In 1999 Former Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken was convicted of perjury at The Old Bailey in a famous and widely reported case. His political career in ruins, he received an 18-month prison sentence starting at the high security HMP Belmarsh. Jonathan’s story is quite unique—and at the time, he was one of the most vilified personalities of his generation.
As a journalist he spent some seven years on Fleet Street and as an author has written some 17 books including acclaimed biographies on Nixon and Thatcher.
These days he is a London based Priest serving as Prison Chaplain in HMP Pentonville in East London and Assistant Minister in St Matthew’s Westminster Church.
Our fascinating conversation took place in his London home. Listen in as we chat over the past, present and future of a life fully lived. This is Your London Legacy
“I was playing in the sandpit in my aunt’s garden—suddenly there came over in the sky a sound of a noisy engine. And this was a doodlebug, a flying bomb that came over.”
One of Jonathan’s earliest memories is of a flying bomb chugging its engine overhead while he played in a sandbox—an object and event of historical intrigue no doubt, and an interesting starting place for a future politician. But before Jonathan fully entered the political life he was a journalist, and as he says, a young journalist goes to where the news is. This meant he traveled all over the world—Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa, and covering Nixon’s election in the states. But he always felt like a spectator looking in, and longed for the political life of being in the center of the events he was covering.
“I’ve often asked myself the same—because it wasn’t really worth doing, covering it up. I think it was a combination of pride—and fear.”
Jonathan went on to become a Defense Minister – and on a trip to Paris stayed at a hotel that would bring about the fall of his career by accepting to have his room paid for by someone else. A hospitality he didn’t know would change his life – by eventually trying to cover up this small courtesy. The media upon finding out that this bill was footed by a figure from a foreign government went after him – and after a single comment in trial, a false one, Jonathan was prosecuted for perjury and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
“I was, I think – ruined, but not totally heartbroken.”
While undoubtedly a moment where his whole life unraveled, Jonathan didn’t see going to prison as a death sentence. There was a feeling that life would go on and something new would happen—as indeed it did, through a chance prison encounter with an inmate and refusing a certain collection of dirty magazines, no less. Jonathan had turned to faith to help guide him through his sentence and it slowly accumulated during and after his incarceration until he found himself studying at an Anglican theological college. Since he had seen how prison was the great equalizer where no one behind bars is more important than anyone else, he felt compelled to continue practicing his faith among those he had once called his brothers.
As a prison chaplain, Jonathan now raises awareness about the quality of prisons today and the dangers that lay within, and also beyond the cells once inmates are released. He has seen how people end up right back behind bars and is working towards practical and societal changes to help reintroduce people to the working world, life at large, and the faith behind it all.