Ian Aitken

Ian Aitken, who died in 2018, was for many years political editor of 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.’


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.

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