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Ian Aitken

Ian Aitken is a former political editor of, and now a columnist for, the Guardian.

Just over a quarter of a century ago, shortly after Ted Heath’s surprise defeat of the Wilson Government, Tony Benn addressed a Fabian Society meeting in a gloomy Westminster basement. With his usual happy choice of language, he described how fired-up he had been on eventually becoming a minister in Wilson’s Cabinet; he had always wanted to get his hands on the levers of power, he said, and at last he was going to do just that. And sure enough, when he walked into his office at the Ministry of Technology for the first time, there they were in all their gleaming majesty – the levers of power. With a glad cry, he had leapt forward and started tugging at them in a frenzy of pent-up enthusiasm. It was quite a long time before he realised that, however hard he pulled, nothing actually happened. It was even longer before he discovered that the levers weren’t actually connected to anything.’

They like it there

Ian Aitken, 5 August 1993

Bagehot remarked of the House of Lords that anyone who had a high opinion of its contribution to the governance of Britain should go and have a look at it. He clearly believed that the mere sight of the so-called Upper House at work would cure any tendency towards excessive reverence. He had sound reasons for this judgment, since the outstanding feature of the Victorian House of Lords was, in a word, absenteeism. A mere handful of peers bothered to turn up, and they treated it more as an extra club than as a legislature, with the result that its debates were so brief as to be scarcely worthy of the name. In addition, the acoustics of the place were so bad that one member described addressing their lordships as ‘like speaking by torchlight to the corpses in a charnel house’. Reporters in the rudimentary press gallery found it so hard to hear what was going on beneath their perch that they frequently attributed even greater nonsense to the speakers than anything actually uttered, with the result that they were for a time permitted to sit in the chamber itself.

Toot Sweet

Ian Aitken, 27 May 1993

Anyone who lived in London during the Blitz will be able to confirm the important part played by the bomb stories in the vibrant folklore of the city. Everyone had at least one yarn about the bomb that had fallen on them, their neighbours, their aunty’s neighbours, and they told them eloquently to anyone who would listen. Many of the most fantastical were perfectly true. It was the mundane ones – insofar as there were any mundane bomb stories – which one had to distrust.’

Richly-Wristed

Ian Aitken, 13 May 1993

The best thing I ever did in my professional life was to move from the Daily Express to the Guardian just before the 1964 General Election, and then to stay there. It seemed a good idea at the time, and nearly thirty years later I have no reason to change that judgment. On the contrary, the more I reflect on it the more grateful I am to my own relatively youthful prescience, and even more so to the gambler’s instinct of Alastair Hetherington, the then editor of the Guardian, in taking me on. To put it mildly, hiring a political writer direct from a notoriously partisan popular newspaper like the Daily Express was both risky and a radical departure from the paper’s traditional methods of recruiting staff.

Prince of Darkness

Ian Aitken, 28 January 1993

As a young man working for Lord Beaver-brook’s broadsheet Daily Express, I used to have a highly pleasurable daydream in which the coincidence of my name being the same as my employer’s led to some confusion among the company lawyers, with the result that I became the proprietor on the Old Man’s death. I would visualise myself getting off the bus outside the old Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, walking down to the entrance of the big black palace, taking the lift up to the second floor, and bursting into the editor’s office just as the morning conference was about to begin. After explaining the circumstances to the astonished assembly, I intended to invite the editor to move over, plonk myself down in his seat, and announce that there were going to be a number of changes.

With that perceptive but strangely innocent eye which has served him so well as a columnist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne recently expressed shock and astonishment that an editor of the London Evening Standard had turned down the editorship of the Times in favour of succeeding Sir David English at the Daily Mail. As a boy, wrote Sir Perry, he had wanted to be editor of the Times more than anything in the world. So when Mr Paul Dacre picked Rothermere’s Daily Mail in preference to Rupert Murdoch’s Times, Worsthorne’s first reaction was that it was like choosing to be King of Ruritania instead of King of England.

Mrs Thatcher’s Admirer

Ian Aitken, 21 November 1991

Denis Healey, a politician who long ago established that the hobnailed boot can be wielded with just as much delicacy and skill as the épée, once said of David Owen that the Good Fairy who attended his birth had generously bestowed upon him the three qualities of charm, intelligence and good looks. He is then reported to have added: ‘What a pity that the Bad Fairy made him a shit.’

Two Men in a Boat

Ian Aitken, 15 August 1991

At the height of one of the many leadership crises in the Labour Party during the Fifties or early Sixties, the Crossbencher column of Lord Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express described the young Harold Wilson lying in his sleeper on the night train from Liverpool and listening to the wheels beating out the rhythm: ‘It could be me, it could be me, it could be me.’ It was a delightful conceit, wholly in tune with Beaverbrook’s injunction to his journalists to tell the story, whatever it might be, through the people involved. It suffered, however, from one defect. As Mr Wilson pointed out next morning, he hadn’t travelled to London by train. He’d made the journey by car.

Knights of the King and Keys

Ian Aitken, 7 March 1991

Practitioners of the black arts of journalism will universally acknowledge that the most accurate as well as the funniest portrayal of their profession is Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop. No one who has ever worked for a paper with a baronial proprietor could fail to recognise Lord Copper and his bevvy of fawning executives. Equally, anyone who has ever been a foreign correspondent will admit that Waugh’s dreadful pack of war reporters is all too realistic. Indeed, the book has given journalists a phrase which they have adopted as their own. ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper,’ we say to each other whenever one of our number is getting the wrong end of the journalistic stick.

Diary: Party Fairy-Tales

Ian Aitken, 22 March 1990

My first paid job after leaving Oxford with what we used to call a ‘good’ second (did you ever meet anyone who got a ‘bad’ second?) was as a research assistant at the London School of Economics. My duty was to seek out suitable material for inclusion in a volume of documents illustrating the development of Labour Party policy from 1900 to 1945. A major source of such material was, of course, the speeches delivered by leading Labour politicians in the House of Commons. So one of my tasks was to wade through Hansard for the entire period, looking for significant utterances which could be held either to have changed Labour Party policy or to have influenced its creation. Sitting in the LSE library with the bound volumes, I developed a subliminal ability to spot a possible candidate for the book while my mind wandered to other things. A little bell would go off in my head, and I would be jerked back from daydreams about the girl at the next desk.

Off the hook and into the gutter

Ian Aitken, 7 December 1989

Most journalists would probably agree that the decisive moment in the postwar history of Fleet Street was the day when Hugh Cudlipp’s IPC publishing conglomerate decided to cut its losses and sell its dismally unsuccessful venture, the Sun, to Rupert Murdoch. No matter what view you take of subsequent developments, that event was the turning-point which determined the shape of Britain’s newspaper industry for the remainder of the century.

Tam, Dick and Harold

Ian Aitken, 26 October 1989

Not long ago, a very distinguished acadmic reviewer suggested in these pages that one of the troubles with the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock’s leadership was that it was no longer the kind of party which attracted the loyalty and service of Oxbridge intellectuals. In his view, this was a serious flaw, perhaps even a fatal one.

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