Aitken: My ringside seat at Night of the Long Knives – and what it means for Cameron

Blind chance sometimes affords individuals spectacular front row seats in the theatre of history; from the 22-year-old apolitical secretary watching the downfall of the Third Reich from Hitler’s bunker to a young Oxford undergraduate who landed himself a fly-on-the-wall view of one of the most ruthless Cabinet culls in modern British history.

Jonathan Aitken, in 1962 reading law at Christ Church, had secured a job “goafering” for then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd, through his family connections (his father, Sir William Aitken, was MP for Bury St Edmunds and a nephew of Lord Beaverbrook; his grandfather was Lord Rugby) unaware he was about to become a front row spectator of Harold Macmillan’s infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives.’

“I had a summer work experience job while I was at Oxford goafering and doing a bit of speech writing, which I had obtained through pure nepotism,” he says. “Selwyn Lloyd was my godfather and my father’s greatest friend. In the summer of 1962, I accepted this unpaid work experience role as a bag carrier as there was a political necessity for it in those days.

“Back in the 1960s, Cabinet ministers, even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were not allowed to be driven by Government cars and chauffeured to party and constituency events so even Selwyn Lloyd needed a goafer to drive him and this goafer suddenly had a ringside seat of this spectacular Night of the Long Knives.”

On July 13, 1962, Aitken had breakfast with the Chancellor, who lived alone since he and his wife divorced in 1957, at a Government flat in Buckingham Gate owing to the reconstruction work then taking place in Nos 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street before leaving only to return later as part of a large entourage of staff to accompany the Second Lord to the Treasury.

“That evening I came back with the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer,” he adds. “It was quite a dramatic day – Selwyn had no idea that morning he was going to sack but he behaved with great dignity and magnanimity; he was a loyal backbencher and came back into the Government as Leader of the House of Commons and Alec Douglas-Home’s number two.

“He was a lonely man in politics, like Heath, who didn’t have a family to go back to after a sacking so it made it more difficult for him – but he picked himself up and got going pretty well almost immediately.”

Commentators were quick to draw parallels between this spasm of political bloodletting by Macmillan, in which he sacked a third of his Cabinet, and David Cameron’s own surprise purge in July this year, which saw Michael Gove demoted from a department he had made his own, the departure of William Hague from the Foreign Office and the sacking of darling of the Right, Owen Paterson. It is not a parallel which would have been lost on the Prime Minister, Aitken says, though one wonders whether, given its consequences for Macmillan, he ought to have been more wary of it.

“I suspect that David Cameron, who is a great Macmillan admirer, will have had a thought or two about the Night of the Long Knives before he commenced this reshuffle. If he did have such thoughts,” he says, “they won’t have been wise ones.

“The 1962 reshuffle was thought to be a botched job and led to Macmillan’s downfall; in general they have a terrible habit of going wrong. I don’t think Cameron thought through the lack of wisdom in sacking Owen Paterson, who was a good Secretary of State and a good iconic figure on the Right of the party. I don’t think it was a happy or good reshuffle any more than the 1962 one was.”

Despite his pessimism over the wisdom of Cameron’s reshuffle, however, Aitken shirks from any suggestion it will return to haunt him as it did Macmillan. He adds he remains a loyal Tory and strenuously denies ever being a member of UKIP, despite what his Wikipedia entry claims, and even subscribes to what he calls the “unpopular prediction” that the Conservatives will achieve a majority in the 2015 general election.

Incidentally this view, despite what the newspapers would like people to think, has been a common prediction in this website’s interviews with former and serving Conservative MPs and each have rested upon that most traditionally Tory motto; trust the people.

“I think David Cameron will lead the Conservatives into the next general election,” he says, “and my money’s also on him winning it, which is not a popular prediction at the momentI think the British public will become a lot more sober as the election approaches.”

Aitken draws parallels with the 1992 general election, in which which pollsters infamously predicted a Labour victory, only for John Major’s Conservatives to romp home with the greatest number of votes cast in British electoral history (though, due to the vagaries of the First Past the Post System, with 40 fewer seats than in 1987) and gives a campaign anecdote as an example. “I was canvassing in Dover as my seat next door, South Thanet, was thought to be safe but Dover was considered a key marginal so I and my Tory workers did a lot of work there.

“I remember canvassing one particular street, first about three weeks before polling day, which was rather representative of the nation’s street and, after canvassing about 100 houses, came back with figures which looked bad for John Major and good for Neil Kinnock. Four days before polling day I was on the same street and people were saying ‘We’ve been thinking about it a long time and we’re going to go in with your lot.’

“Whatever people are saying now, in an election, Cameron will get credit for the things he’s not getting credit for now such as the economy, competence and for being a good campaigner. UKIP may have its localised triumps but I think Cameron will still be home by a short head when people really sit down to realise what affects them.”

Jonathan Aitken was elected to Parliament in 1974 and served as Minister of State for Defence Procurement then Chief Secretary to the Treasury under John Major between 1992 and 1995. Prior to his political career, he had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Biafra. He published Nixon: A Life in 1993 and was one of the few biographers with which Nixon granted interviews.

This interview originally appeared as part of a series on Parliament Street.

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