Magazine article The Spectator

He Was a Shameless Liar and Thief. He Went to Wormwood Scrubs. He Was a Lovable Scallywag

Magazine article The Spectator

He Was a Shameless Liar and Thief. He Went to Wormwood Scrubs. He Was a Lovable Scallywag

Article excerpt


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 metier, his chosen career. He never provided 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 Raveling 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. …

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