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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Aitken: Pride was my downfall
Jonathan Aitken
The one-time Tory high-flyer is now a mature student

The backdrop was a high class London restaurant - the scene of many a political press conference.

The speaker was a man who used to be all too familiar with the media spotlight, one who used to court it as a future leader of the Conservative Party.

I was puffed up with pride

Jonathan Aitken
But on Wednesday morning, for the audience, satiated by a fruit salad breakfast downed with coffee chasers, the figure who had come to speak to them appeared severely chastened.

Jonathan Aitken - who has suffered the sobriquet "disgraced former cabinet minister" since he was jailed for 18 months in June 1999 for perjury and perverting the course of justice - had come to speak to a group of Christian broadcasters.

His suit had Tory written all over it. But his tone was soft, a million miles away from his infamous "sword of truth" battle cry.

Disgrace and divorce

Mr Aitken was at the Atrium Restaurant in Westminster to give an account of his prison experience, journey towards closeness with God and now his Christian ministry.

He admitted pride was his downfall, along with defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail.

"I was puffed up with pride," he said, sadly.

Jonathan Aitken arriving at the Old Bailey for sentencing
Mr Aitken blew his mother a kiss before going down to the cells
The soon to be 60-year-old detailed his story from the moment he was sent down by a judge at the Old Bailey, managing to blow a kiss to his elderly mother and children, before hitting the cacophony of noise in the cells below.

He told how he watched some of the once "optimistic crowd" of criminals that faced him, with their heads "buried in their hands weeping", as he was led handcuffed into the "sweat box" or prison van that was to take him to his new abode.

Prison slang

At HMP Belmarsh, whose status has risen since the arrival of celebrity inmates including train robber Ronnie Biggs and Tory peer Jeffrey Archer, Mr Aitken described how he was analysed for suicidal tendencies by a psychiatrist who did not recognise him and who questioned whether anyone knew he had been jailed.

Instead, the therapist believed the former minister had illusions of grandeur when he claimed that infact about 10 million people knew of his demise.

It was odd hearing a public school boy use slang, but Mr Aitken's speech was peppered with it.

He delighted in translating prison speak, including "Hampstead Heath" for teeth.

Mr Aitken revealed that he turned to God in a prayer on his first night in jail as inmates started a derogatory quiz about him.

'Important politician'

Nothing had prepared him for the venom and intensity of the anger, he said.

The former MP described himself as a "summary Christian". "I went to church once a week, did all the right things ... "

Jonathan Aitken leaving Elmley Prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, after serving seven months
Aitken: Wrote letters for inmates
But, he said: "I had been in the wrong relationship with God. I treated God rather like I used to treat my bank manager."

He existed, was someone to be respected, had premises he visited and would even be helpful with a big overdraft.

"I rather condescended to God ... I was a very important politician."

'The geezer'

Mr Aitken said far from being aggressive towards him, the inmates apologised for their outbursts and offered him a "cup of rosy lee".

Most of his fellow prisoners were young. "I felt like Methuselah at 57," said Mr Aitken, who found that while appearing tough and macho, many of the landing mates were "quite vulnerable" and not literate.

I want to tell people about the things that I saw because, to me, it is the Gospel in action

Jonathan Aitken
He quickly became "the geezer with wonderful joined up writing", who wrote letters for his fellow cons, impressing "the girls in Brixton" with his turn of phrase.

Mr Aitken said the queues of inmates demanding his services were longer than those he had faced at his constituency surgery.

The ex-MP told how he befriended an Irish inmate called Paddy, who later became part of his Christian cell groups - prisoners who gathered to pray together.


Mr Aitken said from then he noticed a different attitude in the prison. "I saw people really changing. It was really the most wonderful thing to see," he said.

"I want to tell people about the things that I saw because, to me, it is the Gospel in action."

One symptom of this was Paddy having his baby baptised in the prison chapel and his being made the godfather.

Mr Aitken, who is a theological student at Oxford, said he had never contemplated suicide in jail.

He accepted the "earthly punishment for what I had done", and wanted "to turn it into a positive experience".

And his future? "I am going to complete the degree externally and I am going to give my life over to ministry in the broad sense of the word."

He said he does "a lot of prison visiting" and is currently writing a book on Charles Colson, US President Nixon's hatchet man.

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