OBITUARY: Lord Bottomley

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The Independent Online
In British politics, alas, it is unusual for ministers long to sustain an interest in an area for which they have once been ministerially responsible. There are, of course, exceptions. Merlyn Rees has for 20 years been interested in the affairs of Northern Ireland; Ted Heath is a no less passionate carer for Britain in the European Union. Another such was Arthur Bottomley.

Back in 1947, as Clement Attlee's Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Bottomley led the Special Government Delegation to Burma, for the crucial talks on constitutional machinery. Bottomley immersed himself in the problems of the frontier peoples, the Chins, Kachins, Shan and Karens, who had been so bravely helpful to the British in the Second World War.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 20 May 1947, Bottomley said:

I was greatly impressed by the attitude of Aung San [the father of modern Burma], his obvious sincerity and his readiness, at all times, to meet the wishes of the frontier area people. He was particularly forthcoming on the point of granting internal autonomy, and giving them financial assistance . . . I am confident that a happy understanding can be reached with Burma under his leadership.

Had Aung San not been murdered in July 1947, the history of Burma would surely have been different.

In 1966, when my wife and I stayed with General Ne Win, then Chairman of the State Council, many of the leading Burmese of the day asked after one British individual before all others - Bottomley. He was esteemed as one of the midwives of the modern Burmese nation. In 1981, he was awarded the title of Aung San Tagun, the highest honour that the Burmese accord to a foreigner.

Arthur Bottomley was the eldest of the five children of George Howard Bottomley, a hard-working engineer with the firm of Houghton Butcher, and Alice, daughter of the postmaster at Mount Pleasant, central London. He attended Gamuel Road Primary School, and Pretoria Avenue Boys' School, in Walthamstow, where, he told me, he showed evidence of leadership by organising a subscription list to give a farewell present of pipe and tobacco pouch to a teacher who was retiring. Bottomley was for ever doing his colleagues good turns, which may be one of the reasons why his lack of guile was no great handicap in his political life. As Harold Wilson wrote in the preface of Bottomley's autobiography, Commonwealth, Comrades and Friends (1986), he always believed the best of anyone with whom he had to deal.

At any time in the last 50 years a boy of Bottomley's intelligence and application would have gone to university and gained a good degree. "But my father saw no real necessity for further education," Bottomley wrote. "He took the view that he had managed without education, and it was an unwarranted drain on our family resources for me to continue my education."

After a period as an office boy with a textile firm, Arthur got a job at the LMS repair workshops at Kentish Town, and joined the Walthamstow branch of the NUR. The 1926 General Strike politicised him.

Bottomley was one of many east London boys of his generation to benefit from extension classes at Toynbee Hall, run by Dr William Milne-Bailey, first head of the TUC's economic department. Bottomley recalled attending the lectures of Norman Angell, George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb.

Toynbee Hall was to be of crucial importance to Bottomley's future for another reason. It brought him into contact with the local MP for Walthamstow, Major Clement Attlee. Attlee was to be Bottomley's patron, mentor, and, in an artless, nice way, hero. No conversation with Bottomley was complete without comment on ''what Clem would have done''.

Attlee encouraged this working-class boy to stand - successfully - for the Walthamstow Borough Council at the age of 22, in 1929, the beginning of a 20-year relationship. Attlee was his referee in 1935 when Bottomley became London organiser of the National Union of Public Employees, a post which he was to occupy throughout the Second World War, and again from 1959 to 1962 when he was "out" of the House of Commons.

Bottomley's war was no less distinguished than those of his contemporaries for having been on the home front. He was at the epicentre of the London blitz as Chairman of the Emergency Committee and Air Raid Precautions Controller. In 1941 until the end of the war, he occupied the post of Deputy Regional Commissioner for the South-East of England.

In 1936, Bottomley married a Walthamstow teacher, Bessie Wiles, a woman of matching energy for worthwhile works - child care, education, and health, for which she was appointed DBE in 1970.

In 1945 Bottomley was swept into the Commons as MP for Rochester and Chatham in the Labour landslide, defeating the sitting Conservative, Capt Leonard Plugge. His strongest supporting speaker was Dame Sybil Thorndike, the daughter of a local clergyman, who called Bottomley "my political godson".

As soon as Bottomley's term as Mayor of Walthamstow was up, Attlee rewarded him in 1946 with the post of Under-Secretary for the Dominions, having sent him on a fact-finding tour during which Nehru and Krishna Menon became Bottomley's lifelong friends.

Unlike many enthusiasts for the Commonwealth, Bottomley was also an enthusiast for the Common Market. Having been a member of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe in 1952-54, he wrote in his pamphlet Why Britain Should Join the Common Market (1959): "No one in his economic senses would suggest that the vast and profitable Common Market within a short distance of the Port of London and other parts, could be ignored by British industry."

When Labour returned to power in 1964, Wilson appointed Bottomley Commonwealth Secretary. It was his misfortune that his period in office was dominated by the seemingly intractable problem of Rhodesia, leading to Ian Smith's illegal declaration of independence on 11 November 1965.

Bottomley's return to government was inauspicious and unfortunate. Within a fortnight, he was in Lusaka for Zambia's independence celebrations. He assumed that he could thereafter simply hop over to Salisbury, and visit Joshua Nkomo and the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, leaders of the African Nationalists in Rhodesia, who were in prison. Alas, Smith was not having it. Then, as a result of Smith's visit to London for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, it was arranged that Bottomley and the Lord Chancellor - Gerald Gardiner- should go to Rhodesia.

While describing this visit Bottomley signed his death warrant as a cabinet minister. It was a Friday morning - the traditional time for the debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth section of the Queen's speech. Up got Bottomley with his Boy Scoutish, how-can-any-of-you-doubt-my-best-intentions style:

When the Lord Chancellor and I first met the Rhodesian Cabinet we realised how fundamental were our differences. However, one thing that I did judge . . . was that Mr Smith himself stood out as a man of character and integrity . . . The Lord Chancellor and I set out on a tour to meet all shades of opinion and to get their views. We found that the churches as a whole, business interests generally and some national and local leaders were opposed to an illegal declaration of independence. However, we had, sadly, to recognise that the broad masses of the people supported the Rhodesia Front Government and the policy of a unilateral declaration of independence.

In unison, Members present chimed, ''The white people''. Bottomley surged on.

Yes, the white people. In the event, the Lord Chancellor and I made a favourable impression on the European people in Rhodesia and I can see one or two Honourable Gentlemen opposite who have associations with Rhodesia and who have been kind enough to tell me that this was so.

Suspicious Labour MPs snorted. They sniffed a "sell-out". Wilson winced. The feeling was born that Bottomley was too naive to be the Labour cabinet minister dealing with Ian Smith.

No MP eased out of office was less bitter than Bottomley. Ever constructive, he immersed himself in serious causes - the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, the Select Committee on Cyprus, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the British India Forum, even the Administration of the House of Commons.

Bottomley's most fitting epitaph is a plea for tolerance in his chapter "A Lifetime in Politics" in his autobiography:

The Government has to take account of the Opposition in framing its legislation and the Opposition are prevented from making wild and ridiculous promises knowing that at some time it may be called upon to govern. It was for this reason that during the debate on devolution in the House of Commons I did not support my own party. . . . I think that both the main political parties are to blame for the growth of the Scottish National Party. In my view it is against the best interests of the Scottish people that we should weaken the links between English, Welsh and Scots. It is also bad for the rest of the world.

Our reputation for tolerance, good-humour and moral integrity is still respected and should not be dissipated in petty struggles for selfish interests.

Tam Dalyell

Arthur George Bottomley, politician: born London 7 February 1907; OBE 1941; MP (Labour) for Rochester and Chatham 1945-59, for Middlesbrough East 1962-74, for Teesside Middlesbrough 1974-83; Parliamentary Under- Secretary for the Dominions 1946-47; Secretary of Overseas Trade, Board of Trade 1947-51; Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs 1964-66; Minister for Overseas Development 1966-67; PC 1951; created 1984 Baron Bottomley; married 1936 Bessie Wiles; died London 3 November 1995.