He was a shameless liar and thief. He went to Wormwood Scrubs. He was a lovable scallywag
What's the difference between a villain and a rogue? The question has teased me since long before a Newsnight encounter recently with Emma Nicholson, after the imprisonment of Jeffrey Archer.
I suspect the encounter left both of us as impervious to the other's point of view as when we started. Lady Nicholson persisted in seeing, in my suggestion that history might place Lord Archer in the gallery of great rascals rather than in the gallery of the truly wicked, some kind of a half-hearted defence of his sins — which it was not. And I persisted in interpreting her anger as sanctimony, while she thought he fully deserved honest censure — which he does.
So I failed to get across what I want to examine here. Evil and rascality are not the same thing. There most emphatically is a difference between a villain and a rogue — between a crook and a scallywag — or we would not employ two different sets of words and use them in distinct circumstances. But the difference may spring more from the speaker's attitude to the individual than from the nature of his crimes. Two men may be guilty of sins of equivalent gravity, yet one be judged a rascal, the other a criminal. To say then of Jeffrey Archer that he was more rogue than villain, and of Robert Maxwell that he was more villain than rogue, is not to compare their crimes at all, but simply to say that I like Archer and I could not like Maxwell. Ooh, you are awful. Robert, and I don't like you.
But then by any objective standard Maxwell really did hurt more people more deeply than Archer ever has. The more revealing comparison is between Maxwell and Horatio Bottomley, MP, Bottomley's crimes were worse than Maxwell's and infinitely worse than Archer's, yet Bottomley undoubtedly qualifies as lovable scallywag, though he spent his whole career, in and out of politics, doing simply dreadful things. Maxwell didn't set out to cheat: he set out to run successful businesses providing real goods and services, and ended up cheating in order to keep them afloat. What happened to him, as he was dragged deeper and deeper into deception while struggling to survive, is perhaps something we can imagine happening to us.
But you or I cannot imagine becoming a Bottomley. Horatio Bottomley started out with the intention to deceive. It was his métier, his chosen career. He never provid ed a good or a service in his life, and never meant to. For those unfamiliar with a man as fat as Maxwell and for many years far more famous than Archer, here is a potted history. For those interested to read about him in more depth, the most thorough short review is provided by the late Gerald Rawling in History Today, vol. 43.
Horatio Bottomley, MP was arguably the most celebrated English swindler of the 20th century. He could have been a brilliant journalist, a powerful businessman, a successful lawyer or a useful independent MP. Instead he chose to be a confidence trickster in a career of shameless, ceaseless, compulsive deceit. After one brilliant courtroom escape from fraud charges, the judge took him aside and urged him to read for a legal career. Instead he found — and lost — a seat in Parliament, made — and lost — a fortune, and ended up in Wormwood Scrubs. Not that he and the law ever parted company. 'I hold the unique distinction of having gone through every court in the country — except the divorce court,' he was later to remark.
Born in 1860 and orphaned at four, he escaped from an exceptionally cruel Birmingham orphanage, ran away to London, became an errand boy and learnt, from a solicitors' clerk, how to swindle. By 15 he knew all the intricacies of the Lord Mayor's Court at Guildhall, how to swear an affidavit and how to serve a writ. He learned shorthand as a court reporter. By 24 he was writing for Charles Bradlaugh's Secularist and Freethinker magazines. He was soon running the Hackney Hansard and the Battersea Hansard papers; his Financial Times (no relation) came on stream just as his two local Hansards went bust.
He floated, then liquidated Australian gold-mining companies, deftly leaving shareholders diminished. He built up what he proudly called his 'stable' (he loved horses, too) of solicitors, accountants and retired boxers acting as heavies, In 1906 he ran successfully for Parliament, winning South Hackney in the Liberal cause not least through his dirty tricks: defacing rival posters and pulling votes by clip-clopping a line of horses (whose saddle-cloths read 'Vote for my Owner') past rivals' meetings, drowning out their speeches.
John Bull, Bottomley's greatest journalistic project, was an early draft for the Sun. Cheeky, populist and vulgar, the paper's banner read 'Politics without Party — Criticism without Cant'. It helped him with his sale, often to the poor, of ten million elegant five-shilling shares, with forged certificates. He pocketed the money — and escaped in court.
Louder and fatter by the month, he retained his seat in the 1910 election, recruiting 50 men in steel-capped boots to march outside Tory meetings, rendering his rival inaudible.
In 1912 he went bankrupt, quitting his parliamentary seat and his Pall Mall apartment. But his career in fraud was just hitting its stride. He flung himself into lotteries, routed through Switzerland to avoid the law. As war approached, John Bull became ever more jingoistic. For £200 and a percentage of the gate, Bottomley — a prize recruiter of lighting men — would rant publicly for England. After the war, he returned to Parliament as an independent.
Then came exposure of his racket selling Victory Bonds through John Bull, discounted to £1 from the Treasury's £5, with a chance of a £20.000 sweepstake. There were, as anyone who had tracked his career to date would have known, no bonds; he simply kept the money. Truth magazine — Bottomley's Michael Crick — was on his tail.
Jeffrey Archer would recognise Horatio's mistake. He sued his detractors, against the advice of his friends. He persuaded the court to adjourn at 11.30 each morning for his bottle of champagne. He lost everything, but succeeded in keeping the name of his favourite mistress, the actress Peggy Primrose, out of the case.
Bottomley served five of his seven years. Legend has it that a prison visitor found him stitching mailbags. 'Sewing, Horatio?' she asked. 'No, reaping,' he replied. Out of prison he was an instant celebrity again and commenced a theatre tour of the empire, where crowds came to hear and see the great man, But at the Windmill Theatre in 1932 he collapsed. A second heart attack killed him soon after.
Horatio Bottomley was an appalling fellow. Yet I am as sure that I am glad he lived as I am unsure why. Perhaps the answer's simple. Perhaps he entertained us. Ooh, you are awful, Horatio, Jeffrey . . . but (sorry, Emma) I like you.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.