Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
On 8th February, Jared O’Mara, former Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, and electoral slayer of Nick Clegg, was convicted at Leeds Crown Court on six counts of fraud. The prosecution counsel, Richard Wright, stated that O’Mara had submitted fake invoices to the Parliamentary Standards Authority to help fund his “galloping” addiction to Class A drugs (cocaine). Amongst his “series of scams” was claiming £19,400 from a bogus company called “Confident About Autism, South Yorkshire”. The address provided was a local branch of McDonald’s. O’Mara gave no evidence in his own defence and the total amount he claimed was estimated at around £52,000. The following day, he was sentenced to a term of four years custody.
O’Mara had only served as an MP for a brief two-year period but, during that time, had made a name for himself. Entering the Commons as a member of Momentum, he looked set to enjoy a long career on the Left. He was appointed to the Women and Equalities Select Committee – though this came to a sudden end when past online comments came to light. The language that he had used on social media to describe homosexuals, women and ethnic minorities would have made Alf Garnett blanche.
It also emerged that he had once been the lead singer of a little-known band called Dirty Rotten Troubadours and belted out the following enlightened lyric: “I wish I was a misogynist; I’d put her in her place, I wish I was a misogynist, I’d smash her in her face!”
After these revelations, and the suspension of the Labour Whip, O’Mara became notorious as an absentee MP, frequently giving new health-related reasons for not attending Westminster.
One hundred years ago, another former MP and public notoriety found himself in the same position as O’Mara. Convicted of multiple counts of fraud in 1922 and sentenced to seven years penal servitude, Horatio Bottomley, formerly the Liberal and later Independent MP for Hackney South, spent his first year in custody sewing mailbags at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Largely forgotten today, Bottomley was then one of the most (in)famous of politicians. In addition to his reputation for business impropriety, he would have fair claim to the title of ‘Father of British Populism’.
Bottomley was literally born into the Radical movement in London in March 1860. Whilst his father’s background remains obscure, his mother’s family were at the heart of the mid-nineteenth century Left. Bottomley’s maternal uncle was George Jacob Holyoake, a republican, a founder of the National Secular Society, a friend of the atheist Liberal MP, Charles Bradlaugh and, later, a leading luminary in the Co-operative movement.
The early part of young Bottomley’s life could have been written by Dickens. Tragically, both of his parents died by the time that he was five years old, and, after a few years in the care of his extended family, he was sent to an austere orphanage in Birmingham. He endured five years there but eventually ran away and sought refuge with an aunt. After several menial jobs, including a failed apprenticeship as a wood engraver, he found work as an office junior in a City of London solicitor’s firm and became fascinated by legal procedures, reading widely around the subject.
The ambitious Bottomley took a Pitman’s shorthand course and then moved to working at Walpole’s, a firm providing transcription services for the law courts. At the same time, he reacquainted himself with his Radical Uncle George. Through Holyoake, Bottomley came into direct contact with Bradlaugh, who took a shine to him and introduced him to his circle.
This relationship brought Bottomley to the Liberal Party’s attention and led to him standing as their Parliamentary candidate in the 1887 Hornsey by-election. Bottomley was defeated by the Conservatives, but his creditable performance resulted in a congratulatory letter from Gladstone.
Within a couple of years, Walpole’s offered him a business partnership. A few years later, Bottomley raised sufficient funds to launch a new career as a popular magazine publisher. From then on, and for the next 40 years, Bottomley’s name would become synonymous with the lower-brow end of the periodical market. However, he eventually founded the Financial Times and briefly employed Alfred Harmsworth (the future Lord Northcliffe) as a sub-editor, but financial trouble was always nearby for Bottomley.
First, he argued with a business partner that resulted in him losing control of all his magazines. Second, a company, the Hansard Publishing Union, that he had founded and floated on the London Stock Exchange, for the purpose of becoming the exclusive publisher of Parliamentary debate reports, collapsed in a sea of debt in May 1891. Bottomley was prosecuted for fraud, but was miraculously acquitted after conducting his own defence. Momentarily bankrupt in 1893, Bottomley climbed out of it by offering his creditors dubious shares in potential Australian gold mines that didn’t yet exist.
Bottomley stood as the Hackney South Liberal candidate in the 1900 General Election. He lost again but, later standing for a second time, was swept to victory in 1906.
In the same year, he established the sensationalist magazine John Bull, for which he would become nationally recognised. By 1910, John Bull was selling half a million copies per issue. However, ruin was just around the corner. The shares that he had sold in prospective Australian gold mines had been repeatedly re-issued up to six times. He faced trial again for fraud and, once again, was acquitted but, plunged into bankruptcy for a second time, had to resign his constituency.
The coming of the Great War resurrected Bottomley’s political career. Originally sceptical of the Serbian cause, he transformed, when he saw which way the wind was blowing, into the most ferocious opponent of Germany. “Great Patriotic” rallies in Trafalgar Square provided his pulpit, whilst John Bull became his parish magazine. His speeches were extreme even for the times. Germans were always called “Germ-Huns” and his supporters were encouraged to attack any people of German origin that they met:
“If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face, if you find yourself sitting at the side of a German clerk, you will split the inkpot over his vile head.”
After the sinking of the Lusitania, Bottomley said that people of German origin in Britain should be compelled to wear badges. He even went further:
“You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.”
Until at last he proclaimed:
“I should welcome the formation of a National Council of Righteous Retribution – a National Vendetta, pledged to exterminate every German-born man in Britain…”
Bottomley also spoke of a conspiracy of enemies within, secretly working for a German victory in Britain. Shortly after these comments there were reports of Germans attacked in Poplar, Deptford, Keighley and Crewe.
Bottomley profited from wartime speaking tours, often charging a £1,000 per night. At the end of the war, he was discharged from bankruptcy and in 1918 fought as an independent for his old constituency of Hackney South. He won with a majority of over 8,000.
His winning streak did not last. When he was exposed for selling phoney war bonds through John Bull, a third trial ensued. This time Bottomley was convicted and when he eventually emerged from jail, he was reduced to telling anecdotes of his life at Soho’s Windmill Theatre. Finally, he died penniless, at the age of 73, in May 1933.