Jonathan Aitken on prison, priesthood and purpose

April 25, 2024. Series 7. Episode 87

The Reverend Jonathan Aitken has survived and thrived over eight decades of triumph and crisis. The former government minister, author, ordained prison chaplain and priest and, like me, a former inmate of Belmarsh prison – Jonathan has a lifetime of stories to tell and wisdom to impart. From spending childhood years battling TB to working as a reporter in Saigon; to being tipped as a future Prime Minister described as ‘not just gilded but golden’ from pleading guilty and being sentenced for perjury, to finding faith and rebuilding his life’s purpose as a priest – Jonathan has seen and been through it all.

Jonathan’s most recent crisis almost claimed his life. But, throughout it all he has pushed on and pushed through with a sense of resilience – and an incredible rate of productivity – that is truly inspiring and from which I think we can all learn.



Aitken is a trustee of the Saïd FoundationMcDonald Agape Foundation, and Trinity Forum Europe.

Aitken is Honorary President of Tempus Novo and Patron of CSW. Aitken is the founder of Chance to Change Foundation/Friends of Pentonville.



Letters for the Ages Behind Bars: Letters from History’s Most Famous Prisoners, 2024.

Doing Time: A spiritual survival guide, 2021.

Porridge and Passion, 2005.

Pride and Perjury, 2000.


Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning:

Some Velvet Morning Website:

Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream:


Host – Andy Coulson

CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Zach Ellis and Mabel Pickering

With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global

For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]


Key Words

#prison #priesthood #purpose #politician #faith #family


Full transcript:

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:00:00] I always remember being on an escalator at Green Park underground station, only about ten days after I’d come out, I was going up. It was not quite rush-hour but they escalators were crowded. And some ghastly man suddenly started screaming at the top of his voice and pointing at me, “Look at him, there’s that effing crook, that effing liar. Crook, liar.” I wished the escalator would have- so this sort of thing happens.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:23] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please do hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these I hope useful conversations are shared as widely as possible.

Today I am joined by former government minister, author, ordained prison chaplain and priest, and like me a former inmate of Belmarsh Prison, the Reverend Jonathan Aitken.

Having survived and thrived over eight decades of triumph and crisis, Jonathan has a lifetime of stories to tell and wisdom to share. From spending childhood years battling TB to working as a reporter in Saigon to being tipped as a future Prime Minister, described then as, “Not just gilded but golden.” From pleading guilty and being sentenced for perjury, to finding faith and rebuilding his life’s purpose as a priest. Jonathan has truly seen and been through it all.

In fact, we were due to have this conversation some time ago but crisis, one that almost in fact claimed Jonathan’s life, got in the way. So we’ll talk about that.

But throughout it all Jonathan has pushed on and pushed through with a sense of resilience and an incredible rate of productivity that is truly inspiring and from which I think we can all learn.

Jonathan Aitken, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:01:47] Thank you.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:47] How are you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:01:48] I’m well, life is good.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:49] I see you are prepared for prison.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:01:52] I’m on my way.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:52] For those who are listening not watching, you are sat in your dog collar.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:01:55] That’s right. Well, I’m going as I usually do in mid-week to Pentonville Prison to be a chaplain, which is never a dull moment.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:02] And presumably you’ve got your chain, have you? That will give you access to-

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:02:09] The keys come later, but this is a sort of-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:11] If that Jonathan, if you don’t mind me saying so, is a visual demonstration of the circle of life, I don’t know what is.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:02:17] I agree.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:20] You previously wrote me a letter when I was facing my own dramas. We’d never met and you were incredibly kind and generous with your insights and advice then, and you know, in the ten years since. But I know I’m not alone. So I’m going to embarrass you a bit I’m sure, but you quietly reach out to those who may be or who are facing the prospect of prison with regularity, don’t you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:02:50] I do. I don’t make a big thing of it, it’s not that frequent, but when I read in the newspapers of someone on their way to prison who has had a great crash, I suddenly realise that I have almost an automatic empathy whatever the guy has done. I don’t look into that but I know that they are facing a huge challenge and maybe they would like to hear from me and maybe chat, because I think I’ve helped a few people going into and coming out of prison, which is one the whole more difficult. And so it’s a sort of little quiet sideline which I don’t talk about, and now I’m being forced to talk about it-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:31] I’m sorry about that. I think it’s only right that people should know.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:03:36] But I do do it, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:38] As it turned out, we became fellow Belmarshians. I don’t think there’s a tie, by the way, for the Belmarshian club.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:03:45] I don’t think so.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:46] I wonder whether we should look at that.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:03:48] I think people quiet about it on the whole, there’s not many Belmarshians own up to it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:52] Exactly, exactly. But one of the things you did for me was to demystify what it is to be in prison. Because although the system had changed a bit between your being there and my being there, actually the basic lessons were essentially the same. And it also spoke, I think, to an important, I’d be interested to see if you agree, lesson in how to approach oncoming disaster. That to get into the detail of it, to discuss it in the way that I did with you was, I found, incredibly helpful. Because it demystified the place.

That if you hold to the view that it’s the kind of imagined reality of what you’re about to enter that causes the deepest anxiety, then that’s absolutely how you helped me, was to demystify it a bit. Do you hold to that view?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:04:46] Yes I do. Forgive me saying this to a former tabloid editor, but prison is not what the tabloids say it is. It’s quite a routine process, rather mechanical a lot of the time, and it’s not full of terrible experiences unless you’re very unlucky or provoke them for one reason or another. On the whole, a level-headed sensible guy can get through prison fairly easily. I don’t pretend it’s simple at all, but- I can’t remember now what I said to you, but, “Don’t be a tall poppy,” is very good advice.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:22] You told me to get a job as a cleaner as quickly as possible, which by the way I failed miserably to achieve.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:05:28] Strangely I was a cleaner, I don’t suppose my skills with the Harpic and the brush were much better than anybody else’s, but the wing cleaner is the sort of concierge of the wing. He hears all the gossip, he moves around, and if you’re interested in conversations and helping people it’s a very good place to be.

But I am sort of obviously one way and another very familiar now with prison life, and the first thing I always say to people is, “Don’t be frightened. You’ll be very unlucky if anything comes your way in the way of real violence or real harassment.” It’s a sort of thing to be resilient about, which is I think the theme of your series, how to cope with it, how to handle it. And a few very simple rules get you through quite easily.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:06:19] I do want to talk about prison obviously, in more detail, but before we do that I want to go to the start of your remarkable life. Because aged just three, I think I’m right in saying, you were diagnosed with tuberculosis, which of course at the time was claiming the lives of so many children. You spent three years, three years I think, in hospital in Dublin, much of it in bed in a sort of iron lung set-up.

What do you remember of what must have been a truly appalling experience?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:07:01] Well, I suppose it was appalling in many ways, but as a small child I didn’t really feel that. I was first of all I think naturally combative and wanting to get through this. And it was difficult because there was no cure, there were no drugs for TB in those days, and it was a killer disease; much more feared than cancer is today. And especially for small children. One of the problems with a small child is that they’re very restless, I was a little boy, so the only way really to get them cured is to immobilise them. That was the first rule. And so I was effectively on a plaster cast frame or semi iron lung, couldn’t move. Now, that sounds terrible but like everything else you get used to it.

We had these deep breathing exercises. The hospital was run by nuns, I had a favourite nun who I adored, she taught me to read and everything. Her name was Sister Marie Finbar, and she was sort of kind of head girl or head nun, she was sort of the Mother Superior. I was a bit of a celebrity for a strange reason. First of all I was a Protestant, and this was a Catholic nun’s hospital. Secondly, my maternal grandfather was the British Ambassador, and this was in wartime Dublin, and the Irish and Dublin in particular were on the whole fairly anti-British. And every time my grandfather came, sort of eight men with guns came guarding him around.

My grandfather’s Press Secretary was John Betjeman, and he used to come and read me poems and make me laugh.

And so I don’t regard this period as a sort of sad miserable period, and I also-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:54] The separation from your parents must have been so difficult as well?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:08:57] My father was a Canadian RAF spitfire pilot, had been shot down, he was in another hospital in England, very badly burned. And so he was not around.

And this all sounds miserably unhappy, but my memory, and I don’t think I’m- was that I always felt loved, I always felt well looked after.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:20] Your father, Sir William Aitken, as you say, Canadian, spitfire pilot, war hero, shot down in World War II and in the process very badly burned. And your mother, as you mentioned, was nursing him in London whilst she had you in hospital in the way that you’ve described in Dublin. She simultaneously had her husband and son sort of fighting for their lives. She must have been the strongest of women. Some of your resilience is from her?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:09:53] She was strong. She was also very beautiful, and she had quite a complicated life. But she was- I adored her, she only died a few years ago at the age of 94 and she was a very, very central figure in my life and in my sister’s life and in our children’s lives. But she was of that generation, raised in the War, who just got on with it. You know, the people who say, “I just got on with it.” And that was her. She had great love, great affection, but she was tremendously practical.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:34] Yes. Where are you on the ‘just get on with it’ bit? Because that’s not the fashion these days, as you know. We perhaps wallow around in the stuff more than we ever used to, analysing it, thinking about it. There’s a more serious end to that with the younger generation, more anxiety at the moment than we’ve ever seen, seemingly this blurring between mental health and mental illness.

Do you think we’re taking the wrong approach at the moment? You are presumably having a lot of these conversations with people in prison.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:11:07] Well, everyone is different, and for better or worse I have never had any therapy or psychiatric attention in my life, except in rather sort of joke circumstances in prison.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:25] And that was with intent or because you felt that faith was filling that hole for you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:11:28] No, I think the psychiatrist thought he ought to see me.

But anyway, some people need to let it all hang out, to talk all their inner fears and anxieties and what- where it all started. I’ve never felt like that. I felt that life is a moving carpet; you’ve got to enjoy it and try and move forward. And if you keep on looking back as to what went wrong in your childhood, well I suppose we’re just talking about it so a few things did go wrong in my childhood. but I don’t sit there moaning, “My goodness, this is why I’m a bit inadequate with girls,” or something.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:14] Looking back, or staying in the past?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:12:16] Staying in the past.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:18] Because you’ve got to look back to learn, haven’t you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:12:20] Oh yes, absolutely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:21] I mean, it’s all part of the process.

Your father was an Evening Standard journalist among other things, who became a politician. He was a nephew of the great Lord Beaverbrook. You were a very bright boy. Those years spent in bed were not wasted; you read, you wrote, and once well enough you went to school to Eton, excelled and then studied law at Oxford.

I’m rattling through many years here Jonathan, so apologies. Not long after leaving Oxford, or perhaps it was whilst you were still there actually, you began to work with Selwyn Lloyd, who became the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:13:00] He was my godfather, my father’s best friend. And he I think saw in me perhaps a son or grandson he would have liked to have had, because I was interested in politics at a very early age.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:13] Was that a natural interest or do you think because of the environment that you were in, your relatives and your father’s friends, your father himself-?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:13:20] If your dad is a politician, and people used to come to our house for Sunday lunches. Rather interestingly, it’s gone out of fashion a bit, people from the Labour Party as well as the Conservative Party. My father had a Canadian accent, a very broad one, he cut across English class barriers. So he had good friends, like Edith Summerskill who was a famous figure in the National Health Service.

So politics has always to me been fascinating, and at a very early age I got into school debating. So I think I always was really interested in the drama of politics. And of course my famous great uncle, the 1st Lord Beaverbrook, the only politician besides Churchill to be in the War Cabinet of World War I and World War II.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:09] An incredible man, yes.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:14:10] So it was in the blood, in the atmosphere, to be interested.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:15] So around the same time as you starting this kind of work with politics through your godfather, your father William suddenly died of a heart attack. I think he was 60 years old?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:14:32] Yes. It was really just wartime injuries, he was very badly damaged, burned and walked with a stick, and it was always probably a bad life He actually died aged 56, but there’s some controversy about his age because it was fudged so he could get into the RAF.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:54] Oh, I see.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:14:56] But that’s another story. But anyway yes, so I’d lost my father young and I was very-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:01] That must have been devastating.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:15:01] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:02] Because you’d become very close. In fact when you were recovering from TB, learning to walk, he too was learning to walk again.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:15:10] That’s right, we were both tottering around.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:15] What are your memories of that?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:15:18] Well, my father was very Canadian, he wanted to fix things and again get on with it. And he had a breezy Canadian sense of humour, he was a lovely, lovely man, far nicer and kinder and more decent than me. But he was an inspiration at all kinds of stages.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:44] Do you think about him much now?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:15:45] I do, I do think about him yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:48] You said that a moment ago, kinder than you. I mean, really? One imagines that he would have been incredibly- although I’m sure would have found some of those moments in your life very difficult, as I know your mother did, but ultimately proud I’m sure.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:16:07] I think he would have probably said, “Well, the boy got through.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:16] You more than got through, Jonathan.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:16:19] People forget that the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments is ‘honour thy father and thy mother’. And I’ve got nothing but good things to say about my father and my mother; they were very, very fine parents. The relationship was not always perfect, but nevertheless it was a happy life and I grew up in a secure home, very grateful for it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:46] Following your father’s sudden death, I know the family finances were hit hard aside from anything else, you must have I’m sure felt a sense of, you know, you’re just starting your life really, you must have felt a sense of responsibility to get on, to succeed. Was that there?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:17:09] Yes. My father had reached a rather good peak in life. He was knighted as a very loyal back-bencher, he had made some useful money. He wasn’t super-rich but we had bought a lovely house, a moated Elizabethan mansion. It wasn’t a stately home but it was a lovely house and garden. Everything seemed totally secure. And then bang, thanks to the complications of sudden death and death duties in those days which were at 88% unbelievably, suddenly it all fell apart.

Obviously that was upsetting. We did all kinds of things to try and save the house, grow vegetables and things like that, totally unsuccessful. But I know what my father would have wanted to do was to pick yourself up and keep on going again. And so I didn’t have much trouble saying, “Well, it’s gone, the beautiful house and having a rich background, I’ve got to make it on my own.”

My father always wanted me to be a lawyer, and I did indeed read law at Oxford and started to read for the Bar, but I found journalism much more exciting.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:18:27] So politics then after journalism. You are tipped as a future Tory leader, we’re rattling through again. How did that feel when it happened? I mean, how would you describe yourself then, Jonathan? When you were in your pomp, top of your game in politics, being celebrated and lauded.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:18:56] I think this legend that I was tipped as a Tory leader, although it was true, has sort of grown in importance in the telling, and certainly in my mind it wasn’t a big thing, and I’ll tell you why. I was well educated in politics by Selwyn Lloyd, who had been tipped as a future Prime Minister and so on. And the one thing I understood very well about especially the top job in politics, it actually happens by luck. It’s timing, which has got nothing to do with you.

I think an ambitious politician can work hard to try and get to one of the senior jobs in the Cabinet, but becoming leader, I think Boris Johnson said something about a ball that comes loose at the edge of the scrum or something. Well, he was right.

And so when I was tipped as future Prime Minister it didn’t go to my head. I didn’t see it as ridiculous because I could see it just might have happened, but I wasn’t sort of full of pomp and pride, and was rather dismissive. And I think there’s even some rather famous article by Roy Hattersley about me, tipping me as a future Prime Minister-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:09] It was Roy Hattersley who said that you weren’t just gilded you were golden, which was a great phrase.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:20:15] He had a bit of a golden pen. But I liked Roy Hattersley, he used to come to dinner at home and we enjoyed it. But anyway, he tipped me as a future Prime Minister and I may say, you could fill the ballroom of the Dorchester Hotel or many other great arenas with people who have been tipped as future Prime Ministers. Huge numbers.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:38] Indeed, indeed. But how do you look back at yourself? Let’s put the Prime Ministerial bit to one side, but you were certainly a man of influence, you were firing on all cylinders and life was- whether it led to Downing Street or whether it led somewhere else it was certainly leading somewhere pretty good.

How do you sort of look back at yourself at that stage of your life, if you like?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:21:00] I think I look back on the whole with gratitude. Yes I made mistakes, some colossal mistakes, but generally I wasn’t an entirely conventional politician, I wasn’t a sort of whip’s office boy.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:16] No, you ran against the grain for sure.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:21:19] I had ideas of my own. I loved being a parliamentarian, and I took a lot of trouble to sort of learn the art of parliamentary life; getting the right tone for a speech, preparing very hard, and questions. I strangely wasn’t thinking every day, “Gosh, I want to climb the ladder.” I thought the ladder would somehow appear at some stage and there would be a chance, because there so often is in politics. Almost everybody gets a turn at something.

And I was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:53] Did you enjoy the mischief of politics? The game-play?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:21:54] Yes, absolutely. Alan Clark, his memoirs have got some terrible paragraphs of me, “My old standby for making mischief and dirty tricks,” or something, he says. That’s an exaggeration but never mind. Yes, I did enjoy the life of parliament, both the extra-curricular life and life in the chamber.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:14] This is the impossible question, I know. But had things not- and we’ll get onto it, had things not taken the turn, where do you think that would have led? Certainly staying in politics?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:22:26] Staying in politics yes, I think I’d have risen higher in politics, I think that was a probable bet. And so I think I would have gone somewhere higher up in the Cabinet, maybe Defence Minister, conceivably if there had been a vacancy gone to the Foreign Office.

Getting the top job wasn’t really genuinely on my mind. And in any case, if everything had gone perfectly I think forecasts that I would have perhaps after John Major, perhaps been a contender for the leadership, but it would have been a contender for the Leadership of the Opposition. And anyone could then see that that would be ten years’ hard grind opposing Tony Blair. So it wouldn’t have been a wonderful chalice to be handed.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:25] Yes, when William Hague was kind enough to come on the pod, he talked about those wilderness years.

Obviously things took a turn, we’re going to get onto that in a second. But there’s another kind of oft quoted reason as to why your political career did not develop faster prior to things going wrong, and that was your relationship with Carol Thatcher. You were in a serious relationship but in 1979, the year that her mother Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, you and Carol split up. And the I suspect slightly convenient way that that’s been summarised is, “Ah, well that’s the reason why you got stuck on the benches, because Margaret was somewhat agin.”

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:24:07] Well, that might have been half true for a bit, but Margaret Thatcher was really too big for that. Like any mother whose daughter she hopes perhaps is going to get married to a young man and the young man is blamed, not entirely fairly but- for the fact that it doesn’t proceed. Any mother would feel resentful and hurt, I think.

So it never thought to me this was something wrong in Margaret Thatcher to feel that way.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:41] Did she ever say anything to you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:24:43] No, not in a personal way. Much later she did, much, much later. But I think Margaret Thatcher and I got on very well when she was Leader of the Opposition and I was the boyfriend in residence, and I knew an awful lot about her strengths and weaknesses, and admired her even though she was maddening a lot of the time. She was a very difficult lady, but difficult for Britain. I admired her, and admire her to this day, and wrote a book-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:11] You wrote a brilliant book.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:25:12] Pretty favourable about her. But I think really what strangely stopped me rising during the Thatcher years, it seems so odd but it’s actually true, was that at a very early stage I was a Euro sceptic. And Margaret Thatcher was a Euro sceptic too, which makes it sound so odd, but the Tory whips were upset by this little gang of rebels who kind of had divisions in the house, opposed extraordinary statutory instruments from Europe like the harmonisation of lawnmower noise edict from Brussels. I kid you not, really. So I was a troublesome back-bencher.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:53] You were a bit of a pain.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:25:54] And you can’t really reward- and there was a moment when I was told I was going to be Undersecretary for Drains and Sewers or something, but it never happened.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:06] You married Lolicia in 1979, you had twin daughters Alexandra and Victoria the following year. There were complications with the pregnancy and the babies, and I think Lolicia and your daughters were in intensive care. That must have been- when we talked about moments of crisis in your life?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:26:28] That was an enormous moment of crisis.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:30] The risk of losing both your daughters and your wife at the same time.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:26:33] Lolicia had an embolism, the two daughters had terrible breathing problems which is not unknown with premature babies but theirs were particularly bad. And they were in incubators for about three or four weeks, one for six weeks. And it really seemed for a time as though I was going to lose all three ladies in my life.

I turned in a big way to prayer at that time, something I hadn’t really been all that good at even though I-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:04] We should talk- your relationship with faith, your relationship with your religion up that point had been-

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:27:10] I used to believe in it, I used to go to church rather half-heartedly but not sort of very-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:17] Your parents were quite religious?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:27:19] No, neither of them really. My mother slightly. No, there was really- we again in a rather half-Christian way used to go to church on Sundays intermittently. I went rather more than intermittently because I was a choirboy, but we were not a sort of holy house at all. It was really low on the agenda in our family.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:44] But there was something there.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:27:45] Something there, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:46] You’ve talked actually very movingly about the relationship with that nun who sat by your bed. Do you draw a line between those moments and your strength of faith now?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:27:59] I do. Because faith is a huge mystery that I- the nun used to say things which seemed to me completely crackers at the time. Sort of, “God has saved you for some great purpose.” Maybe she was getting it right, I don’t know, but I didn’t- I took it on board, and I adored the nun, I was very touched when she always wanted to pray. But I’m not sure I really between the ages of 4 and 7 really took it on.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:31] Of course, how could you compute? Yes, but you do draw a line now?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:28:35] Yes, well in the spiritual word you often ask who planted the first seed, and I should think it was that nun.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:41] So that moment, terrifying. You face potentially losing your entire family. You attribute your resilience at that point, and I’m interested in this as we move through the story as well, faith being the primary driver of your resilience? Or are you seeing all of these things, some of which we’ve now discussed, kind of heading into a sort of channel that is providing the necessary kind of resilience to get through another very dark moment?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:29:17] I really don’t know the answer to the question, but the one thing I was feeling in that situation was totally helpless. I mean, two little babies in incubators, you can hardly understand what all these machines are saying, what the nurses and doctors are saying, so nothing I could do. My wife very ill too. So praying seemed the best thing to do, which I did rather fervently, and did not keep on praying afterwards but that’s another story.

But yes, it’s a confusing time but I think somewhere in the- I see you’re kind of building a resilience package, faith was there.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:01] We’re jumping around on the timeline a little bit, so again apologies, but we’ll move now to the events that led to you ending up in the back of that van coming out of Belmarsh, as we have both done Jonathan.

What I’m going to do, if I may, in the interests of time, I’m going to summarise what happened but I’m going to do it in a way that is drawn from your book, Porridge and Passion, which is a book that you sent me before I headed to prison. Very helpful it was, too. So this is a precis, I hope it captures the essence of it accurately.

But to remind those listening and watching, in 1994 after twenty years as an MP, two years as Defence Minister, you were promoted into the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. You were tipped as a future PM as we’ve been discussing, and then The Guardian ran a story suggesting bluntly that you were a pimp, that you were an illegal arms dealer and a corrupt minister in the pay of the Saudi government.

You launch a libel action with an infamous speech referring to the simple sword of truth and trusty shield of British fair play, against them and also against World in Action who had followed the story on television.

In the High Court trial you disproved almost all of the allegations but there was one outstanding issue: the £900 bill for a stay at the Ritz hotel in Paris. You said your wife paid that bill not the Saudis, but then evidence was found that proved that couldn’t be the case.

You withdrew the libel case eighteen months later, you plead guilty at the earliest opportunity to a charge of perjury. Your wife then divorced you, the legal bills flowed through the front door, £2.4 million of them, that drove you to bankruptcy.

In your words Jonathan, you had completed the royal flush of crises: defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and now jail.

Fair summary?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:31:57] Fair summary.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:59] That period of waiting, between admitting your guilt and your sentence, was that the worst period? When you look back on it all now, was that the worst period for you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:32:11] It’s very difficult to pick out a worst moment because there were so many worst moments. But certainly once I had, which I did at the earliest possible opportunity, put my hand up and said, “I have made a complete mess of this, I’ve told lies, I’m going to have to plead guilty,” I put in a confession statement to the police, I knew I was going to have to go to prison.

And so yes, that was a very bleak period which- I was ruined. A word frequently used by many people, and true. What did I do in that period? Well, I did do some exploring of two things. One, next steps. I actually spent a lot of time finding out what prison was going to be like, what the court hearing was going to be like, so I was sort of well-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:05] Did anyone do for you what you did for me?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:33:08] Yes, although I think I volunteered to come and talk to you whereas I had to go and-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:12] You sought them out.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:33:15] I dug out prison officers, I dug out old lags, and the movie star Richard Harris whose ex-wife I later married was surprisingly helpful in finding mysterious people from the underworld who had been in prison who could talk to me about what prison was like. So I had a pretty good idea of what prison was going to be like before I went in.

So I prepared that way. I always thought there would be life after prison. My children kept saying, “What are you going to do?” and I said perfectly seriously that I was going to be a minicab driver. And they all fell about with laughter, only because actually- because I knew a bit about the Arab world, there are some very lucrative driving jobs to be had if you can-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:04] The tips are incredible.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:34:04] Incredible. You could rebuild your finances quite quickly being a sort of driver to Sheikhs and Princes. And I thought that was something I might-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:12] So the comeback plan included being a cabbie.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:34:15] But my children used to shriek, because they’d say, “You get lost between Lord North Street and Sloane Square so you’d never be any good at that.” But I planned things.

And much the biggest thing I did, which was not really done by me, is that I got into being helped by people of faith. People mysteriously arrived and said, “Can I come and pray with you?” I said, “Well, I don’t really do that.” But anyway, that period was very fertile for getting me going on the road to faith. I was hesitant, because I said, “I’m not going to have a foxhole conversion just because life has gone wrong. Suddenly say-”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:58] Your instincts were not to?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:35:00] Not to. But on the other hand-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:02] Because?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:35:03] Well, I think pride, you know, I think I can cope with this myself. But anyway, I got off that kick very quickly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:12] Because there have been some people in the early days, I mean, the sort of strength of your faith, the jobs that you now do, the unbelievable commitment that you have to it in and out prison, have dealt with it of itself. But right at the beginning there were a number of people who were thinking this is some kind of device, right? How did that make you feel?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:35:32] Yes, actually quite sympathetic to them. Because- they would be surprised to hear that. I think I would have said it myself if I’d seen a fellow Cabinet Minister get into trouble, go to jail and come out saying, “I’ve found God.” I think I would have said, “How very convenient.” So I could have some sympathy.

On the other hand, whatever I’ve done in the faith department I have done it for an audience of one, so I really don’t think about- it was hurtful a bit when people, old colleagues said, “Well, we know this is just a PR device.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:13] Let’s talk about prison. Actually before we do that, because I think I’ve got my timings right, after sentence but before you go to prison there is another shock in your life. A positive one but still a shock, that you have another daughter, Petra.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:36:30] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:31] With Soraya Khashoggi. This was in the midst of you trying to work out, “What has my life become?” Everything caving in, falling in around you, and then- how was that piece of news delivered to you, if you don’t mind me asking?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:36:45] Well, it was delivered by Petra herself, who had never known who her father was, and there had been a lot of speculation, not least by her. And there were some other strong candidates besides me who had had romances with her mother. What time and when was all a matter of speculation. But Petra herself became increasingly convinced that I was her father, purely on the basis of looks. She looked very like my twin daughters. And they all knew each other, and they were all rather excited about this possibility.

I was rather frightened of this possibility. It didn’t seem to fit the dates for a start. I agreed to have a DNA test, which was quite a brave thing to do because it was just-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:41] Yes. What stage are you at in your dramas when you agree to that?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:46] I think I’ve pleaded guilty, I’m awaiting sentence I think, which was about six months away for complicated reasons nothing to do with me.

Anyway, I had the DNA test because the more I thought about it and prayed about it, I thought if she is my daughter she really needs to know, and she would be much happier and I would be much happier. And yet another bout of bad publicity isn’t going to really change the price of fish.

So I said okay, let’s have the DNA test. And I didn’t think the DNA test would show that I was her father, but it did beyond doubt. So then we had a lot of time together building a relationship, and it’s had its ups and downs and on the whole been a good relationship.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:36] So you’re worrying about a life that’s fallen in and how on earth is that ever going to be rebuilt, and then at the same time out of a-

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:38:41] Yes, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:42] It doesn’t sound like quite out of a blue sky, but you’re then building a relationship with someone that you now know to be your daughter.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:38:50] Yes. And that was testing but good.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:54] And would you say that the fact that you were unravelling, if I can put it that way, at that stage, made that process harder or easier, would you say?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:39:05] I wasn’t quite unravelling, I was very nervous, very alarmed.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:14] I suppose I mean your life was unravelling.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:39:15] Yes, my life was unravelling. It certainly was something completely new. But I didn’t feel I was falling apart, I felt that somehow I’m going to get through this.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:25] Where did that come from, the somehow I’m going to get through this?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:39:29] I’ve no idea.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:31] But that was your default, that’s not something that you worked towards, that was your belief.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:39:38] Yes. Life will be different but it won’t be a total disaster.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:43] I am interested in this. Because this is not a life that’s kind of going from, I don’t know, I’m going to put this very crudely, that’s sort of sitting at six and is suddenly going to end up at two. Your life was a ten. You were a man of influence, you were in all the interesting rooms having all the interesting conversations, life was a success, what we haven’t touched on here is that you also are a success in the world in finance. Life in many ways, you know, top of the tree.

So we’re not talking about a slight slide, here. It is a steep, steep fall and I’m interested to know how it is that your strength of mind allows you to say- is it because you’ve been so successful and had such a broad perspective of the world that you- you know, you knew Nixon, that you were able to say to yourself, “I’ll get through, I’ll find a way through”?

What do you attribute it to?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:40:38] Well, it’s interesting you mention Nixon whose biography I wrote and I got to know extremely well. He is quite a good role model for how to cope with disasters. And I did think of him, I did talk to him about it. I felt that I would find something, and what did I think in my vague way? I thought that I would write. I had always been able to write, and I thought that I would be a novelist or a sports reporter which I once was. Something, I would get going with my pen.

Or I think I had enough friends in the Middle East to go back into business perhaps and earn some money.

The one thing I never thought of, although one or two people said it, was that I would ever be deeply involved in faith, let alone become an ordained clergyman, that was out of left field. Although extraordinary though it is, one or two people did say it and I said, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:49] Considerably the less lucrative of all those options that you’ve just described. Possibly you’d put the cabbie higher wouldn’t you, I’d suspect?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:41:55] Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:00] What did you learn about friendship, Jonathan? Because you just alluded to it: there were those that ran towards you, as ever in crisis, and there were those that ran away from you. That’s something that we’ve also both experienced. What’s your analysis of what scandal does to people who find themselves in the orbit of it rather than at the centre of it?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:22] I think if we’re all honest with ourselves we can, if we’re lucky, count our real friends, what Shakespeare called our hoops of steel club of friends, on the fingers probably of one hand, if we’re incredibly lucky two hands. There are all kinds of outer circumferences and circles of people who we call friends but they are not hoops of steel club friends.

I found that with I think only one exception, my hoops of steel club friends were rock-solid. They may have deeply disapproved of me, thought I’d been a complete and all kinds of worse things, but they were still friends.

What was new was the people who wanted to become new friends, and they were on the whole but not exclusively Christian friends who wanted to pray with me. Now, praying with you of course deepens the friendship. One of more extraordinary things about my life as a politician is that everything always leaked sooner or later. My life as a Christian, nothing ever leaks. You can- astonishing confidences.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:43:33] It’s secure, yes.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:43:35] And I didn’t really know what I was doing in the Christian world except fumbling around and searching and finding, but they were very, very important, these new friends who came in.

And then there were people who just out of sheer kindness sort of said, “Gosh, I really want to help. I know Jonathan a bit, I haven’t seen him for ten years but I’d like to come round and-” People sort of used to say, “Look, could I slip you £500, would you mind?” And I said, “Thank you very much.” And things like that. Or just, you know, “Come and stay the weekend.” So there were a lot of new friends.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:10] Dinner, just a chat.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:44:13] And of course I lost friends, as well.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:19] How do you feel about the one friend that you mentioned there who didn’t step up?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:44:23] Oh no, totally understandable because first of all I had let a lot of people down. And I think it was perfectly understandable for somebody, “God, he lied to my face. What did he do to the such-and-such branch of the Conservative Party?” You know, “He let us down really badly.” And they were absolutely right. So I wasn’t sort of- I was sad, but not angry at all.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:53] Have you been angry?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:44:55] I was angry at the beginning. I’m on the whole an anger- and bitterness-free zone, I hope, I certainly have no resentment to anybody, the journalists or people like that. I’m rather a chum of Alan Rusbridger who was the editor of the Guardian. So no, I don’t look back with anger. I blame myself for all the things that went wrong. I think some journalists went a bit OTT to put it mildly about my international arms dealer and things like that, but I let it go under the bridge.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:33] Bitterness, I’m going to misquote it I think now, but that- and it’s attributed to a number of different people. But the idea that it’s like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. You hold to that?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:45:48] I do, I do. In my life as a prison chaplain where I do a lot of counselling, stopping people going on being bitter is a number one objective.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:59] Really? That’s the first thing that you try and-

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:46:01] Well, the first thing is you listen and hear the story, and then how do you start to-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:07] How do you coach someone away from bitterness, out of interest?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:46:10] Well, I think talk about forgiveness, to talk about what kind of a life they want to lead after prison. It’s a very gentle process and it’s a bespoke tailoring job, there isn’t a-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:25] There isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:46:27] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:30] You write brilliantly about your first day in Belmarsh. How fresh is that day in your mind? And you know, you’re off to prison again today, not to Belmarsh but you’re off to prison today. As you spend so much time in prison as a chaplain and with your other charity work, has that day faded for you or is it still kind of in technicolour?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:46:51] I think it’s there in technicolour if I get it off the shelf and think about it. First of all, there was an element of comedy as there always is in my first day. And all kinds of startling surprises. But the day did end in an element of terror because the prisoners at Belmarsh as you know used to do this kind of thing. I think it’s what’s called ‘doing a quizzer’, they’re all sort of shouting from one cell block to another. And suddenly I realised all the shouting was entirely devoted to me and all the things they were going to do to various parts of my anatomy when they met me the following day. And that was really frightening, but I got through.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:44] I’m summarising seven months of your life here, but your memoir or memoirs are full of insight about prison, Jonathan. But if I was to ask you for the three most valuable lessons that you learned during your time inside, what would they be?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:48:02] First of all, I should have got there before but I think I got there during, you learn something about humility. You’re not remotely important or interesting, all people are equal in a prison uniform, you’ve got to go with the flow in a humble, low-key way. And any prisoner who thinks he can be a tall poppy is nuts. So that was one thing l learned.

I then learned quite a lot about the richness of individual personalities of a kind which I haven’t really encountered much before. And I actually enjoyed what might be called the social life of prison: the conversations, the jokes, just having to muck in with this extraordinary circus of prison.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:57] They’re full of humour aren’t they, prisons, in some way. But also- not all the time, it has to be said, there’s also a fair dose of misery.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:49:04] Bleak moments.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:06] But they are places not without emotion, are they?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:49:11] No, they are full of emotion. And it’s real-life. People on the whole are not putting up façades, or much, there are some people that do. But in real life a lot of people are pretending to be something that they’re not. In prison they are not, on the whole, and it’s- life is there in the raw and it comes out very openly and very fully. And I enjoyed that.

Of course the other thing I learned, my faith deepened in prison because I got into a prayer group with the most improbable characters imaginable. And there was a Christian term, a cell group, which does not apply to prison, it’s to do with cells, but my cell group was- I made some deep friendships.

And it was because of that, and we had all the time in the world to meet and read the Bible and pray, that I then made another unusual career move. I went to the one place in Britain which had worse food than a prison, more uncomfortable beds than a prison, and this was an Anglican theological college.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:50:12] Faith aside, what was your recovery plan at that stage? So once you’ve come out of prison. We talked about it beforehand, had that adjusted? Obviously in terms of, you know, where am I going to invest my time, what is my life going to be, that was going to be the church.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:50:31] No, I hadn’t decided that at all. I above all wanted life to get back to sort of normality of just simple reactions of people to me and me to people. I think you are all a bit mad when you come out of prison at first, and people certainly, if you’ve been as high-profile as you and I have been, people are sometimes rather mad towards you.

I always remember being on an escalator at Green Park underground station, only about ten days after I’d come out, I was going up. It was not quite rush-hour but they escalators were crowded. And some ghastly man suddenly started screaming at the top of his voice and pointing at me, “Look at him, there’s that effing crook, that effing liar. Crook, liar.” I wished the escalator would have- so this sort of thing happens.

I did want to get back to sort of-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:26] No anger about that?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:51:28] No, I mean I- it was his problem in a way, not mine. But at the time I was very crushed by it and very down by it. Is life going to go on like this? But you sort of- headlines soon fade.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:43] Tell me how you navigated that.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:51:47] Well, long before I was ever in any kind of trouble I used to say to myself if I ever lost my seat in Parliament actually what I’d really like to do is to go back to university. I thought as a professor of politics or something, but still. There’s a side of me which is an academic monkey. And what going to Wycliffe Hall Theology College did, quite apart from the faith side, it got me into an environment of studying, of people being normal, and people being friendly. I didn’t feel like an ex- jail bird, I felt like a fellow student, and life was just coming back to normality.

No thought of being a priest, at all. One or two people suggested it, I said, “No, no, not on your life. I hope I go on and be a good Christian boy, but I’m not going to practice it in any way.” But to just be out of the world of- just studying. And that was actually a gift of bankruptcy. I’d planned to earn my living, but once you’ve gone bankrupt, those days there were all kinds of restrictions. I was given a living allowance of actually £300 a week which made me the richest student at Wycliffe.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:12] The drinks were on you.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:53:15] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:17] I’ve experienced a bit of this myself, is that you have your own timeline, you have your own sort of- even if you’re realistic enough to know it’s going to take time to get to that point of whatever you want your normality or your new life to be. But the truth is, it’s not your timeline.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:53:36] It’s not your timeline, no.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:37] At all. And you will be at a point where you think, “This is working quite well,” and then suddenly something will come round and whip you in the face.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:53:44] Yes, absolutely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:46] And you had that for- at what point I suppose did you get to the stage where you felt, “You know what? I’m where I need to be and I’m sort of in- I’m resilient enough now, even if happens, to be able to deal with it”?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:54:07] Well, it was fragile for quite a long time. And you’re absolutely right, torpedoes suddenly come in completely unexpectedly. For example, I solved the problem but I needed to go to America to write some books and do some quite lucrative academic work, only to find that I couldn’t get a visa. I got one in the end because I was able to pull some strings with some old friends, which not everyone can do.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:37] Yes.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:54:37] But there’s quite a period of adjustment, and I think it probably took me the best part of five years if I really think it through. But I wasn’t sort of despairing in that time. Financial life was difficult, home life was difficult, moving out of houses, my children were spread all over the world. So there was definitely a difficult period of adjustment, but not a miserable period, just difficult.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:11] Jonathan, you now as we’ve discussed work very closely with prisoners and ex-prisoners, as you say, in that difficult journey that we’ve just been discussing when you leave prison. You’re the chaplain at HMP Pentonville and many other roles. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to read from one of our email exchanges.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:55:30] Sure.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:33] We were discussing, updating each other on what was going on, and in the email you said to me:

“Last week I was the officiating minister for a big carol service, well attended by judges, crown prosecution staff and central criminal court staff. The location for this event was the Grand Hall of the Old Bailey. As I pointed out in my address, twenty-one years earlier I’d been the defendant in court number one of the Old Bailey pleading guilty to perjury charges and leaving by the back door in handcuffs as I clambered about a prison van heading for Belmarsh. This time I came in by the front door as the golden robed priest in church of the service. How life’s wheel of fortune changes.”

If that email, rather like the chain in your pocket, isn’t a demonstration that a) life is long, and b) it’s a funny old game, I don’t know what is.

But more seriously there is a lesson there isn’t there, for anyone facing despair?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:56:29] Yes. I of course think that the spiritual side of my life is very important. But for anybody, the wheel of fortune turns. And to some extent I do believe that you can make some of your own luck by just hard graft, by going out there and getting things done. And whatever it is. I don’t think I’d have been a bad minicab driver, despite my children’s scepticism, but- I hope I’m not a bad priest now. But I’ve found something which absolutely enthrals me and floats my boat, and it’s the most important thing in my life.

But getting there was a journey which really, looking back, I had no control over.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:20] We’re again skipping through so many important things. You remarried in 2003, Elizabeth, you had many happy years together but who sadly died in 2022, which I know is something that certainly would fall into the category of moments in your life that hit you very, very hard.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:57:42] Yes. We had a wonderful marriage, it was agonising to see her go.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:48] More recently you suffered also with your own illness, Jonathan. This is the reason why we haven’t recorded this podcast sooner. You became gravely ill, septicaemia and other complications, I think I’m right in saying. Your friends and family were very concerned that you wouldn’t survive, but you endured.

I saw you not that long ago for the fist time post those dramas, and you were again absolutely without any kind of bitterness even though- and perhaps we don’t need to get into the detail of it, but you didn’t necessarily have needed to have been that ill, if I can put it that way?

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:58:30] Yes. I had a minor complication which turned into septicaemia of the colon which is a very dangerous thing to have. At the last minute I got back into hospital and they thought they couldn’t save me but they did and I came through. Of course there are many explanations for why I came through: the skill of the surgeons, certainly the prayers of other people.

But as your theme is resilience, I think even when it was terrible I was very clear in my mind that somehow I’m going to get up again. And the physiotherapy after that was grim, to get back on my feet and get healthy, but I am very healthy now.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:28] I’m tempted to draw a clunky connection between this 3-year-old, 4-year-old boy sat in a bed in Dublin saying, “I’m going to get through this,” to you aged 80 saying the same thing to yourself.

Jonathan Aitken:                [0:59:42] Maybe, maybe. And there are mysteries here far beyond my vision, but I would certainly say the mystery of faith is one. The mystery of why some people are natural fighters against the odds, we are all made differently. And then the people involved. There was a wonderful carer called Jessie who got me to the hospital at the right time. There was a wonderful surgeon and a wonderful anaesthetist who had terrible problems because I died three times on the operating table.

Why all these things were-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:23] You did? Did that happen?

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:00:24] I did, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:26] Three times.

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:00:29] Yes. I haven’t written about that yet, but it’s quite a story. As soon as I was able to communicate I interviewed every single nurse and doctor and surgeon about what happened, that’s another story. But anyway, I came through.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:47] Okay. Well I look forward to reading it.

Jonathan, it’s perfectly clear you continue to lead an incredibly industrious, productive life. It is an inspiration. Your career has spanned so much change, we’ve really just sort of skimmed the surface of it here.

The fashion at the moment is to bemoan the direction we’re all heading in, and there’s some evidence to suggest that’s justified. As I touched on earlier, these high levels of anxiety, societal changes that seem to be driving so much division and anger geopolitically, domestically with the politics, it all just seems to be grim and dangerous.

A specific question, I suppose. If we use our prisons as a barometer for where we all are and where we’re all heading, you have a more positive view than a lot of others, I think. Even though there’s much that is wrong with the system, you essentially are an optimist aren’t you?

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:01:49] Oh definitely. I’ve now lived 81 years, and I can remember huge dramas which a lot of people can’t remember. But I can just remember the War and the doodlebugs and the terrible fear around then. I can certainly remember the post-war years when masses of people thought that Britain was completely finished, this appalling socialist government were going to ruin everything. Actually one of the best governments ever was the Astley government, ’45 to ’50.

Then I remember just before I got into Parliament when inflation was 21%, riots over trade union fights and so on, and no one thought Britain could ever recover from being the sick man of Europe. I could go on.

The idea that the system is so broken that it can’t be fixed, the idea we should all give up I think is quite wrong. I wish I had grandchildren I could see well into the 22nd Century, but Britain will be here.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:02] So you’re excited for those grandchildren, not fearful?

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:03:06] I would be, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:10] Eight decades of crisis. Can I ask you, as you look at your life, do the difficulties carry equal weight in your mind to the triumphs? Are they heavier rocks in your rucksack or are they- where’s the balance for you now when you look back across some of the things that we’ve discussed, and there’s so much more during the course of your life? What’s the balance in your mind?

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:03:38] Well, I think the crises at the time are agonising. But the old saying, “What doesn’t break you makes you,” and I think I’m a bit of an excitement junkie. A crisis to me is always an opportunity, even after prison or disgrace there’s always something which is going to come up. And so I would answer the question by saying if you stick at things, work at things, and then of course if you have an underlying faith, that was hugely important to me, I sometimes say what matters most in my life are my three Fs: Faith, Family and Friends. And if any one of those legs of a stool wasn’t there I think I would be less happy than I am now.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:37] As you look back across your life, which you’ve still got so much to do, do the golden days get more airtime in your head, I suppose is the question, as opposed to the dramas?

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:04:47] No, I think it’s the difficult times have more time in my head. The crises are more memorable. I mean, I’ll never forget prison, I’ll never forget the disgrace of getting found out for having told a lie. I’ll never forget some of the other negative dramas. Positive dramas are delightful, rather like birthday cakes. They’re very good, but I think it’s the really memorable moments and how you handle them would be the negative moments.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:21] And that is important.

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:05:22] It is.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:22] And that is valuable, and that is how you thrive.

Well, long may you be around Jonathan to contribute your optimism, your energy and- and I can say this personally, your kindness. And thank you for joining me today.

Jonathan Aitken:                [1:05:37] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:38]   If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Jonathan then please do leave us a review, and if you’ve found it helpful or inspiring even we would be delighted if you would recommend us to your friends. You can watch the full episodes on YouTube, follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and if you hit subscribe you will find a lot more useful Crisis conversation. As always, full transcripts are available on our website along with links, just head to

Thanks so much for listening.