Monthly Archives: November 2022

Horatio Bottomley – through the eyes of his enemies


The account which follows is structured in three parts. First of all, I will say a bit about who Bottomley was. Then, I’ll discuss two main periods in Horatio Bottomley’s life: the second part of my paper will cover his upbringing and its impact on his beliefs from his birth in 1860 up until 1905 when he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal (indeed left-Liberal or “Radical”) MP. The third part will explore the last four years of his political life: his second stint in Parliament between 1918 and 1922 and his relationship then with the right and far right.

(1) Who was Bottomley?

Horatio Bottomley had, multiple careers: one in Parliament, one in the media, and one in business. In terms of Parliament, he was the MP for South Hackney between 1905 and 1912 and again from 1918 to 1922. He was initially elected as a Liberal MP in 1905, although he had abandoned that party by about 1910, made overtures to the Conservatives unsuccessfully, and from 1910 to 1912 he was effectively an Independent, and experimenting with creating a party of his own, the John Bull League. He was made bankrupt in 1912, after which he was forced to stand down from Parliament. He was then re-elected in 1918, again as an Independent. At the height of his power, in his second stint in Parliament, he had the support of about 10-12 MPs in a loose party caucus of Independents. Several of them had been elected as “Anti-Waste” MPs, a label I will explain in due course. This part of Bottomley’s life has, effectively, been forgotten, for a couple of reasons. One is his disgrace in business which overwhelms every other part of his life story. Another is that he was trying to create a party, outside the Conservatives and to their right, but not fascists. Future generations have found it incredibly hard to imagine what that could mean – our sense of the far right has been so swallowed up by the memory of Hitler and Mussolini – that until recently we couldn’t imagine what it would mean for there to be a group of people, attacking the Conservatives from their right and yet falling short of doing what the interwar fascists did and using violence repeatedly against their enemies.

As a press magnate, Bottomley founded John Bull magazine, building it to the point where between 1914 and 1918 it had a regular paid sale of between one and two million copies per issue. (It sold about ten times as many copies, in other words, as the most popular news weeklies in Britain today). John Bull was a “populist” magazine; it spoke constantly of “the people”, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies: trade unionists, lesbians and gay men, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence. When miners struck during wartime, John Bull insisted that they should be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”. Bottomley’s most important campaign was one encouraging hatred against German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” As for German soldiers, he wrote, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.” Within days of that piece, riots had broken out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered wearing top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City”. In Poplar, crowds attacked the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. This part of Bottomley’s career survives in public memory better than his time as an MP, but only a little better, essentially because John Bull magazine outlasted him. Julius Elias, a twenty-four-year-old owner of a small printing business when he met Bottomley in 1905 and became his publisher, switched on Bottomley’s demise to the Daily Herald and was made a Labour peer in 1946. John Bull magazine closed in 1964.

As for business, Bottomley was known in the press as a company promoter. In the early 1890s, he had a plan to amalgamate the printing and media industries within a single business, the Hansard Union. That failed in 1893, leading to a first fraud trial. From then, till 1905, he was promoting Australian mining businesses. In around 1905, Bottomley met a fellow crooked businessman, Ernest Torah Hooley, after which for several years, Bottomley gave up on company promoting, and worked instead by a method which was a form of very barely concealed theft. Essentially, he would find individual rich people, and prey on them to swap tens of thousands of pounds of their money for bogus shares. There were several court appearances, leading to his bankruptcy in 1912, and his first departure from Parliament. Between 1918 and 1922, while Bottomley was back in the Commons, his major project was a “Victory Bond Club”. Subscribers could buy shares which were supposedly tied to one-fifth of the government’s Victory Bonds (“Bonds”) by buying shares in Bottomley’s Club for £1 each. Bottomley took around £1.1 million in Club memberships, stored two-thirds of that sum in his private bank account, and paid various debts to his horse trainer, tame MPs, mistresses, and so on. Bottomley was tried in 1922, convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. It is this trial, above all else, for which Bottomley has been remembered ever since. He became, in effect, one of those great rogues of history, whose name is remembered in collections of true crime stories, a shorthand for the corruption of Edwardian England.

In the rest of this paper, I will focus on Bottomley politics, its origins and his destination.

(2) Bottomley’s politics 1860 to 1905

In all previous biographies of Bottomley, two key details are mentioned, in passing. First, his mother Elizabeth was a secularist, as was his uncle George Jacob Holyoake. These details are used as props to get at what writers really want to talk about, a juicy piece of gossip, encouraged by Bottomley himself in later life, that he may have had a secret parentage, with either or both of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant having perhaps been his real parents.

On the secret parentage, this is utterly bogus: Besant and Bradlaugh did not meet until Bottomley was 14. Bottomley kept the story secret until Bradlaugh was long dead, so that the old man could not contradict him. The story caused distress to surviving members of Bradlaugh’s family. The one fact which supports it was that Bottomley, like Bradlaugh had a large, fleshy face. On the other hand, they were in other ways physically different: Bottomley as short as Bradlaugh tall. In any event, we do not know what the father named on Bottomley’s both certificate, a former shipwright, turned tailor, William Bottomley looked like. Without his picture, we can make no meaningful comparison with Bradlaugh.

Some new scraps of information have emerged about Horatio’s mother, Elizabeth Bottomley, who was a secularist. Stories have survived of her attending Bradlaugh’s talks at the Islington’s Hall of Science, and these traditions are corroborated, by several mentions to “E. H.” in the secularist press. A donation in that name of five shillings made on the launch of the newspaper, The Reasoner, which seems almost certainly to have been given by Elizabeth, She was then 14, and still living in Birmingham with her parents. Two decades later, Horatio’s birth was noted, with approval, in his uncle George Jacob Holyoake’s engagement diary. There was even an article written in The Reasoner published a few weeks before Horatio’s birth, a friendly review of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, which can plausibly be attributed to Elizabeth.

Understanding that Elizabeth Bottomley was an active secularist, and her brother George Jacob Holyoake the founder of that movement, helps to explain the earliest years of Horatio Bottomley’s political engagement. He was a Radical Liberal, and a contributor to the secularist newspaper, The National Reformer. He helped by sub-editing that newspaper. In 1876, when Bottomley was 16, he attended lectures delivered by the English positivist and recent supporter of the Paris Commune, Professor Edward Beesly. A contributor to the National Reformer, “H. B.”, which must be Bottomley, summarises Beesly’s talks diligently.

At its top, secularism was a family business. Holyoake had been Bradlaugh’s mentor. Another Holyoake, George Jacob and Elizabeth’s brother, Austen, was Bradlaugh’s election agent. By the early 1880s, the Secularists could afford, in effect, three full-time workers bound by ties of close friendship: Bradlaugh, Besant, and Besant’s new lover, Edward Aveling. It may well be that Horatio Bottomley hoped to be the heir to the family business. But, if so, he flunked his audition. “Young Bottomley will turn out a bad man,” Bradlaugh said.

While the secularists had spurned Bottomley, he continued to idealise them. The best way to understand his career, between about 1880 and 1905, is of a series of attempts to persuade the secularists, or perhaps just himself, that he was carrying on the family tradition.

In 1882, when he was 22, Bottomley founded a first newspaper, the Hackney Hansard. He was employing the skills he had learned from his uncle and from Bradlaugh. In 1887, Bottomley was selected as a Liberal candidate for the first time, for Hornsey, after which he was chosen as the candidate for North Islington, then as today, a Radical constituency. He supported temperance and Irish Home Rule. This was the immediate aftermath of Bradlaughs victory in Northampton, and the debate over whether Bradlaugh could sit as an atheist.

In 1888-1889 Bottomley became the first Chairman of the Financial Times. He used the paper to reports of speeches delivered by his favourite politicians, principally Bradlaugh. Elected in 1905 as an MP, one of Bottomley’s first act was to deliver a speech to the Bradlaugh Fellowship, recalling the bitter days of Bradlaugh’s isolation before he was vindicated: “Wasn’t he a dangerous and vulgar agitator, a man who knew no God, a Republican who had dared to impeach the House of Brunswick?”

Occasionally, it has been argued that the great mistake made by the left made between 1880 and 1910 was to encourage the break-up of the Liberal coalition. (Those with long memories may recall Tony Blair arguing that, others have made the same point independently). The argument goes that in Victorian politics there was a single party on the left (the Liberals) and one on the right (the Conservatives). The left fractured, the right didn’t. And this is said to be why the Conservative kept winning elections in the twentieth century.

Yet it is worth seeing this period through the eyes of workers and trade unionists. So, as the Radical chairman of the Financial Times in 1888, Bottomley could have supported the matchgirls’ strike. This, Bottomley refused to do, insisting that the real victims of the ‘matchgirls’’ strike were not the workers with their low pay, and their phossy jaws, but the employers. Bosses in London wanted to pay more. What held them back, he wrote, were “the much cheaper productions of Sweden,” where wood cost almost nothing.

After 1900, when Bottomley was a prospective parliamentary candidate for South Hackney, he faced a recurring problem of workers from the local trades council threatening to stand candidates against him and his party. They called Bottomley “an unscrupulous Company Promoter” and “a City swindler”. In return, he threatened the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union and Hackney Trades Council with libel action: “your action leaves me no alternative but either to apply for an immediate Order for a criminal prosecution, or to impose a Writ against you for damages…” Bottomley’s stance was typical of a whole period of British politics. The left deserted the Liberals because of how little the Liberals offered them.

(3) Bottomley’s politics 1918 to 1922

There are various reasons why Bottomley moved to the far right. One is that he failed as a Liberal MP in 1905 to 1912. His strategy was to be such a loose cannon that the party had no option but to offer him a prize ministerial job. But the Liberal party was sitting on a shrinking parliamentary majority: it lost seats in 1910. It already possessed external factions: the Irish and Labour causes. It spent more time on them, sensibly, than it did on him. Bottomley’s magazine John Bull was such a commercial success, and his editorial line so anti-Liberal, that the stakes were too high for his party.

Where new people were breaking with Parliament in around 1910, as Bottomley did by launching the John Bull League, and calling for the replacement of politicians by businessmen, they tended to move to the right – Hilaire Belloc was another member of the generation and his book The Party System is indistinguishable from Bottomley’s thinking. 

The war fixed Bottomley’s new, right-wing, politics in stone. Initially anti-Serb, Bottomley realised that the war would be an opportunity to undo the stain of his bankruptcy and help him get back to Parliament. He therefore switched to taking a pro-Seb, and anti-Austrian line. After that, when not penning articles attacking German civilians or strikers, he was delivering public lectures, 300 of them altogether, calling on other men to risk their lives.

From 1914 onwards, the trend of his politics was outside and against democracy. Under a Business Government, Parliament (that “played-out institution”) would be abolished in favour of military rule. All his allies were on the far right: in 1916, Bottomley backed Noel Pemberton Billing with his claims that an “Unseen Hand” (i.e. Jews) were controlling Labour and the unions, and that a “black Book” held the names of 47,000 gay men and women a “Cult of the Clitoris” who had been blackmailed into giving support to the German war effort.

Another of Bottomley’s friend was George Makgill, founder of the Economic League, with his lurid fantasies of “Jews in every secret society, Jewish Anarchists and Communists especially”. In 1918, Makgill and Bottomley founded a People’s League, to lead the anti-Communist campaign against the left which they thought the Conservatives had abandoned.

Where Bottomley’s politics were taking him was shown by the anti-Waste campaign of 1919-21, during which seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative coalition government. The context was the resumption of ordinary politics after the end of the 1914-18 war at a time when the composition of the Cabinet had not changed. Most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls.

In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. At the campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, generals and company directors, sitting in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.

By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism, were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they would win every time.

By contrast, Bottomley’s aim was not a reinvigorated Conservatism. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer. Unlike Rothermere, he wanted to see something more, in other words, left MPs in jail.

Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but the longer Bottomley was involved with anti-Waste, the more he quibbled with its basic premises. He wanted the army expanded, not cut. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

In the incipient split between Bottomley and Rothermere, Bottomley had a keener sense of the direction in which politics was heading.

Even in Britain, the Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes than Rothermere’s. They would win through an anti-Communist culture war (the Zinoviev letter) then, from 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.

Horatio Bottomley’s fraud conviction in 1922 brought an end to his political career. During his trial, the central issue was whether he had been loyal to the soldiers who had volunteered for the army then wagered their savings on him. He told the jury, “I hope to satisfy you, if they were the last words to pass my lips, that I am incapable of robbing an ex-soldier.”

Sentencing him, Mr Justice Salter said, “the crime is aggravated by your high position, the number and poverty of your victims, by the trust which they reposed in you and you abused.”

One way to read his life is as a play on an old theme; that patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The other way to see it is an illustration of a different piece of political wisdom, one developed by the 1880s left: that Liberalism and Radicalism had been exhausted. And that nothing good would come from attempts to continue them.

(The above text is a talk I gave yesterday to the Socialist History Society; anyone who enjoys it is encouraged to consider buying a copy of the book, currently on 33% off at the Routledge website).

The man who invented the tabloid press; and the people who defeated him


There are few things wrong with Britain that cannot be traced back to the influence of our tabloid press. But where did this model of journalism originate? The usual answer is to date the tabloids’ rise to Lord Northliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail in 1896, or his younger brother Lord Rothermere who ran the same paper in the 1930s when it backed Mosley’s blackshirts. Before the career of either took off, however, the distinctive forms of the tabloid newspaper, its reliance on celebrities, its dumbing down of the news, its defence of the police, as well as its advocacy of tax and welfare cuts, had all been set in place. The founder of this model was a journalist five years older than either of them: Horatio Bottomley MP.

Bottomley launched his career with the Hackney Hansard, written for the local parliaments movement of the 1880s, in which local Conservative and Liberal politicians would meet and hold set-piece debates in emulation of their counterparts in Parliament. From there, Bottomley moved to the Municipal Review, which published puff-pieces abut local mayors, and then to a penny weekly, Youth magazine, which published improving short stories aimed at an audience of teenage boys. Bottomley was paid £150 to take over the magazine, also recruiting the paper’s ambitious sub-editor a barrister’s son named Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe).

In 1888-9, Bottomley served for a year as the first Chairman of the Financial Times. Bottomley turned that paper into a gossip sheet, puffing up the companies who were willing to advertise on his pages, and printing hostile rumours about those who refused. “Gold discovered – good prospects,” a typically baseless Bottomley story began.

In 1902, Bottomley bought an evening newspaper, the Sun (no connection to today’s paper of the same name). Bottomley hoped to build a mass readership by reporting crimes, especially murders. Alone among the Liberal press, the paper supported the Boer War. Bottomley tried to boost its circulation by recruiting celebrity guest editors, including the Test cricketer Ranjitsinhji. There was also a racing column and a lottery of sorts (‘Sunspots’).

His real breakthrough came in 1906, shortly after Bottomley was elected to Parliament as the MP for South Hackney. Bottomley launched a weekly newspaper, John Bull, which had achieved by 1916 a paid sale of around 2 million copies an issue – making it not merely the best-selling news weekly of its day but a far more successful publication that any equivalent magazine since – selling ten times more copies than today’s Economist or Private Eye.

The idea of “John Bull” had been coined around 150 years before, by a Tory journalist John Arbuthnot, who lampooned his eighteenth-century enemies as wasters of the public finance, wrong because they listened to England’s enemies abroad. By the 1850s and 1860s, John Bull was a regular character in Punch magazine, the incarnation of the patriotic Englishman.

Bottomley did not create that image, but he was content to plagiarise it. John Bull was “populist” in the sense that the term is often used today: to mean that it spoke constantly of the people, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies including trade unionists, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence.

John Bull was at the height of its influence between 1914 and 1918. Bottomley wanted his paper to the most patriotic magazine you could buy – and was unafraid of seeming violent, cruel or even unhinged. There were tens of thousands of German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.”

Nor was extermination a mere linguistic flourish. He had put careful thought into how to murder them – without wasting the precious resources needed for the war. “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

Within days of that article, riots broke out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered in their top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar, crowds broke into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans.

The British and the German populations had mingled for several generations. In thousands of homes, in all social circles, there was anger and disgust at the position he had taken. Yet rather than being isolated for such violence, Bottomley was rewarded. Lord Northcliffe, previously employed by Bottomley, made him one of the best-paid columnists in Britain Northcliffe’s papers spread the story that Bottomley was on the verge of a Cabinet appointment, covering London with placards reading “Bottomley wanted”.

And this message of war to the death was applied to all of British capital’s enemies. When miners struck, Bottomley and John Bull insisted that any workers following suit must be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”.

It is from the rise of John Bull onwards that we can see the essential character of the British tabloid press: its craven attitude towards the rich and those with the most social power, its hatred towards workers and the poor.

Yet there were always people trying to fight it. One of the first was a shorthand copyist Clarence Henry Norman, a member of the Independent Labour Party, the Society for Abolition of Capital Punishment and the Penal Reform League. Norman was a conscientious objector, one of 16,000 people in Britain to refuse conscription. Imprisoned, he had fought with his jailors. Confined to a straitjacket, he was force-fed through a nasal tube.

From his prison, Norman grasped that if he was going to defeat the war, he had to campaign against the people propagandising for it. He smuggled out a pamphlet: “Mr Horatio Bottomley has never ceased to claim that he is the best interpreter of the mind and morals of the ordinary hard-working decent British citizen.” He wrote about Bottomley’s career outside the media and politics, as a businessman whose scheme had repeatedly ended in business failure.

Norman ended his account, “With that we leave Mr. Horatio Bottomley, only reminding our readers that nothing could be more conclusive proof of the rottenness of British democratic and political life than the fact that such a man is consulted by the rulers of this country.”

Bottomley schemed to have Norman’s pamphlet banned. He found an intermediary, a Birmingham printer named Reuben Bigland, and asked him to find someone to have Norman’s pamphlet copied. Bottomley sued the printer who reproduced it, John Greaney. Greaney did not attend court, but sent a barrister to plead his case on his behalf. Greaney’s barrister (paid for by Bottomley) admitted libel and called on the judge to order the harshest punishment of his own client: “Whatever may be the result of the case, Mr Bottomley may leave the court at all event with the certainty that in one respect he has performed a public service, and that is by the skilful and temperate manner in which he has conducted his case”.

Bottomley was acting at the furthest edges of the law: inventing cases, bribing his supposed opponents, securing a conviction with the help of a naïve judge, Mr Justice Darling.

Three years later, however, the memory of this scheme came back to haunt him. Bigland broke with Bottomley, admitted his part in the fraud and then when Bottomley sued Bigland for criminal libel, Bottomley found himself in front of the same judge, Darling. This time, he was no longer willing to believe the lies Bottomley spun.

In 1922, Bottomley faced his last court case. After the war had ended, he had launched a Victory Bond Club, offering shares at £1 each, supposedly mirroring the value of the government’s War Bonds. He was accused of fraudulent conversion (in other words, using investors’ money for his own ends). Bottomley was sentenced to seven years in prison.

At the heart of his criminal trial, was the question of whether Bottomley had defrauded the patriotic former soldiers who bought shares in his Club, and whose support had made John Bull into a commercial success. “The dear boys”, Bottomley insisted, “whether they are sleeping or still with us, know that I have not betrayed them.”

But this is exactly what Bottomley had done, and what the tabloid press always does. It turns to its readers and invited them, on the basis of the patriotism they share with the editors of their newspapers, to suspend all critical intelligence. Having found a paper that agrees with them, they are expected to think that Conservatives are to be trusted, that the royal family is a model to the nation, and that no-one better understands the British economy than the ghouls who dominate the City. Bottomley used the gullibility of his audience to make himself rich. In the long years since, not one of his followers has behaved in any way differently.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which is published by Routledge today].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, later today (24.11.22) – all welcome].

The first Socialists: Owen, Southwell, Holyoake…


George Jacob Holyoake

In the 1820s and 1830s, by far the most important figure on the British left was Robert Owen, Born into relative poverty (his father was a saddler), Owen became in 1800 a manager at the New Lanark textile mill, near Glasgow. New Lanark became famous as a model workplace, where work was well paid, the workers were productive, their children educated, and there were neither police nor courts. In 1817, Owen announced his conversion to socialism, after which he toured the United States and Europe arguing for similar utopian communities.

The Owenite newspaper The Pioneer told its readers to break apart the great houses of the rich and to share their wealth: “At a very early period, we shall find the idle possessor compelled to ask you to release him from his worthless holding.”

“Every pupil,” Owen wrote, “shall be encouraged to express his or her opinion.” Religious instruction would not be imposed on anyone. Everyone would be encouraged to learn, irrespective of their career or their parents’ standing: “All shall be treated with equal kindness. Both sexes shall have equal opportunities of acquiring useful knowledge.”

We can get a sense of the appeal of the Owenites by looking at the lives of some of the movement’s recruits, for example George Jacob Holyoake, how had been employed from the age of ten as a metal-worker Eagle Iron Foundry, one of two dozen factories in Birmingham making pots, safes, weights, garden rollers, gear wheels, gates and fire hearths.

In June 1836, George Jacob heard Owen speak for the first time. Six months later, aged 19, he recorded in his diary that he himself “spoke for the Owenites” at a meeting.

Holyoake followed Owen in advocating Mechanics’ Institutes, in other words, part-time colleges providing teaching at evening and weekends to an audience largely composed of skilled workers who had left education (as was common) before their teenage years.

In February 1838 Holyoake joined Owen’s new Association of All Classes of All Nations. He also participated in the Chartist movement, which was demanding a vote for every man, for annual parliaments, for secret ballot, for payment of MPs and for reform of electoral districts. A petition delivered to Parliament by Birmingham’s Radical MP Thomas Attwood, was signed by 1.3 million people. Holyoake attended Chartist rallies in Birmingham.

He walked to Derbyshire, dreaming of liberating himself from the factory, and all workers from slavery. “Over the foundry walls where I worked had come gleams of the sun, which had made me long to see the outlying world on which it shone unconfined. Now I was in that world: happy days were those, for my heart was as light as my purse.”

In 1840, the Owenites thanked Holyoake for collecting funds to enable the purchase of a socialist chapel in Lawrence Street. In August he lectured in Worcester, after which the Owenites there invited him to join them as a full-time worker. The socialists in the town offered him 16 shillings a week, enough to feed his wife and their daughter, Madeline.

In 1841, the Owenites made him a “social missionary” in Sheffield, and his salary doubled to £80 per year. The Owenite headquarters was in Sheffield’s Rockingham Street, with a school with fifty pupils which held meetings in the evening and at weekends.

From the early 1840s onwards, it is possible to trace a decline of Owenite radicalism. Chartism may have provided the socialists with a mass audience, but they struggled to recruit within it. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people, hazy as it was about its end goal, seemed more attractive than building a smaller caucus of the convinced.

Part of the problem for the Owenites was that they struggled under attack from their opponents in working-class districts. Increasing numbers of churchmen made it their business to denounce the socialists and demand their prosecution. This posed a sharp tactical question to the Owenites: should they ignore religion, or counter it with attacks of their own?

Owen argued that his followers should ignore the Church, and win converts by appealing to the areas of socialist strength – their programme of mutual aid and social transformation. Several of Owen’s followers, including Holyoake, disagreed.

In 1841, Holyoake’s friend Charles Southwell had also been made a social missionary, in Bristol. The first issue of Southwell’s newspaper The Oracle of Reason had sold six thousand copies, in large part because of the atheism which ran alongside and obscured its socialism. In his paper, the Bible was described as the “disgust of wise men. It is a history of lust, sodomies, wholesale slaughtering and horrible depravity.”

Southwell was arrested and charged with blasphemy. Holyoake demanded that the Owenites support Southwell. William Galpin, General Secretary of the Owenites, replied with tepid reassurance that the Owenite Central Board would “not fail to assist Mr Southwell all they can.” Nevertheless, Southwell’s chosen course of confronting the Church, “was in direct opposition from what the Board have always advocated.”

In January 1842, Southwell was convicted, fined £100, and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. In Sheffield, Holyoake renounced all religion. He had been “born pious, and nursed in orthodoxy,” but any beliefs he had once held “in the humanising tendency of Christianity” had been destroyed. “The persecution of my friend has been within these few weeks, the cradle of my doubts, and the grave of my religion … my faith is no more.”

Holyoake left Birmingham to help Southwell. In May, he addressed a meeting of the Cheltenham Mechanics’ Institution on ‘Home Colonisation’, the Owenite proposal that poverty be resolved with a positive programme of public works taking the form of self-sufficient working-class villages. Around 100 Chartists and socialists were present to hear him. A Mr Maitland (a “sort of local preacher”) noted that Holyoake’s speech had made no mention of chapels. Did the socialists, he asked, see no role for religion in their future society?

At first Holyoake stuck to the Owenite script, acknowledging that he had avoided all talk of God in the body of his speech. But why was he here, if not to help his friend Southwell? He said, “I appeal to your heads and your pockets if we are not too poor to have a god? If poor men cost the state so much they would be put like officers on half-pay. I think while our distress lasts it would be wise to do the same with the Deity.

On 26 May, after a meeting with Southwell in Bristol, Holyoake saw the Cheltenham Chronicle’s third-page report on his lecture on Socialism, under the title ‘ATHEISM AND BLASPHEMY’. Socialism, yelled the newspaper, was “more appropriately termed, Devilism”.

Holyoake was tried for blasphemy in August 1842. He spoke for nine hours in his defence, expounding the doctrines of socialism, and appealing to the principle of free speech: “What can we think of the morality of a law which prohibits the free publication of opinion?” At the end of the hearing the judge sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

1842 also saw another great wave of Chartist activity, a second petition was signed, this time by three and a half million people, there were strikes in the Midlands and the industrial North and riots in the Potteries (with 116 men and women imprisoned), and Feargus O’Connor and almost every member of the national executive was prosecuted.

On release Holyoake toured Gloucester and Cheltenham before giving a lecture in Rochdale to the Socialist Society, on the merits of Owenite land colonies and co-operation. The following year, 28 skilled artisans, with Owenite socialists prominent among them, would establish the first modern cooperative society, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

In 1846, having settled in London, Holyoake founded his own newspaper, its first issue declaring: “The Reasoner will be Communistic in Social Economy – Utilitarian in Morals – Republican in Politics – and Anti-theological in Religion”. This communistic social economy was a reference to Owenism, and early articles addressed themselves to supporters of the movement: “The late retardation of our views has opened our eyes, not damped our ardour.”

When Chartism and the battle for the People’s Charter surged again in 1848, Holyoake had become one of its best-known speakers. On 10 April, some 20,000 Chartists marched from Kennington Common in South London, along a route lined by more or less sympathetic 200,000 spectators. The government signed up 85,000 special constables to prevent disorder, and placed 7,000 soldiers around Westminster.

After this last flowering, the campaign declined. The press attacked the Chartists, insisting that the petition’s numbers had been inflated. Mocked, the Chartists came to believe in their defeat. Feargus O’Connor, their best-known leader, became an alcoholic. In 1852, he struck three of his fellow MPs, after which he was held in an asylum. The same year Robert Owen converted to spiritualism. He had never stopped believing that human beings could live under fairer conditions; he now presented the dead as their allies in that struggle, titling one pamphlet, The Future of the Human Race; or Great Glorious and Future Revolution to Be Effected Through the Agency of Departed Spirits of Good and Superior Men and Women.

The socialists splintered; many emigrated. Holyoake sought to keep the movement going by mixing his socialism and atheism, and moderating his opinions. He ceased to be a socialist pioneer, and became a leading figure in the emergence of secularism.

The generation below – including Holoyoake’s nephew, Horatio Bottomley – were to split in yet further directions as the century wore on, but that’s another story.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, this Thursday – all welcome].

The anti-German riots of 1915


Bigotry does not always need deep roots. When it suits the interests of the state or of the rich, it can be summoned into being quickly. One of the worst race riots in British history occurred a little more than 100 years ago; their victims were a group of people who had never been previously been treated as any sort of racialised other – German civilians living in England after the outbreak war in 1914.

The war enabled grifters to make themselves rich by performatively attaching themselves to the conflict, even as they lived their normal lives hundreds of miles from the fighting. The worst of the jingos was Horatio Bottomley, the owner of John Bull magazine. In his columns, Bottomley allowed no distinction between Germany as a state and her people, even as increasing numbers of the latter were demonstrating their opposition to war. He told his readers all Germans were evil even those who had no connection to the fighting: “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.”

There could be no restraint against the Germans: “War is the eagle’s business, with neck outstretched and beak stern for combat, with talons outspread ready to fasten in the back of the foe and never lose hold until every drop of blood has dripped from the quarry.” In Bottomley’s view, this was not a matter of nationality alone, but one of race. A person born in England to a German father and an English mother was outside the British race. They too had no right to remain in Britain – and no right to live.

Where prejudice came from

Britain and German had never previously been at war. Up until the 1890s, Germans had been the largest group of migrants to the UK from the Continent. As late as 1914, around 100,000 Germans lived in the United Kingdom. Whole areas of life saw British and German people correspond and co-operate: science, literature, socialism, sport, music.

The historian of Anglo-German antagonism, Paul Kennedy, has spoken of British and German elites “drit[ing] steadily apart” between 1900 and 1914 over the former’s imperial conquests, and the latter’s economic competition. The press targeting of Germans had begun even before the war began with stories of Teutonic spies exploring the southern coast, and novelists including William Le Queux and HH Munro imagining a German invasion. The ground had been prepared for increased military spending – and for anti-German xenophobia.

Race riots

Bottomley’s campaign reached its height in mid-1915, following the sinking on 7 May of the passenger ship HMS Lusitania, in which 1,198 people died: 785 passengers and 413 crew. Many of the crew were from Liverpool. The first attacks occurred there on the evening of the sinking, with crowds of people smashing up the shop of businesses with German-sounding names: Fischer’s, Dimler’s, and Deeg’s.

Bottomley’s response to these attacks appeared in John Bull on 15 May. He proposed that German people in Britain should be made to wear badges. The German civilians should be deported. If that was impossible, he urged his readers to wage a blood feud, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Nor was this call for genocide a mere linguistic flourish. Bottomley had put careful thought, into the mechanics of mass killing, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

John Bull was the best-selling weekly news magazine in Britain. “On the same day that Bottomley’s article appeared,” writes Panikos Panayi, the historian of the Anglo-German community, “riots broke out through the country.” Germans were attacked in Poplar, in Deptford, in Keighley and in Crewe. British nationals with German-sounding surnames found themselves having to advertise their Englishness in the press. “I, William Andrew Utz,” one such announcement read, “am a British-born subject. I was born at 42 High Street Poplar … I have been in the business of a butcher for many years, following my father in his long-established shop at the said 42 High Street Poplar.”

Smithfield porters hung signs from their necks: “No business transacted with Germans.” In Poplar crowds swarmed into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange where a mass meeting passed a motion: “No Germans must be left in the City of London.”

Fostering hatred – and resisting it

The press was not alone in encouraging hatred. Brigadier-General Crozier wrote in 1915 of how army training had to be used, to break the widespread anti-war instincts of new recruits: “I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over 1,000 men … blood lust is taught for purposes of war in bayonet fighting itself and by doping the minds of all with propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women and the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’, which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the makeup of even the meek and mild… The Christian churches are the finest blood lust creators which we have and of them we make free use … The British soldier is a kindly fellow … It is necessary to corrode his mentality.”

Others, meanwhile, were fighting for a world without racism or war. East London was the base of the Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragette left. The Women’s Dreadnought complained of unnamed newspaper magnates “fill[ing] their columns with articles intended to inflame the populace to anti-German riots, articles which consume ignorant, nervous, excitable people with a suspicious terror that transforms for them the poor Hoxton baker and his old mother into powerful spies, able at will to summon fleets of Zeppelins.” Two members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes who had married German men found their homes under attack, while another member was hurt in her efforts to stop the rioting.

In West London, libertarian socialists organised a communist kitchen, deliberately staffed by both French and German workers. The unemployed themselves peeled potatoes, prepared the vegetables, and washed dishes, pots and pans. According to one regular diner, Rudolf Rocker, “It was wonderful to see German and French workers engaged together in this common work of help, while over on the continent millions of German and French proletarians were killing each other on the orders of their governments.”

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

Re-learning what we forgot: Thoughts on ‘Workers Can Win’


Learning how to be an effective trade unionist is much harder than it should be. The past twelve months excepted, for much more of the past 40 years employers have been ahead and for only a small part of them have workers been winning.

The reasons for employers’ dominance include the anti-union laws. You cannot strike legally except after carrying out a ballot, and winning majorities both among those voting and those eligible to vote. The fear of being sued has transferred power upwards within unions, giving officials more reasons than ever to police or block strikes.

The law operates as a further pressure; in that, in many workplaces, a new rep is expected to earn their spurs by representing fellow workers in grievance and disciplinary hearings, which forces them to assimilate a great deal of employment law.

Last of all, new reps join the movement at a time when many of its former institutions are gone or in rapid decline. In particular, trade union studies departments are a shell of what they were, meaning that it’s can be struggle to obtain the training new reps need.

In that context, Ian Allinson’s new book is a service to the entire movement. It explains, in easy, accessible, language, how to start out as a trade unionist, especially in a workplace where few colleagues are members and how to win an audience.

He describes the different models of trade unionism which inform different parts of the movement from “servicing”, which treats members as isolated individuals and the purchasers of services mainly insurance against dismissal paid for by members’ subs, to “mobilising”, which is still a top-down but at least envisages periodic bouts of activity, requiring to be set in motion by officials, to his ideal of an “organising” union.

Allinson describes some of the methods by which a union member can choose the issues around which to organise, and communicate them to colleagues. When he’s talking about organising meetings, his advice includes: make sure that any publicity for the event explains properly what it will discuss, have someone to introduce the meeting, introduce the participants, vary the agenda and format from meeting to meeting, make sure new speakers are prioritised to speak, keep the atmosphere friendly and supportive.

These points may strike experienced reps as familiar, but we are in a moment when a great deal of organising skill and technique has been shed, and these sorts of practical lessons need to be relearned so that the movement can renew itself.

Allinson is an important, rank-and-file voice. He was a workplace activist at Fujitsu. In 2017, he stood to be General Secretary of UNITE, winning 17,000 votes. He is the best-known member of the group RS21, of which I too was a member for several years.

He discusses some of the techniques used by managers to derail union, and gives examples of how trade unionists have responded effectively to them.

Allinson explains why unions can feel contradictory and the role played by full-timers in holding unions together as well as, at times when members are pushing for militant action, demobilising them. He reminds readers of moments when strikes have taken place and been effective despite the caution of national officials – as during the “Drive for 35” in the engineering industry in the 1980s, which led to a significant reduction in the working week, and was implemented by a fiercely right-wing leadership.

When I think about the trade unionists I meet, they correspond very broadly to three broad patterns. Many, especially in London, are members of new trade unions organising among people previously neglected by the movement. A second group are involved in public sector trade unions. A third group are of what you might call “legacy” private sector unions, in other words, workplaces which have sustained high trade density often among skilled and highly-paid workers.

It is a credit to Allinson that, although his own background was among the third of these groups, he has written a guide which workers can use whatever industry they’re in.

I imagine trade unionists reading Workers Can Win in a single setting, and leaving it on their shelves. Then each time their boss has some new cunning plan, bringing it out again and again to frustrate them.

Horatio Bottomley: The real-life Toad of Toad Hall


In October 1908, the recently retired company secretary of the Bank of England Kenneth Grahame published a short children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. The novel is dominated by its antihero, a fad-driven creature, Toad. He dines on lobster and drinks champagne, squandering money recklessly. Toad’s self-admiration is captured in the song he sings on his escape from jail: “The world has held great Heroes, As history-books have showed But never a name to go down to fame Compared with that of Toad!”

Kenneth Grahame had long been obsessed by what he perceived to be the declining morality of the times, and of business in particular. He hoped to preserve the England of his youth which had been pre-industrial, agricultural and aristocratic. This world, he believed, was under attack from an alliance of the new rich and the working class.

In February 1887 Grahame had watched the unemployed rioting in Trafalgar Square. More recently still, in November 1903, one George H. Robinson entered the Bank of England and demanded to speak to whoever was in charge. In the Governor’s absence, Grahame presented himself. As they spoke, Robinson shot Grahame twice. At Robinson’s subsequent trial, the would-be murderer was found to hold “Socialistic views”.

Grahame hated not merely the Socialists but even the Radicals and Liberal who were much more visible in Edwardian England. To one such Radical the poet and essayist Arthur Quiller-Couch Grahame wrote, only half in jest, that he would not wish him luck “in your nefarious designs on our savings, our cellars and our garden-plots”.

In The Wind in the Willows, Grahame warns against ostentatious spending, which might tend to encourage envy among the poor. Wealth needed to be spent responsibly, with a view to the future. Toad’s defining fault is that has come into money without learning how to control it. He is conceited and aimless; first he gives up boating for a horse-drawn caravan, then when a motorcar startles his horse, he determines to buy one for himself. In all, he crashes seven cars, spending a fortune on fines, before being tried and sentenced to 20 years.

How not to live

Bottomley’s biographer Peter Green has written that the man who inspired Toad was Horatio Bottomley, a Radical Liberal journalist and after 1906 Hackney MP, whose “flamboyant, gabby, vulgarian” politics were a source of particular distress to Grahame.

The Wind and the Willows is more than a satire on what Grahame called “gentleman in difficulties,” or on the risks posed by the excessive consumption of the leisure class. It was also directly a message to Grahame’s hothead son, Alastair, and a warning as to how an upright person should behave in relation to their contemporaries.

In a key passage, Rat explains to Mole: “There are a hundred things one has to know which we understand all about and you don’t as yet. I mean pass-words, and signs, and saying which have power and effect and plants you carry in your pocket, and verses you repeat, and dodges and tricks you practise.” All of these were “simple enough if you know then, but they’ve got to be known if you’re small, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”

In the 1880s, Bottomley had been one of a small group of people, alongside James Sheridan and Harry Marks, who had helped to found the financial press in Britain. In 1888 and 1889 he had been the first Chairman of the Financial Times.

After leaving the FT, Bottomley had founded the Hansard Union, a speculative printing business from which he skimmed £150,000 over two years, leading to the “trouble” of a fraud trial. By the early years of the twentieth century, Bottomley had survived the Hansard Union prosecution, and personal insolvency, and had built a new career as a company promoter.

After being elected to Parliament in 1906, Bottomley founded a magazine, John Bull. On its masthead was a cartoon of that character with a union jack waistcoat and top hat. Bottomley hinted that as a politician he could provide his readers with unique information about the workings of government. His magazine’s business pages provided a stream of warnings that firms were on the verge of bankruptcy. In effect, Bottomley was blackmailing the companies: either he would keep up a series of articles accusing them of wrongs, or they would pay to advertise in John Bull, whereupon the negative coverage would stop.

The magazine denounced the parties who claimed to stand for a moral cause (the Labour Party, or his own party, the Liberals), accusing them of hypocrisy.

Bottomley grasped that he could maximise his circulation by publishing alongside news stories, racing tips, and competitions. Lotteries were then illegal, but Bottomley dodged the rule by setting up a Derby sweepstake, with its headquarters in Switzerland.

John Bull’s most famous scoop was published during the war, when it broke the news that the prominent anti-war politician and Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald was (as the magazine put it), “the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl”.

After the war, Bottomley established a Victory Bond Club, supposedly an unofficial scheme contributing to Britain’s efforts to pay off the nation’s war debt. This hazy association with the nation contributed to the Club’s success. When the club was launched, there had been just £7 left in Bottomley’s bank account. Within days he was writing cheques of several thousand pounds to his bookmakers, his friends and mistresses.

Jailed in 1922, and sentenced to seven years in prison, Bottomley spent his declining years working on the cold stone floors of Maidstone Prison’s printers’ shop.

Fraudster and Radical

At the time that The Wind in the Willows was published Bottomley was still on the rise. His final defeat lay 14 years in the future yet we can see why Grahame took against him. It was not just because of the financier’s avarice, toxic as that was. Just as important to Grahame was Bottomley’s message that he was a Liberal, indeed a Radical Liberal, and on the side of the poor as they looked with envy on the great homes of England’s rural elite.

On trial in 1893, Bottomley sought his blame that prosecution on his supposed advanced political views. “Radical and Democrat” he called myself, hinting at a mysterious conspiracy which had supposedly brought him low.

Through the 1890s Bottomley sought to combine an extravagant lifestyle with a professed support for Radical opinions. He attended gatherings of the Charles Bradlaugh Fellowship, claimed to have learned from the old apostle of Secularism, “the true Gospel, the Gospel of Humanity, with Reason for its creed and Human Emancipation for its faith,” and even put about the rumour that Bradlaugh was his real father.

In his life, and on the stump, Bottomley insisted that the rich and the Radicals could co-exist and be allies. But, in truth, Bottomley was no advocate of wealth redistribution. No twisting of labels, no appeal to Secularist forebears could make him a revolutionary. He wished to live the life of a plutocrat, with the support of the Edwardian ruling class and the law.

The Wind and the Willows treats this fantasy as a lie. When a mob comes to plunder Toad Hall, it is led by a crowd of weasels and stoats. Toad is not among them.

The message, we might say, is that one person cannot be at same time both Sherriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood; neither in fiction, not in real life.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

Austerity from below: Horatio Bottomley & the anti-Waste campaign of 1919-21


The appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister has failed to dent Labour’s giant lead in the polls. The Conservatives’ problems, it follows, date not just from Truss’s six weeks of chaos but from the public’s understanding of Sunak’s plans to clear up the mess afterwards. If there is any iron law to British politics it’s this: governments which offer endless spending cuts tank in the polls. This rule applies as much to principled governments with a reformist legislative agenda (eg Labour in 1945-51) as it does to ministries promising little more than jobs for the boys (the Conservatives in 2010-16). Saint or sinner, austerity is electoral suicide.

You need a long historical to memory to recall the last time cuts were a cause thrust to the margins, and with more popular appeal than the politicians thought. The one moment when it did have some seeming mass support was at the end of the first world war. Between November 1919 and August 1921, seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative government.

Anti-Waste appealed to Conservative voters, at a time when their natural party was struggling. Five years earlier, the Conservatives had responded to a previous crisis, with a move of some boldness. As the British war-effort had stagnated, the governing Liberal Party had fractured, replacing one Prime Minister Herbert Asquith with another, David Lloyd George. The Conservatives had encouraged the latter and were now in coalition with him.

But most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls. And they loathed his personality, his belief that as an outsider the normal rules of politics did not apply to him, his venality (which is about the only thing popular memory recalls of Lloyd George). A Lloyd George-Conservative coalition might have been necessary to win the war, in pracetime it made about as much sense as if you had a Boris Johnson government now, kept in power by Labour votes. Beneath the supposed programme of the anti-waste Independents there was another message which was simpler and more insistent: the Conservatives should dump Lloyd George, that’s all.

A far right worthy of the name

Today’s power struggles on the right are often said to pitch moderate Conservatives, uninterested in culture wars, against a demagogic far right. The former are cutters; the latter spenders, as in Boris Johnson (admittedly more often announced than delivered) pledges to “level up”. In the 1920s, by contrast, that the factions were seemingly the other way around. Mainstream Conservatives wanted the coalition with Lloyd George to continue even if it meant more spending; while it was the far right led by populist media bosses, Horatio Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe, who were calling for faster and deeper cuts.

During the 1914-18 war, Bottomley had built an audience as the owner of John Bull magazine and a columnist for Lord Rothermere’s Sunday Pictorial. He was the most jingoistic author of the age. Of German civilians living in England, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Within days of that article appearing, riots broke out against people of German ancestry living in Britain. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange and passed a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar in the East End, crowds broke into the homes of people suspected of sheltering German civilians.

After the war, Bottomley launched a far-right street party, the People’s League. Its vice-chair was George Makgill, a patron of the British fascists, advocate of industrial espionage to smash the unions, and a fantasist who spent his days wracked by terror at the thought of a red revolution, which would come about, he insisted, as a result of a Jewish conspiracy.

The joy of causing suffering

In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. The latter instructed his journalist to back right-wing candidates against the Conservatives: “The middle classes now find themselves threatened with extinction [but] it is the Conservative element in the Ministry which backs up expeditions to Russia, which wants a huge air force and an Army and Navy that we cannot afford to maintain, which paralyses every attempt to introduce a spirit of economy into the Administration.”

The middle classes were not in danger of extinction. What Rothermere meant was that workers were benefiting from the first moves towards state education, from unemployment benefits and schemes for the unemployed to find work. He wanted to see every local authority home given away to private landlords. Such anti-reforms would not have saved most middle-class families much, or anything, but what they would have done was make the lives of working-class people harder. Neither Bottomley nor Rothermere could make the lives of pensioners or blue-collar managers easier, but they could make other people much poorer, and allow the privileged the compensating joy of watching other people’s suffering.

There were two Englands, wrote one liberal commentator C. F. G. Masterman. Suburban, middle-class opinion, “can walk but a few yards and it is in, say, Hoxditch where all the inhabitants are dingy … and the public houses flare at every corner; and it realises that this is the ‘Labour’ against which it is warned by all the supporters of things as they are.” The south-east, christened by Masterman “Richford”, “hates and despises the working classes … Labour only enters its kingdom as a coal supply rendered ever more limited and expensive by the insatiable demands of the coal-miners to work short hours for immense wages.”

Wooed – and split

At the anti-Waste campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, mainly generals and company directors, sitting as a loose caucus in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.

The Spectator denounced the likes of Bottomley as dangerous blowhards: “Anti-Waste, as the barbarous, bombastic, and aggressive term connotes, is as far removed from economy as axes are from pruning hooks. The cry ‘save us from our friends!’ might well come from the lips of every true economist, for the cause of prudent and statesmanlike economy has been hurt by this bungling intolerance and indiscrimination of the Anti-Waste campaign.”

By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they’d win every time.

Bottomley’s aim was less a reinvigorated Conservatism than the formation of what he called “Business Government”, under which “every editor who either knowingly or recklessly publishes false news will be shot.” Ministers should be strengthened and parliament weakened. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer, he wanted to see Socialist MPs in jail.

Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but Bottomley wanted the army expanded. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

The last Anti-Waste candidate to stand and win was Brigadier-General John Nicholson, in the Westminster Abbey by-election in June 1921. Two months later, Lloyd George set up a government committee, with orders to find £75 million of cuts. Once anti-Waste had become government policy: as far as its supporters were concerned, the battle had been won.

The Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes: first culture wars (the Zinoviev letter and the General Strike) then, in 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.

The ascendancy of the cutters after 1921 was temporary. What most Conservative politicians grasped is something we can all see around us. Under a democracy, people will vote for the party which offers the most compelling chance of improving voters’ lives. You can win an ascendancy of a few months by promising to make other people suffer; but, relatively quickly, a democracy punishes those who can only talk of cuts.

This piece is based on my new book, ‘Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism’, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November. I’ll be speaking the same evening at a talk for the Socialist History Society: you can sign up for free here