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Keir Hardie

Rhonnda Heritage Park, South Wales

The story of Keir Hardie illustrates our desire for beginnings and endings, and the irony that history rarely provides them. In the sense of beginnings, Keir Hardie is often thought of as the founder of the Labour Party. As we shall see this was not really true. Before World War One men like John Burns, Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury and James Ramsay Macdonald were seen as candidates for founder status. It was only later that Hardie was picked out to play the role of founder. And as for endings, Keir Hardie is perhaps the definitive example of a crusading politician, who is not content just to muddle along. For people like Hardie there is a better place, a promised land which has to be reached at the end of the journey. Clear start and end points are reassuring, and it is not surprising that we seek them out. Keir Hardie seems to provide what we are looking for, which is probably why he has been chosen as an icon of the early labour movement. But it is equally true that history does not provide neat beginnings and endings.

 

 

James Keir Hardie was born just outside Glasgow on 15th August 1856 to Mary Kerr, daughter of a weaver, the result of a brief affair with a miner named William Aitken. While Mary worked as a maid, young James was looked after by his grandmother. Then in 1859 Mary married David Hardie, a ship's carpenter from Falkirk. James was part of a growing family, and he became known as Keir to differentiate him from a younger bother who was also given the name James. At age eight Keir started work in the Glasgow shipyards, until a fatal accident involving another boy led to Mary refusing to let her son return. The shipyards were followed by work as a baker's delivery boy, which involved twelve hour days seven days a week. When David Hardie was laid off work, Keir's job became the family's sole source of income. This did not stop Keir's boss sacking his delivery boy for being a few minutes late, in true Dickensian style, on New Year's Eve - Keir had apparently been made late by stopping to help his pregnant mother. Work in a coal mine followed, where one of his first tasks was looking after a pit pony, towards whom he showed unusual compassion.

At age sixteen Hardie threw himself into the local Temperance Society, dedicated to ridding the world of alcoholic drink. Much of the social organisation of later movements, such as the Co-operative Society and the Labour Party was based on early temperance organisations. The fight against alcohol was Keir Hardie's first political cause. It also provided an active social life, an attractive feature of all organised "causes". There were temperance tearooms and temperance hotels, all indicative of a large organisation giving a sense of purpose and belonging. It was in fact at temperance meetings that Hardie met Lillie Wilson his future wife. Hardie also became interested in associations being formed by miners to try and defend their interests. The National Miners Association had been founded in 1863 by Thomas Burt (see History Of The Scottish Miners by R. Page). In the 1870s unions began meeting at an annual congress. The Lanarkshire miners were being organised by Alexander Macdonald, who even with the demands of a mining job still managed to gain a degree at Glasgow University. He, along with secretary of the Northumberland miners John Burt, entered Parliament in 1874. Up until 1920 Macdonald was named by Labour Party historians as "Britain's first labour member" (see The Book Of The Labour Party, ed H. Tracey Vol 32 P16). The problem for later historians was the willingness of Macdonald and Burt to enter into alliances with the Liberals to support their position. In these circumstances it was difficult to tell where the the Labour Party actually began.

Meanwhile back in Scotland, the next step in Hardie's career came in July 1878, at the age of twenty one, with a promotion to secretary of the Hamilton District Branch of Lanarkshire Miners Union. Hardie opposed plans in the summer of 1879 to strike in pursuit of better pay, knowing there was no fund available to support striking miners. Instead he wanted to contact others mines, and organise wider action. When the mine owners found out about Hardie's union work they sacked him. From this point on, Keir Hardie never held another working class job. The mine owners had created a full time activist, paid by miners to represent their interests. Hardie took his new work very seriously. Marrying his temperance society girlfriend Lillie Wilson on 3rd August 1879, he was back attending miners' meetings the next day. By the following summer events had reached a serious point, with Hamilton miners insisting on pushing forward with a strike, even though the Lanarkshire regional union refused to support them. Hardie knew that strike funds were insufficient and advised his men not to strike. But they refused to listen and went ahead anyway, their action ending in a predictable stalemate, with much suffering along the way. Even though the miners had ignored his advice, Hardie supported their efforts as best he could, working long hours searching for money and food to sustain them. The only thanks he got was a severe reprimand from regional leader Alexander Macdonald, who sacked Hardie, claiming he had let his men down. Hardie, showing his usual resilience moved to Cumnock in Ayrshire, sold insurance, and started working as a journalist.

Meanwhile labour organisation was continuing to evolve under the stewardship of people like Henry Hyndman, old Etonian, Oxford graduate and barrister - whose skills in French and German allowed him to read the works of Marx. Then there was Parliament's first socialist MP, old Harovian and international adventurer, Don Roberto Bontine Cunninghame Grahame. Once again such people might not fit in with later Labour Party mythology, so they were also passed over by historians wanting to find a working class founder of the Labour movement. In 1887 Cunninghame Grahame came to Hardie's house in Cumnock, and impressed Hardie with his sense that a wide range of social issues should be the concern of Parliament, and his conviction that a separate Labour Party was required to represent working people. At the time all Labour MPs in Parliament were under the Liberal banner, a party which represented industrialists as well as the men who worked for them. In August 1888 at a public meeting in Glasgow an attempt to change this dependence on the Liberals was made, by launching the Scottish Labour Party, with Cunninghame Grahame as president, Dr G.B Clark as vice president, John Ferguson as treasurer, and Keir Hardie as secretary. Even at this early stage it was clear that in politics it is always going to be difficult to find clear dividing lines: Grahame was a landowner, Clark a cotton manufacturer, and Ferguson a Liberal Glasgow councillor. Only Hardie could possibly be seen as working class, and he now made his living largely as a journalist. The Scottish Labour Party had been set up to be uncompromising in whom it represented, yet ambiguities continued. In an effort to get around such historical complication, Labour mythology tends to forget about Grahame, Clark and Ferguson, in favour of Hardie.

 

 

Houses of Parliament

It wasn't until August 1892 that Hardie finally entered Parliament as an independent Labour MP for West Ham. That summer the Trade Union Congress formed the Independent Labour Party in a further attempt to give a definite party for the working classes. But in reality the political situation in Parliament did not change. Working class or independent Labour MPs tended to be assimilated into the culture of Parliament, which meant working with the Liberals. John Burns for example ended his first spell in Parliament arguing the Liberal line that governments did not have to do anything about poverty because it was a local matter, and "state action might encourage vagrancy" (see Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P124). Eventually Hardie was left as a "Party of One". This resolute stand on principle is of course admirable, but it was the stand of an individualist, not a party man. We may admire the stand, but we cannot ascribe this man with a central role in building a party, since he was temperamentally unsuited to such a role. As always efforts to create a party involved confusing and maddening contradictions. Hardie argued for the "working class being championed in the House of Commons by the working class" (quoted in Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P158). But he also argued against creating a Labour Party which formally excluded people on the basis of their class. After all how is the working class to be strictly defined? Hardie himself by the 1890s might not himself qualify for inclusion. Complications like this, however, did not stand in the way of Hardie's basic position of independence. As such he was not the man to create a party, with all the messy compromises this would entail. The man for that job was someone like up and coming Labour MP James Ramsay Macdonald. 1895 was a year of setback, the general election of that year seeing Hardie, and every other Independent Labour candidate, losing their seat. But at the 1900 Labour Representation Committee conference at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon, efforts were made to pull disparate Labour groups together, with Ramsay Macdonald drawing up proposals for a measure of unity. Efforts seemed to be paying off in a successful 1901 general election for Labour, which returned Hardie to the House of Commons as MP for Myrther Tydfill in south Wales. Hardie got on with addressing mass meetings, being a kind of pop star of the left wing, while Macdonald got on with meeting people in smoky back rooms and doing shady deals. Ironically it was Macdonald's deals, his ability to make pacts with groups other than his own, that slowly brought about something that could be called the Labour Party. John Lister, the Independent Labour Party's first treasurer was moved to write a bitter little poem about Macdonald which included the lines: "Anything! Anything! Just to get in/ Any tale! Any tale! so you may win" (quoted Caroline Benn P197). The alternative was Hardie still fighting on as his Party of One.

In February 1906 the "Labour Representation Committee" of MPs finally became known as the Labour Party. Hardie was narrowly voted leader of the new party, but immediately took a dislike to leadership. Meetings were skipped, in favour of speaking at suffragette rallies in front of his beloved huge crowds. Meanwhile Macdonald continued with the type of liasing he loved and was good at. By August 1906 Labour MP Philip Snowdon was suggesting that Hardie's leadership of the party had been "a hopeless failure" (quoted Caroline Benn P217). Hardie simply wasn't interested. For him the struggle for women's suffrage became a personal obsession, which brought Hardie into an affair with campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst. In early 1907 Hardie, a heavy smoker, had a minor stoke, and Macdonald increasingly took over as leader. Hardie continued marathon speaking tours, and his journalism. But then in 1914 came World War One, and the decision by the Labour Party to enter a coalition government. Genuine outrage at the coming of war and the seeming loss of the party to which he had dedicated his life, had a terrible effect on Hardie. After the May 1915 decision for Labour to enter a coalition, Hardie announced that he was leaving Parliament. Selling his flat in London, he went to Caterham spa, where he had a severe nervous breakdown. Hardie was taken back to Cumnock where his wife Lillie did her best to look after him. But with his conditioning worsening all the time, Hardie was taken into hospital in Glasgow, where he died of pneumonia on Sunday 26th September 1915.

 

 

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament

Hardie provides a point of clarity in the confusion of political history. He would have liked the Labour Party to have been created in a definite place on a particular day, by a clear group led by a principled leader. People looking at history tend to want the same clarity. Things rarely happen that way, which is perhaps why figures like Hardie are picked out to try and tidy things up. Just as history does not often allow clear beginnings, the same is true of endings. Many of the things for which Hardie argued have now come to pass. There is better social welfare provision, there are votes for women, and work places are regulated for the safety and health of those who work in them. But even so we have not reached the end of the road, and no final answer has been revealed. Hardie spent much of his life thinking that temperance was the final answer: if only people could be persuaded to stop drinking then all other problems would disappear. Caroline Benn recounts a poignant little episode which occurred when Hardie was working as a miner's agent. A miner came to him asking for advice about getting his poetry published. The only advice offered was to avoid drink! Hardie himself who avoided drink was nevertheless a "ceaseless smoker", which almost certainly contributed to his strokes and the pneumonia which finally killed him. In the long crusade against drink which it seemed would change the world, no one thought about smoking. The same pattern was repeated in Hardie's support for the cause of woman's suffrage. There were some in the suffragette movement who thought that giving the vote to women would solve all other problems. In February 1905 Emmeline Pankhurst gave Hardie a stern lecture in the lobby of the House of Commons about bothering himself with unemployment legislation. He should concentrate on women's suffrage, since once women had the vote such problems as unemployment would be dealt with as "a matter of course" (Caroline Benn P201). Beguiling as such universal solutions seem to be, they do not exist.

There have to be people like Keir Hardie to agitate and stir things up, to give a sense of purpose. But Hardie himself seemed to shy away from finally getting what he wanted. He got the Labour Party he worked for, became its leader, and then shied away from the whole thing. In the end he realised that politics was not an ocean voyage with an end in sight. Hardie did not represent a beginning or an ending, but he gave the impression that both can be found, and that is why he has been picked out as a reference point in the confusing business of history.

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