Jonathan Aitken's diary: My life as a Christian outreach speaker

Plus: I have prison plans that will fatten the Treasury; Margaret Thatcher's saucy humour

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

The last time I wrote for The Spectator I was sitting in a prison cell. I sent the then editor a poem called ‘The Ballad of Belmarsh Gaol’. Instead of printing it in the poetry column, Frank Johnson put it on the magazine’s cover. It received what is euphemistically called ‘a mixed reception’ — so mixed that I have never again tried my hand at verse. In those dark days 14 years ago I was wrestling with my self-inflicted agonies of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. As I contemplated my non-future, its only certainty was that I would never again be in demand as a public speaker or as a political commentator in the media. But life is full of surprises. This autumn I am far busier in terms of speaking engagements, media appearances and column inches than I was when a Cabinet minister. This is due to an improbable combination of interests — the rehabilitation of offenders, outreach events and Margaret Thatcher.

So far this year I have given over 40 talks in or about prisons. This is because reforming the rehabilitation of offenders is a policy idea whose time has come. Having been a campaigner in this field for a decade, I am a strong supporter of Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy. His plans to open up the supervision of released prisoners to a new network of companies, charities, community groups and rejuvenated probation trusts offers a real prospect of bringing down the stubbornly high reoffending rates. Recidivism by a core group of mainly young criminals costs the taxpayer up to £20 billion. Grayling’s blueprint of new technology and new rehabilitation methods should make it possible to cut the reoffending rate by at least 10 per cent. That would mean a windfall for the Treasury and a transformation in the lives of thousands of offenders.

Rehabilitating offenders should be natural territory for the church. Prison chaplains do valuable work on their side of the wall, but ministries to released prisoners are few and far between. Earlier this week I emailed the General Secretary of the Diocese of London, Andy Brookes, whose remit covers 500-plus worshipping communities. I asked him how many of them had any sort of prison ministry or outreach ministry to ex-offenders. His reply was ‘we have only two parishes registered as offering practical support for ex-offenders’. The angels must be weeping.

One of those two parishes is Holy Trinity Brompton in South Kensington. Its Caring for Ex-Offenders ministry is an impressive leader in the rehabilitation field but where are the followers? At least they are starting to emerge from the green shoots of Alpha, HTB’s successful Introduction to Christianity course which has so far been completed by 10 million worldwide participants. Every September I serve as an amateur warm-up man for Alpha, giving talks in a dozen or so pubs, village halls, football grounds or church buildings. In the jargon of modern religion this is known as ‘outreach speaking’. The attendees are largely non-Christian and the approach to them aims to be unchurchy. The turnout at these evenings constantly surprises me. On my Alpha travels this year, the biggest audience was 650 at St Paul’s Howell Hill in Surrey. I never drew half that number as a political speaker.

This autumn of hyperactivity was preceded by a summer of worry. In July my beloved wife Elizabeth suffered a severe brain haemorrhage. Holidays were cancelled and replaced by long bedside vigils in three London hospitals. As the next of kin, I was warned that five out of ten such victims die in the first four days. Another two are likely to die within the next two weeks. Of the three or so survivors, most are left with some kind of physical impairment and brain damage. Grim odds indeed. But this is a story with a happy ending. As her latest check-up confirmed, Elizabeth has come through her ordeals with no brain damage and no physical incapacity. The brilliant team of NHS neurosurgeons, neurointerventionists and specialist nurses at the Charing Cross Hospital saved her life. Perhaps the power of prayer had something to do with it too.

So far the reviews for my new biography Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality have exceeded expectations. My daily round of media interviews, literary festivals and book signings are great fun. But an audience of over 400 at Ilkley last Sunday produced one tricky question about the Lady’s humour, which could be unintentional. I told them the tale of how she once complimented Fergus Montgomery for looking exceptionally well groomed. He explained that he had just been to the hairdresser. With a straight face Margaret responded: ‘I expect you had a blow job.’ Laughter in the House!

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Jonathan Aitken’s Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality is out this week.

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  • Pip

    What a complete and utter twit you are Jonathan, I wanted to use another adjective but I doubt it would be allowed here. Hey Jonathan old chap, I have a revelation for you, unfortunately for you its not of a religious nature. Very few people care what you think or have to say, you have no credibility whatsoever and this article proves this fact to be totally justified in my mind. The best thing you could do for yourself and the country is to go away and be quiet.
    PS Your Prison Sentence was far too lenient in my view.

    • Eddie

      I am no defender of Jonathan Aitkin. However, are you not a bit harsh?
      I am always in favour of those who admit their wrongdoing and take their punishment to be given another chance; it is not relevant if I agree with their politics or not. Probably, I would disagree with Aitkin’s politics, would definitely not agree with his religious beliefs, would have little in common with him re background, and might dislike him intensely. But so what?
      As a former college teacher, I always used to argue with my colleagues – who were very conservative (small c), puritanical and judgemental (not to mention deeply dull) – that those with criminal records should be allowed to teach (they can at present, after passing a CRB check, though have to declare convictions). Think of those who are not allowed to be teachers: George Michael and Boy George (I’d be happy for them to teach my kids music), Nelson Mandela (who used to advocate violence), Benjamin Zephaniah and Ashley Walters – both role models for the black community on TV.
      I have a criminal record – a little caution from years ago (which is nothing really, though those pompous teachers in a feminised system think it’s tantamount to a full on criminal career). I resent having to declare that, but don’t have to any more as I work for myself. But we live in a hysterical age.
      I think perhaps everyone should sit in a police/prison cell for a few hours – it focuses the mind wonderfully!

      • Pip

        Three issues here, firstly Aitken is simply using this as an opportunity to get himself exposed in the MSM again, secondly as an ex MP convicted for dishonesty he shouldn’t have a voice in the MSM and thirdly, anyone daft enough to believe in Religion is not worth listening to, regardless.

    • Zimbalist

      You sure got a lot of rocks to throw there pal. Naturally, we all assume you are without sin……..

      • Pip

        Sin is a construct of religious dogma which is succour for the weak mind.

        • Zimbalist

          Oh, that must be right. Because you said it.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Britisher pals, those considering flying the UK coop would be wise to make this sooner rather than later, as a criminal record will seriously compromise your chances of a warm welcome from your chosen host nation. And you do realise that HMG`s avowed aim is to ensure every adult white male residing in UK has a criminal record.