin and Roosevelt, and who charms them too. Clementine Churchill, by contrast, regarded him with “lifelong distrust”.

The first sentence of this book reads:

“Lady Diana Cooper, in her day one of London’s leading society lionesses, described Max Beaverbrook as ‘this strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him’.”

The word “lionesses” will not do as a category in which to place Lady Diana. Nor is there any need for “in her day”. But the quotation which follows is wonderful.

This mixture runs through the book. Williams can be cloth-eared, but has a keen eye for good material. The dust jacket notes that he is 86. His industry puts many younger biographers to shame.

At times, however, it is excessive. He sketches more of the background to various early transactions than we really need, and this thoroughness is accompanied by a sense of responsibility which sometimes gets in the way of conveying his subject’s utter irresponsibility.

He is not unscrupulous enough to revel in Beaverbrook’s exploits. The author remarks that his own wife, Jane Portal, who got to know Beaverbrook in her capacity as Churchill’s secretary, “still describes him as ‘somebody you would instinctively walk away from’.”

Her instinctive reaction was right. Beaverbrook usually treated the women in his life, who were numerous, with cruel neglect once his eye had been attracted by new conquests.

To get an idea of how intolerable but also invigorating Beaverbrook was, the short sketch of him in old age by his great-nephew, Jonathan Aitken, published as the first essay in Heroes and Contemporaries (2006), is in some ways a better place to start.

Williams quotes an admirable description of Beaverbrook by Peter Masefield, who worked for him during the war:

“He was unlike any other man I ever knew. For all his foibles and tough exterior, he was at heart deeply sensitive and often lonely. Critical, thrusting, demanding, self-centred and intolerant, he could be kind and even generous, just as he could be hasty and vindictive. He could reverse passionate feelings within hours. He perpetually maintained a hard front, even when the man inside had softened. I often thought of the frightened little boy in Canada, whose Presbyterian father had drunk away the family’s slender funds.”

The religion mattered. Beaverbrook was steeped in it, and said it was better to be an evangelist than a cabinet minister or a millionaire. As a lapsed Calvinist, he suffered from deep feelings of guilt, and was profoundly hurt by the scathing reviews given to one of his last books, The Divine Propagandist, which attempted “to present the life of Jesus as it appears to worldly men of my generation”.

Williams touches on the religion, but does not convey how important it was. Perhaps that is an impossible task. Beaverbrook was good at covering his tracks, and in 1964, shortly before his death, had a lot of his personal papers burned.

He liked buying up other men’s papers, and controlling access to them during his lifetime, but there were strict limits to how mischievous the great mischief maker wanted anyone else to be at his own expense.

It is a pity he is not better known today, for among many other qualities, he was a remarkable journalist, who for over 60 years cultivated at his various houses a range of contacts of which most people could only dream, and was ruthless and vulgar enough to publish what they told him, except when he was covering up Churchill’s stroke or Tom Driberg’s trial for indecent assault.

Beaverbrook’s  refusal to treat the Establishment with the respect it believed it deserved was attractive to men of the Left such as Driberg, Michael Foot and A.J.P.Taylor.

But it was not attractive to Attlee. When Churchill said during the 1945 general election that a Labour government “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo” – an accusation against his wartime coalition partner which was generally reckoned to have gone much too far – Attlee was quick to counter-attack, while at the same time exculpating Churchill, whom he liked and admired:

“The voice we heard last night was that of Mr Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.”

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Aitken on the meaning of Easter: “We can all have second chances, little resurrections in our lives.”

Jonathan Aitken was ordained last June as a deacon in the Church of England, and was wearing clerical dress when we met, for he had just been addressing the clergy of Guildford about prison ministry.

He was born in 1942 and served as a Conservative MP from February 1974 until May 1997, when he lost his seat. In 1999 he was convicted of perjury and sent to prison for seven months.

The downfall of this gifted, gilded, raffish figure, who had risen into the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1994-95, attracted enormous attention.

He had been involved since boyhood in the worlds of politics and journalism, through his father, Sir William Aitken, a Conservative MP, and more particularly through his uncle, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, at whose table he met Winston Churchill.

The Aitkens are descended from the Reverend William Aitken, a Presbyterian minister in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and Jonathan has now returned to that calling.

But although this interview starts with the Resurrection, it ends with his view of the way Parliament is dealing with Brexit:

“I would rather be back in a cell in Belmarsh than be in the House of Commons right now. They were much nicer at Belmarsh to one another.”

ConHome: “What is the meaning of Easter?”

Aitken: “Easter is of course the most important, most joyful, most extraordinary event in the whole of the Christian year, far more important than Christmas or anything else.

“And somewhere in a Pauline epistle, Paul says if we don’t believe in the Resurrection our faith is quite useless. That’s a little harsh, because some people still seeking simply can’t believe in a risen Christ instantly, but nevertheless Paul is right, it’s the centrepiece of the entire Christian faith.

“To me, Easter has a personal resonance, it’s a rather good time to talk about it. Because I think we’re all, if we’re fortunate enough and we pray for it, we can have second chances, little resurrections in our lives.

“If I think back 20 years, I was towards the end of a process I sometimes call defeat, divorce, disgrace, bankruptcy and jail, a very good royal flush of crises by anybody’s standards, and I was very unhappy.

“I actually was sentenced in June, but Easter 1999 was a very miserable period, I was sort of in the tomb more or less. And yet the joy of Christ’s love is that no one is beneath the reach of his grace.

“And I am now happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been in my life. And it’s nothing to do with me. I give myself zero credit for being a prison chaplain and curate, and above all for being so happy.

“So I think the Easter message is obviously predominantly about the risen Christ and all that flowed from it. But also for each and every one of us it’s gosh, there is a real chance to resurrect my miserable sin-strained life and find a new life in Christ.”

ConHome: “Did you have glimpses of this before? Did you count yourself a Christian during your political life? Or when you were very young and you were ill?”

Aitken: “At the time that I got into trouble, I was at best a half-Christian, which I now know is as valuable probably as being half-pregnant.

“At the time I thought it was perfectly OK to have a nominal, lukewarm kind of half-cock faith, and to politely go along to the odd service, and listen to the teachings of the faith, and not obey them.

“Now despite giving that state of mind a good knocking, it’s not wholly useless, because you don’t completely lose every single one of your navigation points.

“I had actually quite a good schoolboy faith.”

ConHome: “You were confirmed, and all the usual things?”

Aitken: “Yes. I remember dimly school reports [at Eton] about how seriously Aitken had taken his confirmation. But it is true, you remind me of something, I did have a rather strange youth.

“I was a TB patient aged four to seven, in the period before people had discovered antibiotics for TB.

“And TB was more frightening than cancer is today, by a long chalk. People died of TB, especially children. And I was diagnosed in wartime Britain, very late in the day.

“By the time I was diagnosed – I tell some of this in my book Pride and Perjury – I was really a goner. The optimistic diagnosis was that this child may live, but he’ll never walk, because it had gone way into my bones.

“The pessimistic diagnosis was that this child can’t live. My poor parents – my father was a fighter pilot recovering from being shot down in a Spitfire and burnt.

“I had been parked in an ambassadorial residence. It wasn’t called that, but my mother’s father was our man in Dublin during the war. He was called His Majesty the King’s Special Representative.

“So I grew up with red boxes and things. But Ireland was actually one of the TB capitals of the world. There was a lot of it around.

“There was one brilliant surgeon called MacAuley who said, ‘Actually, this child could live and could walk, but the cure is rather drastic. Three years immobilised in a plaster cast.’

“The BBC have a poor man’s Desert Island Discs programme called The House Where I Grew Up, and I said to them, I actually grew up in a TB ward.

“They took me over, two women Guardianista women, who were determined to make me say ‘Oh it was the most terrible, awful, miserable, unhappy time.’

“When I got back to the TB ward, I remembered it in the most scary way, every detail, which is apparently not uncommon in this programme.

“We were wheeled out every day, it didn’t matter if it was snowing, all the children were wheeled out onto the terraces. It was run by a nursing order which has long since vanished I think called The Little Sisters of the Poor.

“In the middle of this, there was an amazing nun, she was a very clever woman, outstanding, she was the Mother Superior, her brother was the editor of The Irish Times, she was a class act as a person and also very spiritual.

“She took fantastic trouble over me, maybe because I was the British ambassador’s grandson. My grandmother, who did not like papists,  would come along and say, ‘Have you been made to pray to Old Red Socks?’

“We had a member of the staff at the British embassy who was also designated to keep an eye over my protestantism, who was John Betjeman, who was my grandfather’s press secretary.

“Anyway, I wouldn’t overdo this, but nevertheless, the nun taught me to read on a magic lantern above my head, I can vividly remember her to this day kneeling by my bed and praying.

“Did it have some deep impact on my spiritual life? Who knows?

“Sister Mary Finbar used to say, ‘Oh you’ve been saved for some great purpose.’ I think this is all a bit mystical, probably mumbo-jumbo, but nevertheless, who knows.”

ConHome: “Should we be gloomy about the ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the Sea of Faith?”

Aitken: “Well, we are in a secular, post-Christian age in the western world. There’s no question of that.

“But I actually think the death of Christianity has been hugely exaggerated. It’s very active in all kinds of places.

“Here in London, for example, the number of Christian people who are signing the electoral rolls, going to church, has been rising for about ten years – an extraordinary thing, but it is actually true.

“There are masses of good, vibrant churches. If you just play the numbers game, you have to say we’re in decline, not everywhere, but in rural ministry we’re in bad decline. In London, as it happens, we’re not.

“But does spiritual life go on, and happen quite dramatically? In the prison where I work…”

ConHome: “Which prison?”

Aitken: “Pentonville. But I go to others as well. There’s never a dull moment, for all kinds of reasons. Spiritually there are people who are longing to pray, or get angry with God.

“There’s a real ministry there. I’m rather fond of quoting a verse of doggerel from an English clergyman who was as famous as David Gower or David Sheppard or Joe Root is today, called C.T. Studd.

“He was a great cricketer who played for England and Cambridge and so on. Then he became a vicar, and he was expected – we’re talking the 1880s or something – and C.T. Studd decided to go into prison ministry.

“Then as now, it was way below the salt in ecclesiastical terms. People said, ‘Why are you doing this, Studd? There are plenty of nice vicarages, and preferment.’

“And then he came out with this verse of doggerel:

Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell;

I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

“That’s what I do when I go to Pentonville.”

ConHome: “Where can we hear you preach?”

Aitken: “I’m a curate at St Matthew’s, Westminster. I used to be, a long time ago, churchwarden of St Margaret’s, Westminster.”

ConHome: “While you were an MP?”

Aitken: “Yes. I was the parliamentary warden. My deputy parliamentary warden was Enoch Powell. He kept on correcting the Rector for not holding the chasuble in his right hand, or something.

“Anyway, St Matthew’s is smaller and poorer. It’s a good little church, growing, it looks after mainly the Peabody housing estate. I’m preaching on Easter Day for example.”

ConHome: “What’s the state of the Tory Party?

Aitken: “Well I honestly think I would rather be back in a cell in Belmarsh than be in the House of Commons right now. They were much nicer at Belmarsh to one another.

“But no, I watch it with great sadness. We’ve lost our way as a parliamentary nation. Absolutely by chance, Rory Stewart asked me to lunch, I have a great high regard for Rory Stewart, on the day when the first meaningful vote was coming.

“And I went up in the gallery, the first time for years, and I took a great friend of mine, someone called Wafic Said, who founded the Said School of Business.

“And we sat down and we listened to this debate. And one after another, superb speeches. Kenneth Clarke opened. Hilary Benn. There was a Scot Nat who was superb. Dominic Raab was very good. Bill Cash, who can bore for the world, was superb.

“Also they were edging towards one another’s positions. And I thought that what would come out of these debates was what I vividly remember coming out of the devolution debates in ’75.

“Scotland was going to be devolved, and we went all night, regularly, with giants like Enoch and of course people have forgotten somebody called George Cunningham, the member for Islington South, there was Tam Dalyell, there were old buffers like Sir Derek Walker-Smith.

“Out of it all was hammered a compromise on Scottish devolution. I just know the House of Commons of the Seventies would have reached a deal on Brexit. Not this impossible impasse we’ve got today.”

ConHome: “Do you know Theresa May?”

Aitken: “Yes I do a bit. On the day of my ordination, as I was heading off to St Paul’s Cathedral from being buried deep in a silent retreat, some motorcyclist revved up to the silent retreat house. Message from Number Ten: ‘Dear Jonathan…’”

ConHome: “That’s very good.”

Aitken: “Sweet of her. I think it was probably the doing of Jonathan Hellewell, her faith adviser. Not a lot of people are saying nice things about Theresa, but that’s one of them.”

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