Predictably, the first word used by media outlets such as PA, BBC, ITV, the Observer, the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Times in reporting that Jonathan Aitken had been appointed by the CSJ to look into prison reform, was "disgraced". Once the media have settled on your prefix it’s nigh on impossible to shake it off.
It was seven years ago when Aitken walked out of Belmarsh with an electronic tag attached to him. He’d served seven months of an eighteen month sentence for calculated perjury. Since then he’s spent his time reading Theology at Oxford, looking into prison reform and talking to Christain groups about his experience. A convicted bank robber, who became Aitken’s best friend during his time in prison, said:
"We were expecting an arrogant ex-Tory minister who felt hard done-by and who was going to be a complete pain in the arse… but it was the opposite straight away. He was one of the chaps."
Aitken wrote about his prison experience in his second autobiography Porridge and Passion. He "rediscovered the Bible" and came out a humble man with a new perspective on life:
"To be humbled makes you look at every aspect of yourself. There is relief in being who I am. Nothing can embarrass me, as everyone knows everything about me."
The key thing here is partly what David Cameron is getting at when he talks about politicians’ right to have private lives before they worked in the public square. Yes we should reserve the right to judge the character of our politicians when they have an extra-marital affair, receive undeclared payments, and anything that causes us to question their trustworthiness. But if it is clear they are genuinely reformed characters then they should be given a second chance. George W Bush did all sorts of things in his youth but when he became a Christian the American people not only accepted the new man he’d become, but saw him as a regular guy in a way that isn’t normally possible for a President’s son.
In his own words:
"I found my prison experience a painful one, but also an eye-opening one and an enriching one and, at the end of the day, a positive one. There are so many things are good about our prisons. It is a decent system, badly run because of enormous pressures. But most prison officers and prison governors are in my experience – there is the occasional bad apple – good people struggling to do a good job under huge pressures. I want to start from a position of qualified admiration for what they do already." and:
"It is a cause dear to my heart for obvious reasons. I don’t regard this as any kind of Aitken comeback. I regard it as a job to be done and an assignment. This is something I can contribute to, not that this is some sort of ladder for me… This isn’t an ego trip for me. This is a job to be done. I have a very good team who I think will help to do it well."
More than 200 members of Thanet South association wanted him to stand as their parliamentary candidate in 2004 but this was blocked by Michael Howard. One thing that seems to have been forgotten by the press is that he did back UKIP a few months later, although he didn’t get actively involved in it (it still exists, by the way).
To me, the one real blip since being convicted was his support for the Government in dropping the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into Saudi arms deals, especially considering the reason he was disgraced in the first place. He actually said that even if the allegations were true, it was still worth dropping the investigation in the interests of good relations. He said this shortly after being appointed Honorary President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Still, kudos to Iain Duncan-Smith for offering him this new role:
"Everybody deserves a second chance, that is the whole philosophy of the Centre for Social Justice. I am a profound believer in never writing people off. We are now using Jonathan’s experience as a way of getting the most from him and him making a positive contribution to society… Jonathan is steeped in the world of politics, he is steeped in the world of prisons. He can therefore travel quite lightly between the two. We asked him and he seemed over the moon."
The CSJ’s media adviser, Nick Wood, says:
"One of the things that Iain is keen on is that people leading political groups should have some direct experience of the subjects they are working on. I think Jonathan Aitken certainly has the experience of jail and he has shown a great deal of thought and interest in it since."
Aitken himself puts it succinctly: "sometimes poachers make good game keepers".