Obituary: Ian Aitken

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: February 23, 2018 Last modified: February 23, 2018

Ian Aitken

September 19 1927-February 21 2018

Long-serving Guardian political editor Ian Aitken top and tailed his career providing erudite and perceptive articles for Tribune, chronicling post-war politics and the Thatcher and Blair eras. He is much missed on this paper.

He was born into a left-wing family – his father, George Aitken, was a Lanarkshire infantryman radicalised by his experiences in the trenches of the First World War, later fought for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was one of the earliest members of the British Communist Party. His mother, Agnes Levack, was a prominent activist in Moscow who returned to Airdrie, where Ian was born.

The family moved to London and Ian was sent to King Alfred School, Hampstead. He served as a mechanic in the Fleet Air Arm during his national service and began studying economics at Regent Street Polytechnic but wangled his way into Lincoln College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics.

He worked as a factory inspector and then as an officer of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. After a short spell with the local weekly Royston Crow and Hertfordshire Advertiser, Tribune hired him in 1953 as an industrial reporter.  Tribune then had close links with the proprietor of the Daily Express, the wholly unrelated Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, who regarded it as a fertile recruiting ground. He signed up Ian, first as an industrial writer, then as a foreign correspondent in Paris, New York and Washington. He was in Algeria during the struggle for independence and in Cuba when it fell to Fidel Castro. He got a brief world exclusive interview with Castro, who assured him of his 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, scooping everyone by breaking the news of John Profumo’s resignation. But he was never politically comfortable working for Beaverbrook, particularly when wooing his future wife Catherine Mackie, a doctor from a well-known Scottish political family that included the brothers George and John Mackie.

In 1964 he took a substantial pay cut to join the Guardian’s political staff, becoming political editor a little over a decade later. He covered the fall of Ted Heath, both governments of Harold Wilson, the minority regime of James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher’s victory, the Falklands war, and the Labour leaderships of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

After Labour’s 1979 defeat he was a ferocious critic of the Bennites who he saw as tearing apart the party led by his long-time friend Foot. He would write in a Tribune column: “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 left-wing 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.”

Ian stood down as political editor in 1990 and switched to the role of columnist before retiring at 65. He then became a columnist and contributing editor for the New Statesman before returning in 1998 to Tribune, where he wrote a regular column until 2014.

In its obituary, the Guardian said: “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.” In 2010 he wrote in Tribune: “If it were not for the Tories, 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.”

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

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune