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KEIR HARDIE – Bob Holman

September 17, 2016

khIf only Labour returned to its roots!

 Born illegitimate near Glasgow in 1856, Hardy went down the coal mines at the age of 10. As a young man, he was sacked for being a spokesman for the trade union. He later accepted a post as a trade union official which, along with his political activities, led eventually to his famous general election victory at West Ham South. By this time he was a socialist whose ideas owed little to Marxism and more to his experience of poverty and his conversion to Christianity.

After losing his seat at West Ham, Hardie gained another stunning victory at Merthyr Tydfil. He was joined by others in the Commons who elected him the first chair of the parliamentary Labour party. More than anyone, he succeeded in keeping Labour distinct from the Liberal party. When Labour’s political fortunes ebbed, some flirted with an alliance with the Liberals. Hardie was prepared to co-operate on certain issues but never to lose the identity of Labour. He regarded the Labour party as the natural home of the working class. He was proved right after his death when the Liberals declined and Labour flourished.

Hardie also put state welfare on the political agenda. The birth of the welfare state is usually associated with the Liberal reformers of 1906-11. It is overlooked that, when Hardie entered politics, the Liberal party gave priority to the free market and even opposed unemployment relief. He argued that, by upholding virtually unregulated private enterprise, both Liberals and Tories protected the wealthy. He and his colleagues campaigned so vigorously that the Liberals, realising they would lose working-class votes, turned themselves into the reformers. But Hardie was the real initiator.

His first parliamentary by-election was in 1888 in Mid Lanark. His advocacy for Scottish home rule (or independence) drew the backing of the newly formed Scottish Home Rule Association. Its secretary was Ramsay MacDonald, who was associated with Hardie for the rest of the latter’s life. In 1898, the two went to Birmingham to cheer for Scotland as its football team beat England. More importantly, MacDonald was to become the first Labour Prime Minister. They made a formidable pair in regard to home rule.

Hardie wrote in 1889: “I believe the people of Scotland desire a Parliament of their own and it will be for them to send to the House of Commons a body of men pledged to obtain it.” The following month he called a meeting in Glasgow that went on to form the Scottish Labour Party, which soon merged into the Independent Labour Party.

Hardie believed that the Labour Party should serve working-class people and argued it required a majority of working-class MPs. In 1895 he visited Oxford and Cambridge universities, where access was largely restricted to those from public (private) schools. At Oxford he noted that graduates had easy access to the Commons, but wrote: “They will go out into the great world as unfitted for the task … Most of them will know as little of the real life and feelings of the common people as if they did not exist.” At Cambridge, he recorded that there was “a student who wanted to know whether I desired to see more working-men than middle and upper-class persons in Parliament, and seemed considerably astonished at my temerity and perversity in saying that I did. ”

He had his critics. His own colleagues admitted that he was not a success as a parliamentary leader. His obituary in the Times noted: “He inherited more than an average share of Scottish dourness.” Yet in Labour celebrations his singing and dancing were to the fore.

I was surprised that MPs received no salary back then.

Hardy was unsure about RI (as it then was) in schools.

What cannot be doubted is Hardie’s courage. In 1914, he opposed Britain’s entry into the war. He was shouted down, abused and threatened. He died in 1915 without a tribute in the Commons. But hundreds of mourners attended his funeral in Glasgow. He was not to know that within 10 years, Labour would be in power.



Lord Overtoun was a wealthy Victorian factory-owner in Glasgow and a prominent supporter of the Liberal Party. He was also a well-known Christian noted for his gifts to charities, his financial support to foreign missions, his provision of a £1,000 salary to a local evangelist, and his backing for campaigns to keep the Sabbath holy.

In 1899 Keir Hardie, also a Christian but one of very limited financial means, launched a fierce attack on Overtoun. In a widely read pamphlet, he revealed how Overtoun treated his workers in his chemical works at Rutherglen in Glasgow. They were made to toil for twelve hours a day with no food breaks, seven days a week. Deadly fumes were likely to poison their lungs. He accused Overtoun of being a hypocrite who even docked the wages of men who did not work on Sundays. The Glasgow clergy, almost to a man, rose to defend Overtoun and condemned Hardie as an atheist. Hardie soon responded.


It was the last week of the year. Father had been away for two or three days in search of work. Towards the end of the week, having been up most of the night, I got to the shop fifteen minutes’ late and was told by the young lady in charge that if it occurred again I would be punished…. Outside the dining room a servant bade me wait till “master had finished prayers” (he was much noted for his piety)…. “Boy, this is the second morning you have been late, and my customers leave me if they are kept waiting for their hot breakfast rolls. I therefore dismiss you, and to make you more careful in the future, I have decided to fine you a week’s wages. And now you may go!”

The incident planted in Hardie a venomous scorn of hypocritical wealthy Christians. As an adult he became a Christian and his life was characterized by his love for Christianity and his dislike of many so-called Christians.

First, his illegitimacy. Some biographers assert that Hardie felt a strong stigma about being born out of wedlock which drove him to achieve in order to prove his worth.

She identified Keir’s intelligence and serious mind and, as he grew older, she instilled into him the value of reading, taught him herself, found books, and encouraged him to attenend evening courses.

Third, Hardie was profoundly moved by the suffering, time terrible housing, the illnesses, the poverty, and the imemployment that he witnessed every day of his life

Fourth, Hardie’s early participation in the temperance movement was crucial. It provided an alternative social life to the drinking dens. In the Good Templars, he had his first contacts with educated and often radical members.

With the dissenting members of the Congregational church, Hardie formed an Evangelical church which met in a rented hall. The Evangelical Union was established in 1842 when the Reverend James Morrison was accused of heresy by the older Presbyterian churches on four grounds. These were that he proclaimed that God loved all men, that Christ died for all, that the Holy Spirit strives with all men, and that all may be saved if they turn to Christ. The accusers were in the Calvinist tradition and held that God predestined some to eternal life and some to eternal death. Morrison rejoiced in being guilty of these charges. His_ Evangelical Union preached that Christ welcomed all repentant sinners. It grew to be a small but significant denomination which, as Professor Smout says, attracted “artisans and miners”.5 Hardie declared in his diary when the Cumnock Evangelical Church was starting, “My heart rejoices at the prospect as I do love the Evangelical Union.”

“His Christianity was highly flexible, a religion of humamity with little doctrinal content, utopian, romantic, outward looking, democratic and egalitarian. Its ultimate justification lay in the vision of the true believer and in the priesthood all mankind, pledged to the coming of ‘the Christ that is be On such a basis, rather than on hard-headed economic analysis, was Hardie’s socialism to be founded.”‘

The formation of the new party was never in doubt. The rebates were about its title, objective and programme. Some wanted it called the Socialist Labour Party. Katherine St John anway, a teacher and socialist from Bristol, who later married 3ruce Glasier, rose to oppose. She argued that having socialist the name would limit recruitment. Ben Tillett agreed, aving that many trade unionists were socialists at work every day but associated socialism with violent revolution. Hardie re’ioiced, for he knew that a national party had to possess a :road gate which accepted labourites, Liberals disillusioned ith the Liberal Party, and socialists. The conference agreed :n the name of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).


It was agreed that affiliation was the basis of membership that a wide range of bodies (and their members), such as trade  unions, trade councils, labour clubs, labour churches, socialist groups, could be embraced within the ILP. Membership was open to women, unlike other parties which had separate women’s committees.

Further, he was a genuine dem who saw no consistency in the Liberal practice of exte the franchise while allowing the head of state to be unelected.

“The Christian world has got sadly astray. They do not know that they have forgotten the centre cross, and are worshipping at the cross of the thief.”

All that Carswell could say in his defence was that the Sunday labour was justified because of “the inexorable demands of economic law” – so capitalisms laws were superior to Christian ones! Further, “Lord Overtoun maintained a dignified reticence in the face of the malicious campaign.”‘

Overtoun was one of the leading employers in the chemical industry and his example would be followed by others. Hardie had won a remarkable victory.

The Conservatives were in such disarray that they selected a candidate who had never been to Merthyr and made his way to Newcastle-upon-Tyne by mistake. By the time he reached Wales, he was too late to register.

Despite the death toll, the government refused to reduce taxes. It angered Hardie that these went partly toward a rapidly growing military budget.

Officials shrugged that India had always had famine and starvation. Hardie disagreed. Before British rule, Indian rulers had taken a quarter of the crop of small farmers. In a bad year, when the yield was small, the tax in kind dropped proportionately. Britain insisted that taxes were paid in cash, with no drop in bad years. Moreover, the peasants had previously cut wood down for free fuel and fished for free food. Now they had to pay. He cited the viceroy’s own figures that the annual average income in India was £2 (compared with £42 in Britain), with many far below the average. The poorest found themselves in the hands of loan sharks. Hardie summed up that there “is abundant evidence to justify the belief that the condition of the Indian peasant has worsened under British rule”

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