A Scowling Class Apart: A sketch of James Keir Hardie
previously published in Chartist magazine © 2006*
“Keir Hardie has been the greatest human being of our time. When the dust raised by opposition to the pioneer has settled down, this will be known by all”
(The Women’s Dreadnought (1915)).
The (ex)* premier leader of Labour is an ex-barrister, son of a barrister, educated at Edinburgh College and St. John’s College Oxford. Keir Hardie, leader of the original parliamentary party which adopted the name Labour 100 years ago this month (12th February 1906), was an ex-miner, illegitimate son of a single mother, and self-educated at a Lanarkshire coal face.
Considering the two greatest achievements of the Labour Party were masterminded by ex-coal miners – its Parliamentary formation by Keir Hardie, and the NHS by Aneurin Bevan – one begins to think the party has been truer to its cause when in the hands of those from the class it traditionally purports to represent. Further, taking into account the ‘modernisation’ of policies under the Oxford-educated, Clause IV-sceptics Hugh Gaitskill and Tony Blair, a detectable pattern emerges: social background influences the degree of radicalism or moderatism in Labour policies.
Blair has stretched Gaitskillian ‘moderatism’ to new extremes. With the power allowed him by the massive majority with which he swept into office, he has inexplicably squandered a golden opportunity to reverse Thatcherism. Instead he has embraced it, championing the virus of privatisation and further paralysing the public sector. New welfare benefit concessions are paltry alms in the widening shadow of the British class divide. Again, there is no significant party in Parliament representing the interests of the working classes. A similar state of affairs to those which the Labour Party first came into Parliament to change over 100 years ago, under the leadership of the spirited Keir Hardie.
James Keir was born on August 15, 1856, illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant from a pit village in Lanarkshire. She married ship’s carpenter David Hardie, gifting her son a legitimate surname. David Hardie was an outspoken atheist whose humanism ironically took inspiration from selected social teachings of Christ – later inspiring his stepson’s Christian Socialism.
At eight years old Hardie started work as a baker’s delivery boy, but his wage of 3s. 6d. a week made scant difference to the penury induced by his stepfather’s unemployment and mother’s second pregnancy. In 1886 Hardie was sacked from his second job as a rivet-heater due to coming in to work late after being up all night nursing his dying younger brother (a scenario almost straight out of Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists). His next occupation was as grittily poetic a motif for his subsequent political rise as for his ideological inheritor, Aneurin Bevan: “No one should ever look at Keir Hardie without remembering the pit from which he was digged. He was sent down the coal mine when a bit laddie of eight”*. It was while working down the pits that Hardie taught himself to read and write; an extraordinary stride of will for someone unable to sign his own name only six years earlier. He completed his self-mentoring in literacy by “…reading from the picture books in the booksellers’ shop windows”*.
But it wasn’t only literacy Hardie taught himself: “When he had a little spare time in the pit, he took his pit lamp, blackened with its smoke the white stone, and scratched upon its surface the shorthand characters with a pin”* – a sketch stranger than fiction (even Robert Tressell’s or Arthur Morrison’s); bringing a new meaning to ‘Pitman’. This laudable self-education would later pay off with the tribute: “He was the only really cultivated man in the ranks of any
of the Labour parties.”**
Hardie’s autodidactic gifts fitted the Messianic map of his future, one fired by apparently rootless faculties, drawing Biblical comparisons: “If the … prophets of the Old Testament and the fisherfolk who became apostles in the New Testament were to … enter the House of Commons; they would … find themselves more at home in the company of Keir Hardie than in that of any other member…”*. The archetypal photo of a Moses-bearded Hardie, legs planted on soap box, arm out-stretched evangelistically, is indeed prophet-like. And like all prophets Hardie was “emphatically a man of the future” as he demonstrated in Ishmaelitism Justified (1903), an open letter to one Mr. Morley, who had deprecated the Independent Labour movement as “a sullen and scowling class apart”: “Even a ‘sullen and scowling class sitting apart’ would be preferable to a besotted and unthinking class dragged hither and thither by unscrupulous guides””.
Hardie’s first step towards politics was in becoming Secretary of the Miner’s Union. Four years later he pitted his shorthand in journalism, working as editor of The Miner. He converted to Socialism with the encouragement of Robert Smillie, leader of the Lanarkshire miners, and then, at 32, stood as MP for Mid-Lanark – unsuccessfully. Undaunted by defeat, he stood again as Independent Labour Party candidate for South-West Ham and was elected to Parliament in 1892 with a sizeable majority. His inauguration as a Member of Parliament was described like a political caricaturist’s sketch: “…Keir Hardie sent a shudder of horror through the Mother of all Parliaments by presenting himself at the bar of the House …clad in the costume of his class. … It was as if the avant courier of the social revolution had knocked at the portals of Parliament”*.
Around 1897 Hardie was converted to Christianity, to him synonymous with Socialism: “We are called upon at the beginning of the 20th century to decide the question propounded in the Sermon on the Mount, as to whether we will worship God or Mammon. The present day is a Mammon worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place.” He made no bones about his political inspiration: “…the impetus which drove me … into the Labour movement, … has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined” (Keir Hardie, 1910). The influence of Hardie’s former lay preaching in the Evangelical Union Church and public speaking in The Temperance Society shone through in his sermonizing parliamentary speeches: “The peoples who have carved their names most deeply on the tables of the human story all set out on their conquering career as communists… When the old civilizations were putrefying, the still small voice of Jesus the Communist stole over the earth like a soft refreshing breeze carrying healing wherever it went”***.
In 1899, seven years after Hardie’s election to Parliament, the various Socialist and union factions conglomerated to form the Labour Representation Committee. Hardie was now MP for Merthyr Tydfil. In the 1906 General Election, while the Liberal Party formed the new government, the newly-named Labour Party won 29 seats and Hardie was elected its leader in the House of Commons. But with overwhelming divisions within the party, Hardie resigned the leadership in 1908 – he led from the front and was not by nature a rank-and-file caretaker.
It was Hardie’s brazen radicalism which marked him out as a figure with ideas far ahead of his time. He made speeches for self-rule in India and racial equality in South Africa; supported women’s suffrage; and later attempted to organise a national strike against Britain’s involvement in the First World War.
On a day in June 1894, when the Commons moved an address of congratulations on the birth of a son to the then Duchess of York – later to become King Edward VIII –Hardie further moved an amendment that the mining disaster of the same day, in which over 250 men and boys had died, should take precedence over the birth of “any baby”. J. R. Clynes related the result of Hardie’s defiant interruption in his Memoirs (1937): “The House rose at him like a pack of wild dogs. His voice was drowned in a din of insults and the drumming of feet on the floor. But he stood there, white-faced, blazing-eyed, his lips moving, though the words were swept away.”
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs elected to the House of Commons and Hardie agreed to become leader again but in the very same year he resigned for a second and final time, handing over to George Barnes. On 25th September 1915, in the aftermath of his controversial open opposition to Britain’s involvement in the First World War, Hardie died after a long illness. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote: “…he had a stroke in the House of Commons after some conflict with the jingoes. … he arranged for the disposal of his books and furniture and gave up his rooms, foreseeing his end, and fronting it without flinching or regret”****; a harassed, white-haired Aslan of politics, fatally mauled by the mocking Commons’ goblins, crawling into retirement amid the dull thuds of book-packing, was a muted end to a ferocious career.
But what of Hardie’s legacy?
Unfortunately its resonance, which culminated in the 1945 Labour Government’s creation of the Welfare State, was eroded by Thatcher’s trampling of Socialism, and her cancerous infusion of monetarism into the public consciousness. The ultimate sting in the tail has been the Thatcherite corruption of Labour itself, now ideologically invisible bar token lapses such as the minimum wage, first proposed by Hardie on entering Parliament in 1892: ““A minimum wage might … be established, making it a penal offence for an employer to engage a worker under a sum sufficient to ensure the necessaries of life””*).
The House of Lords Act 1999 half-heartedly modernised the moribund second chamber, but fell short of full reform by allowing 92 hereditary peers to retain their seats. Hardie’s proposal to abolish the Lords was fired by his opposition to the rich buying titles and votes by bankrolling their political party. With the present ‘modernised’ Lords attracting accusations of housing ‘Tony’s cronies’ – recipients of life peerages being, coincidentally, former New Labour financial donors – one can see Blair’s Act as merely a replacement of the old second chamber with a differently undemocratic one. The idea of thorough reform (let alone abolition) of the Lords, is being continually filibustered in Parliament and is – like the belated blood sports debate – still a controversial bugbear among the well-camouflaged landed classes and Daily Mail reactionaries. Thankfully some Labour backbenchers still argue for total abolition of the second chamber in the vein of political scientist Harold Laski, who echoed these Keirite sentiments way back in 1938 by alluding to the Lords as “an indefensible anachronism”*****.
Meanwhile, other propositions of Hardie’s have still yet to come about: ““A restriction of the hours of labour to eight per day … the erection of workshops … wherein work now performed at home could be undertaken, these having crèches attached for the benefit of women with children called upon to earn a living for themselves ... Recreation-rooms and reading-rooms should be abundantly provided, especially in poor quarters, together with small open spaces laid down in grass for children to play upon, and thus preserve their contact with nature and mother earth, the loss of which is accountable for much of the atheism which is a natural product of city life””*. This bucolic vision of labour echoes William Morris’s dictum: “A man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he … wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body”.
We can only hope now, having gone full circle back to a Parliament in which the working people and underprivileged are not properly represented, someone else fired by a first-hand sense of social injustice might emerge to lead a truly Socialist party back into the Commons. For as much as when that Lanarkshire miner first lifted himself from the coal pits into the light of literacy and politics, Keir Hardie’s country needs him now.
* Mr. Kier Hardie M.P., W. T. Stead (ed.), Coming Men on Coming Questions No: VI, (May, 18, 1905)
**James Mayor, My Windows on the Street of the World (1923)
***James Keir Hardie, From Serfdom to Socialism (1907).
****Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (1931)
*****Parliamentary Government in England, Harold Laski (1938)