A former journalist, who rose through the political ranks to become a cabinet minister, resigns in the midst of a scandal of his own making, strenuously denies the allegations but is convicted of perverting the course of justice and goes to prison, with his political career and reputation destroyed.
I want to tell his story – it happened some years ago so some readers may not remember – because it is a tale of redemption.
The incident that led to his downfall took place in when he was Minister of State for Defence Procurement, but it only came to light in 1995 after he had been promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He accepted hospitality, in the form of nights at the Ritz in Paris, from a Saudi businessman. The Guardian unearthed the story and Granada investigated it further in World in Action documentary.
Aitken denied the allegations with this famous line:
If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.
This was not the only time he had been accused of inappropriate relations with arms dealers, but on this occasion he decided to sue the Guardian and Granada for libel. The case collapsed after evidence was produced that proved he was lying about who had paid for the hotel stay.
He was eventually arrested and convicted of perjury as well as perverting the course of justice and received an 18 months prison sentence. He was also made bankrupt.
So what did he do after he emerged from jail? He quietly changed direction, studied theology, campaigned for prison reform, took up public speaking and wrote a biography of John Newton. In 2006 he became the President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation which campaigns for “religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice”.
More recently, he chaired a task force for the Centre for Social Justice (Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank) on prison reform, which produced a report titled Locked Up Potential: A Strategy to Reform our Prisons and Rehabilitate our Prisoners.
He is not a Liberal Democrat, indeed it appears that he has joined UKIP, but he has found a way of facing up to his past and creating a new life after disgrace. He too has fallen from a great height, but he has redeemed himself.
Some commentators, including Lib Dem Voice’s Stephen Tall, believe that Chris Huhne should not have been sent to prison because he doesn’t pose a risk to society and has so much to contribute. As I said yesterday, there is a deeper issue of inequality here.
Prisons are full of young men (mainly) who are poor, semi-literate, have few qualifications, and for whom social mobility is a myth. Most have been convicted of blue-collar crime, that is, offences against property or persons. Many of the most damaged young people in society – those who have been taken into care – end up in jail. Most convicts go on to re-offend, so the prison experience has had no reformative effect.
In contrast, middle class criminals have the wherewithal, in terms of personal qualities, social connections and intellectual skills to rebuild their lives after prison. Rehabilitation for people lacking those characteristics is a much more challenging issue.
So maybe the deprivation of liberty is a suitable punishment for people who have operated successfully in society; it forces them to rethink their values and to take a new path through life, which they are well equipped to do. On the other hand angry and damaged young men should be kept out of traditional prisons, which only make them worse, and instead be offered rehabilitation in a secure environment.
There are some brave moves in this direction. A couple of months ago I had lunch at The Clink, which is a restaurant located within High Down Prison. It is run by a charity which offers training and qualifications in catering and hospitality to inmates during their last year before release, and then continues to support them into work and monitor them outside. The meal was excellent, with attentive service in pleasant surroundings. There were some oddities – plastic cutlery and no alcohol – and we had to go through a formal ID process in order to get in. Although it is early days it has already been highly successful in reducing re-offending rates amongst its trainees, and it now employs three former inmates as staff.
The cost of such programmes could easily be outweighed by the costs, both financial and social, of repeated re-offending, and the inevitable increase in prison population. Jonathan Aitken and Chris Huhne don’t need that kind of training, but thousands of other offenders do.
* Mary Reid is the Tuesday Editor on Lib Dem Voice.