Ian Aitken obituary

Political editor of the Guardian in the 1970s and 80s who covered the fall of Ted Heath and the rise of Margaret Thatcher

Ian Aitken, who has died aged 90, was one of the most widely read, best informed and perceptive of 20th-century British political reporters. For 10 years from 1964 he was a political correspondent of the Guardian and for 15 years from 1975 the paper’s political editor.

On a typical day, he would make his way from Highgate, north London, where he lived, to, more often than not, arrive in town for an entertaining but informative political lunch. In the earlier years, these would be at the Gay Hussar in Soho (then an unofficial canteen of the left), but thereafter more often at his favourite club, the Garrick, and often at first in the company of his friend and occasional collaborator, John Bourne of the Financial Times, and later that of Geoffrey Parkhouse, his opposite number on the Glasgow Herald.

For much of the day he would operate not in the members’ lobby of the House of Commons, to which senior political correspondents enjoyed privileged access, but much more in the corridors and the bars. Of these, the greatest, at any rate in the 1970s and 80s, was Annie’s Bar, a particularly important information exchange when the life of James Callaghan’s government was imperilled almost nightly, as it was from 1976 to 1979. But it was important at the high tide of Thatcherism as well. At some time between 7pm and 8pm, Ian would move to the telephone, assemble his notes, some of which had been made on torn-up cigarette packets, and dictate a story that was a model of its kind.

Having filed his copy, Ian would appear a minute or two after 9pm in the press gallery restaurant, where the presiding authority, a spirited Scotswoman called Mary, usually adamant in refusing to serve anyone not in their place by nine, would warmly welcome him in. At some stage in a leisurely dinner, helped down by a glass of wine or two, not by any means his first drink of the day, Ian would frequently be interrupted by a message from the newsdesk about some story in the first edition of a rival paper.

Ian would rise from his place with a heavy sigh, disappear, glass in hand, for a while, and then proceed to dictate to the copytakers a story often markedly better than the one he was following up. He would often have sketched out his first paragraph, since this was a favourite art form in which he liked to treat readers to some great baroque construction foaming with exotic metaphor. Much of the rest would be improvised. Thereafter he would usually remain in the Commons, regardless of whether or not the house was sitting late. Politics was an addiction.

Weeknight evenings at home were rare. “Thanks to the weird hours worked at Westminster,” he wrote in 2006 on the death of Catherine, his wife of almost 50 years, “much of our weekday communication had to be by love letters left on the kitchen table.” This was no sign of disrespect or indifference to Catherine, to whom he was famously devoted. Indeed, in the interests of family harmony, Ian in middle age took up the violin, since this would enable him to play duets with Catherine. Though music, along with books and poetry, was one of his principal passions – it was the only recreation that he chose to list in Who’s Who – his prowess on the fiddle was limited: “He played a lot,” one of his family would recall, “and was truly awful.” His convivial and gregarious instincts though were as much in evidence in Highgate, where the Aitkens liked to entertain a wide and varied circle of friends.

His time with the Guardian came at the end of a long and varied apprenticeship. He was born into leftwing politics. His father, George Aitken, was a Lanarkshire infantryman radicalised by his experiences in the trenches of the first world war, who later fought for the republican side in the Spanish civil war. George was one of the earliest members of the British Communist party. He duly took his young bride, Agnes Levack, off to Moscow and became a prominent activist in the foreign community. A son born in the city died there in infancy – the consequence, Agnes believed, of medical carelessness. When pregnant again, she headed home to Airdrie, where Ian was born.

His mother was as lively and spirited as his father. At some time in the 1930s she took the young Ian on what must then have been an epic journey to the Ile de Ré, off the west coast of France, for a holiday in a communist children’s holiday centre.

Though Ian remained to the end proud of his Scottishness, he did not live north of the border for long. The family moved to London. He was sent to King Alfred school, Hampstead, which was private but progressive. He was called up for national service in the Fleet Air Arm and was stationed, as he liked to recall, in what he called a “stone frigate” near Abingdon, Oxfordshire. To the subsequent disbelief of his friends – his mechanical expertise, his family would later conclude, seemed to extend no further than a can of WD40 and the optimistic application of superglue – he spent some of this time as a mechanic.

He began his study of economics at Regent Street Polytechnic. But, as he recalled in a column he wrote for Tribune in February 2011, what he was taught in those days both there and, later, at the London School of Economics, largely ignored the conclusions of two very different economists who had influenced his father: Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. During his navy service he had developed a liking for nearby Oxford. So, “one day, I put on my best uniform and tramped round banging on college doors until I found one that would have me. I was in, and thanks to the generous grant given to ex-service students, money was no problem.” And the tutor to whom Lincoln College entrusted him for his course in philosophy, politics and economics was happy to teach him Keynes.

Bill Rodgers, left, and Shirley Williams, of the Gang of Four, who launched the SDP with Roy Jenkins and David Owen, right, in 1981.
Ian Aitken was at Oxford with Bill Rodgers, left, and Shirley Williams, of the Gang of Four, who launched the SDP with Roy Jenkins and David Owen, right, in 1981.
Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

He made several friends at Oxford who became prominent politicians, including Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. Ian’s commitment to Labour, like theirs, was firmly established, but not yet his commitment to journalism. His first employment in 1951 was as a factory inspector (in one case he handled, all the parties involved were called Aitken); his second as an officer of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. It was when the leftwing weekly Tribune hired him in 1953 as an industrial reporter (though he also had a spell with the Royston Crow and Hertfordshire Advertiser, a weekly paper serving a locality to which he had been evacuated during the war) that the pattern of his life was decided.

Though its politics were of the Bevanite left and his of the imperialist right, Tribune had close links with the proprietor of the Daily and Sunday Express, the wholly unrelated Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. When Beaverbrook was in the market for young journalistic talents, Tribune was where he liked to look. Ian was one of those he recruited.

The Express in those days was a hugely successful newspaper with a gallery of star names in its service that deserved to be taken seriously. Hired as an industrial writer, Ian became a foreign correspondent in Paris, New York and Washington (where he was seriously unimpressed by the young President John F Kennedy). He was in Algeria during the struggle for independence and, most excitingly, in Cuba when it fell to Fidel Castro. Though he was in the hotel swimming pool when the rebels arrived to take Havana, he later obtained a brief “world exclusive” interview with Castro, who assured him of his essential moderation. His Beaverbrook years also took him at various times to Panama, Honduras, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Ghana and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Back in London, Ian became the Express’s political editor. His byline appeared on a famous series of stories about the 1963 Profumo scandal; he broke the news that John Profumo had offered his resignation. Yet despite the excitement and glamour of the Express, which then far outsold the Daily Mail, Ian never lost the feeling of being at the wrong address. In the tender obituary he wrote after Catherine’s death, he said it had been love at first sight when he met her in June 1951, sitting on his parents’ sunlit lawn in Highgate – but the five-year interval before he could persuade her to marry him “may have had something to with the fact that I was working at the time for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express – a paper that was not greatly loved by the left”. Catherine Mackie, a doctor, came from a well-known Scottish political family that included the brothers George and John Mackie, who sat in the Commons and then in the Lords for the Liberals and Labour respectively.

In 1964 he heard of a likely vacancy on the Guardian’s political staff – that of deputy to the long-serving principal political correspondent Francis Boyd. Ian applied for the job. That a journalist should be ready to give up the No 1 job on the buccaneering Express to become No 2 (on lower pay) at the staider Guardian occasioned amazement in Fleet Street. But this was his natural home. Though the paper for which he now wrote was so different, Westminster remained familiar territory and his working practice remained much the same. New recruits who arrived expecting to find journalists hunting out politicians soon learned that with Ian, it was often the other way round. Politicians, even senior ministers, would night after night be anxiously seeking him out.

Though his own political affiliations were never in doubt, he was trusted and confided in by many senior Tories. He earned the respect of Margaret Thatcher’s loyal deputy William Whitelaw for his honesty and fair-mindedness (“he is an opponent, but he is fair’’) to such an extent that after they had both retired, Whitelaw asked him to be his biographer, not least because his wife and daughters had decided (rightly) that Willie’s own memoirs did not do him justice. The result, a book called Splendid! Splendid! (one of his subject’s trademark cries), co-written with Mark Garnett, was published in 2002. The group that seemed less sure of him was the pro-European right of the Labour party. Old Oxford friends such as Rodgers and Williams tended still to see him as an unreconstructed Bevanite.

Ian remained his newspaper’s titular No 2 for almost a decade, until Boyd became a columnist – though he had to wait a further three years for the title of political editor. That put him in nominal charge of a string of upcoming young men and women to whom he had to operate both as organiser, a role for whom he was less than perfectly suited, and teacher and mentor, for which he was. Whatever his mood, he was invariably a kindly man, affectionately known to friends and colleagues as “Uncle”. The occasional outburst of bad temper, often arising from frustration with the newsdesk, would be followed by extravagant contrition. He would cover every political story of any importance, from the fall of Ted Heath, through two Harold Wilson governments, the embattled minority regime of Callaghan, the triumph of Thatcher, the Falklands war, and the leaderships of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

The turbulence in the Labour party after its 1979 defeat made the last decade of his time as political editor stressful. Within the office, there were frequent and sometimes ferocious complaints about his hostility to Tony Benn and those around him. The argument that Bennites of the 80s were playing a similar role to the Bevanites in the 50s left him – to use one of his favourite words – “in-CAN-DESC-ent”, all the more so when from 1980 to 1983, the party which, as he saw it, the Bennites were ripping apart, was led by his friend and comrade Foot.

That grievance barely abated in subsequent years. Foot, he wrote in 2010, “became leader just as the party was plunging into a period of hate-filled sectarianism that made it virtually unelectable”. He would write in a Tribune column on the process of electing a Labour leader – in this case Ed Miliband, for whom as a Labour party member, he voted – “It is the ultimate condemnation of Labour’s imbecile constitution, wished upon us during the Bennite insurrection which wrecked Michael Foot’s leadership. And here is a paradox: Michael was the most leftwing leader the party has ever had, yet he was elected exclusively by its MPs, without the participation of the constituency members or the unions. The Bennite constitution gave us Tony Blair and the Iraq war.” His grief for what Blair did to his party matched his contempt for Benn.

When he reached 60 in 1987, Ian handed over most of his daily reporting work, initially to James Naughtie, a recruit from the Scotsman who left for the BBC in 1988, then to John Carvel and later Michael White, who succeeded him as political editor in 1990. Ian switched to the role of columnist. On the desk he left behind at Westminster, his successors found mountains of unopened mail. Ironically, the government document about operations at the Greenham Common airbase that the civil servant Sarah Tisdall sent to the Guardian in 1983, leading to her prosecution and jailing under the Official Secrets Act, had been meant for Ian, but had been sent to the paper’s office rather than to the Commons. Had it arrived on Ian’s press gallery desk, his colleagues later reflected, it would probably have lain there unopened.

Michael Foot, the former Labour party leader and editor of Tribune newspaper
Ian Aitken was a friend of Michael Foot, pictured, the former Labour party leader and editor of Tribune newspaper Photograph: taken from picture library

After years of news reporting, it took a while for his columns to settle; some found them too full of history, too uniformly old Labour. Others, perhaps especially those who had shared his political journey, found them irresistible, and gradually they established themselves as a firm Guardian attraction. When he reached 65, his Guardian column ceased. He then became a columnist and contributing editor for the New Statesman before settling back in 1998 into his old billet, Tribune, where he wrote a fortnightly piece for a paper that seemed constantly on the edge of financial collapse, and where he went on writing, unpaid, until 2014, when, at 87, he gave up, saying, “Old age has finally caught up with me.”

These times were clouded by the decline of Catherine, – “ a fine doctor” as he recalled in his obituary of her, “whom generations of children and young mothers in north London adored”, and “a wonderful practical socialist” – as Alzheimer’s disease took an ever more potent hold. Ian nursed his wife as long as he could and, when she finally moved into a home, contrived to buy a flat in the adjoining block so he could be near her. He was 79 (she was 83) when she died and he had to refashion his life.

Some things remained the same, notably his daily appearance at his favourite Highgate pub, where, as he liked to say, “the sweepings and leavings of the alehouses of Highgate” congregated around him. But, now walking stiffly with the aid of a stick, and troubled by deafness, he reappeared at the Garrick Club where he, Foot, Ian Gilmour and other old friends would meet regularly for lunch. He remained a warm and incomparably entertaining friend, as wholly devoted to socialist causes as he had been from early youth, even if his columns in Tribune frequently charted a terminal discontent with the party to which he had so long belonged.

‘If it were not for the Tories,” he wrote in 2010, “I would find it very difficult to think of a pressing reason to vote Labour at the general election … There has been something unpleasant about the way Britain has been run by ‘new’ Labour – a mixture of old-fashioned incompetence and a lofty disregard for the wishes of ordinary people … the outstanding example of the lofty disregard was the decision to go to war in Iraq. It generated the greatest public demonstration ever seen in this country, to no avail.”

That Labour shifted left and threw off Blairism was a consolation. But Ian had never trusted the forces that almost swept Benn into the leadership in the 1980s – he could not forgive Benn for having undermined his friend and political hero, Foot. So the Corbyn-Momentum dominance of the party nearly 30 years later was not something he welcomed and indeed, in his final years, his lifelong addiction to politics was fading away.

He is survived by his daughters, Susie and Jane, and four grandchildren.

• Ian Levack Aitken, journalist, born 19 September 1927; died 21 February 2018


David McKie

The GuardianTramp

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