PIONEERS & FOUNDERS

JAMES KEIR HARDIE

By J. VERNON RADCLIFFE

 Originally published in Volume III of The British Labour Party (1948) edited by Herbert Tracey.

 

JAMES KEIR HARDIE was pre-eminently the evangelist of Socialism in Britain. He was not the founder of a political philosophy nor the creator of a new school of thought but the leader of a crusade. He gave Socialism in this country a distinctive character which it has retained for half a century. Perhaps it is now undergoing a change in response to a philosophy not his, but his way of thinking and theorising-simple, direct, deeply humane and passionately sincere-and his supremely practical aims and methods made Socialism, to simple and educated alike, an appealing moral force identified with an immediate programme of action. On foundations that he laid, the Labour Party was built. He was the first advocate of Socialism in the House of Commons and the first leader of an independent Labour group in that assembly.

Essentially, and to the very core of his being, a reformer, it was his mission and resolve to eradicate poverty from the lives of the people, to make possible for all men, women and children lives of dignity and noble worth and to this end to give them good houses, good education and a higher social and economic status. He was a lover of peace and concord. Neither the class war nor any kind of war had a place in his scheme of social order and international relations. The brotherhood of man was to him the basic principle of a living faith. In an age when Socialism was the political creed of the few, when its arguments were only beginning to have popular exposition and when the organised workers in the Trade Unions were mostly ignorant and often sceptical of its untried principles, Hardie brought to them a Socialism which had less the character of a political theory than that of an attainable necessity for the common well­being. He was little concerned with dogma and narrow tests of political orthodoxy implying exclusiveness. It was his wide purpose to persuade all sorts and conditions of men to share with him an energising belief in an organised and free, co-operative and non-predatory way of life.

He was not alone in the field of Socialist propaganda. The Social Democratic Federation, led by H. M. Hyndman, upheld a banner in­scribed with firm tenets and Marxian formulas and on the other hand the Webbs with a Socialist version of utilitarianism were the stimulating centre of the Fabian Society and its logical and educative methods of proclaiming the inevitability as well as the practicability of Socialism by way of "gas and water" municipalisation. Robert Blatchford and the fraternity of the Clarion were active in the Press, on the highways and at street corners in proclaiming Socialism in terms which the common man could well understand and repeat. But Hardie was, above them all, the impassioned crusader, touched with inspiration, burning with zeal and selfless devotion. He was, too, an effective and popular writer. At a time in early manhood when his Trade Union and political activities closed doors of employment against him, he earned his livelihood with his pen. He made this gift another means of Socialist propaganda. The Labour Leader was his creation.

Independent, broad-minded, tolerant, having nothing of the fanatic in his nature, Hardie had a keenly empirical sense of the application of means to ends. He was among the first to realise the tremendous possibilities of winning over the Trade Unions to the support of an independent Labour Party without first requiring of them a credal affirmation of Socialism. He saw the need at one and the same time for a loyal, convinced, devoted band of men and women to form the spearhead of a Socialist Movement and for an independent and broader-based working-class political organisa­tion to give expression and form to the less systematised aspirations of labouring people. The issue of his life's work was the founding of the Independent Labour Party, basically Socialist and ardently propagandist, and the separate formation of the Labour Party, with the same detach­ment from the old Parties, as a mass movement for social betterment and Parliamentary representation and, while not formally Socialist at its inception, well charged with the Socialist ideal.

The harsh circumstances of Hardie's early life may explain the set of his economic thought and opinion but they in no way explain the man himself and the quality of his life and .work. He was not a creature of circumstance but rose above circumstance, a generous and heroic figure. A lad who would practise shorthand outlines in odd moments of leisure in the pit was of no ordinary mould. He was the son of a ship's joiner, the eldest of a family of seven sons and two daughters. His father was at sea when Keir was born in 1856 in a one-roomed cottage with whitewashed walls at Newarthill in Lanarkshire. Needy circumstances obliged his mother to return to work as a farm servant during his babyhood and infancy and he was much in the care of a grandmother. His father returned when Keir was in his third year and, finding employment at Govan, transferred his family there. But the family troubles were not over. The father suffered accident and there was a shipyard strike. Privation overtook them. As a consequence Keir became a wage earner when seven or eight, first as a messenger boy and then in a coalmine as a doorkeeper, under­ground. In the winter months he saw no daylight. He was at work before dawn and not out of the mine before dusk.

Keir Hardie had no schooling and was taught to read by his mother. He derived much of his strength of character from her and from an ancestry of indomitable spirit. It is told of his grandmother that when one of her children, a boy of ten, was badly injured in the mine she carried him twice a week to Glasgow infirmary, a distance of eleven miles each way, for many months. Hardie's mother had this morally strong, courageous heritage and it was transmitted to her son. There was a fine bond of affection between mother and son and mutual honour, too, when he grew to manhood. A bitterness, never forgotten, came into Keir's life when he was harshly dismissed from one of his early jobs. A mere child, he was summarily discharged, with the loss of a fortnight's wages, because he was twice a few minutes late in arriving at work. His mother was ill and one of his brothers was down with fever. It was a blow, the more terribly cruel because his wages of 45. 6d. a week were at the time the family's only income. That night another baby was born and the first of January 1867 dawned on a home in which there was neither fire nor food.

Keir Hardie soon had experience of the dangers of the mine. From a door minder he became a pony driver and was with his pony when an explosion occurred. In the rush through the darkness for the pit shaft Hardie was not seen nor was he missed till there was a muster of those who reached the pithead. Hardie had remained with his pony and the pony had instinctively turned to its stable near the pit bottom. There Hardie was found asleep in the pony's manger. In a few years Hardie was a qualified miner.

Lanarkshire miners of that day have been portrayed as men who lived hard and whose interests were in sport, in drink or in religion. They might consume alcohol in great quantity; they might take up religion with tremendous intensity. They were great as pugilists, footballers and athletes. But Hardie did not come clearly within any of these classifications. He abstained from alcohol and he was in early life a member of a religious community which rejected the stricter tenets of Calvinism. He had a moderate interest in sport and was in a colliery cricket team. Above all he was studious and anxious to work out the problems of poverty that beset his own life and the lives of those about him. Gradually mind and soul combined in a resolve to fight poverty and all evils that stood in the way of human betterment. He began in his immediate surroundings and amid the struggles of the miners for improvements of conditions or in defence of what they had when wage reductions were threatened. He was the chairman of their meetings and their representative in dis­cussions with the colliery managements. Trade Unionism in the 1880'S and even much later was struggling for existence and Hardie bore the brunt of the hostility of the mine-owners and managers. He was blacklisted and refused employment. A strike in Lanarkshire that came to be known as the "tattie strike" brought him to the forefront as a leader and it had also the consequence of severing his ties with Lanarkshire and his trans­ference to the neighbouring county of Ayr and the village of Cumnock. The strike leaders undertook the supply of bread and potatoes, especially potatoes-"tatties" in the local dialect and hence the name given to the strike. They incurred heavy liabilities and when it was decided that Hardie should leave Lanarkshire he first obtained assurances that every effort would be made to payoff the debt. Hardie himself, boycotted by the colliery managers, suffered great privations. He had married just before the strike began.

His removal to Ayrshire was a stepping-stone to a larger career. There was hard Trade Union work to be done in a county where the miners were unorganised and Hardie undertook it. Within a year he had established a Union and so fully gained the confidence of the miners that they were ready to support him in demanding a 10 per cent. increase of wages and to strike for it. The strike lasted for ten weeks and the advance was not won yet the Union was strengthened by the struggle. The members maintained their cohesion and even though they went back to work at the former rates of pay the increase they had demanded was conceded within a few weeks. A young and financially weak Union was unable to pay Hardie a salary but he had an alternative means of livelihood in journalism. With a background experience of reporting for a Glasgow newspaper he became acting editor of the Cumnock News. A few years later he was appointed secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation and later still he became president of the Ayrshire Miners' Union. In early days Hardie was a Liberal but with definitely Radical views. Like most of the politically­ minded Trade Union leaders of the time he looked to the Liberal Party for political reforms and to Trade Unionism, with the strike as the ultimate sanction, for redress of economic conditions.

From 1882 onwards he became increasingly interested in political action. Unable to reconcile the needs of wage earners with a policy of laissez-faire he abandoned laissez-faire, and finding Liberalism largely under capitalist influence-Bright, Cobden and Gladstone came from the manufacturing and mercantile classes-and opposed to State "interfer­ence" with the operation of economic "laws," he left the Liberal Party. The general expectation of the time was that working-class influence could be built up .by a return of working men to Parliament under the wing of the Liberal Party. The two great leaders of the miners, Thomas Burt in Durham and William Abraham in South Wales, were typical of this point of view. Both men were honoured alike in the Labour Movement and in the House of Commons, and they were sincere in their confidence that reforms could be won through Liberalism.

Hardie was coming to other conclusions, and his influence was growing. The Ayrshire Miners' Union was now stronger and able to pay him a salary of £75 a year. He started The Miner for the ventilation primarily of miners' problems and grievances, but also as a medium for expressing his individual views on whatever subjects interested him. His popularity as a speaker in the coalfields also gave him opportunity to spread the new doctrine that working people should not rely on others to emancipate them from their economic shackles but should free themselves. Poverty, he insistently proclaimed, was not inevitable; it sprang from man-made conditions and the conditions that man had made he could remake. Hardie had a studious mind but, more closely than books, he studied the book of life as he saw it in the coalfields, in the towns and in the country­side. With increasing emphasis, as he went about, he declared that what was bad in the social system was not to be endured but abolished. His trend towards Socialism was shown in his first report to the Scottish Miners' Federation. The cause he there espoused was that of "the complete emancipation of the worker from the thraldom of wagedom" and "co-operative production under State management." To these aims he was steadfast.

Nevertheless, when Hardie contested the Mid-Lanarkshire division in 1888 it was not definitely as the candidate of an independent Party, though he stood in complete independence of both the great historic Parties. He came forward as a miners' candidate and his sponsors did not expect that he would be fighting a Liberal as well as a Conservative, but rather that the Liberals would refrain from running a candidate and give the working man a straight fight with the Conservative. The Liberals decided otherwise and, on the short view, appeared to be justified because Hardie, even in this mining constituency, received only 617 votes. But the contest, and the breach with Liberalism, proved to be the starting-point of in­dependent Labour. Later the Liberal Party endeavoured to win Hardie over and even offered him a salary of £300 a year, but his convictions were utterly insusceptible to financial considerations. Before the offer was made he had come to see that Labour must have its own independent representation in Parliament. Only a few months after the defeat in Mid-Lanark he and a few like-minded men, twenty-seven in number, met in Glasgow and resolved that the time had come to form a Labour Party. In the following week the Party was formed and given the title of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party. It was more than four and a half years later that a broader based Party for England and Scotland was formed at Bradford and named the Independent Labour Party, and still another seven years to the foundation of the Labour Party with the basic structure that it still retains. No doubt the development of Hardie's own conception of a Labour Party was directly influenced by his Trade Unionism and attendance at the Trades Union Congress where he saw the potentialities of mass organisation for political as well as industrial ends.

For himself he had now avowed Socialism and it was as a socialist that he contested the West Ham division in the General Election of 1892 and won a resounding victory with a majority of 1,232 a very substantial margin in the electorates of those days. Hardie's return for an English and metropolitan constituency indicates how widely his influence and leadership were spreading. His position in the House of Commons still further enhanced his name and fame and gave him new opportunity and new power to plead the cause of the wage-earning man and of the unemployed. He was persistent in bringing the simple and essential needs of working people before an assembly whose members were unacquainted with want and hunger and ill-housing as a personal experience. He accepted with satisfaction the title of “member for the unemployed” which was given him half jestingly and endowed the title with honour. At the opening of his first Parliament he moved an amendment to the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne. His motion regretted the absence of any reference to the industrial depression and the widespread misery due to unemployment and demanded prompt and effective legis­lation in the interests of the unemployed. Hardie thus began his Parlia­mentary career by breaking a lance with the Liberal Government. For tactical reasons the amendment was seconded by a Conservative and it received 109 votes, almost wholly Conservative.

When his emotions were deeply stirred Hardie did not conceal his feelings in silken phrases. He was blunt and even harsh. Indeed it appeared at times that he deliberately chose to shock and surprise. So it was in June 1894 when an address of congratulation to Queen Victoria was under consideration. The occasion was the birth of a royal grandson. On the day that the baby was born there had been a terrible mine explo­sion at Pontypridd and 251 men and boys had been killed. The Government gave no sign of expressing sympathy with the stricken town and the mourning relatives, and Hardie sought to repair the omission by adding to the congratulation to the Queen an assurance of sympathy with the sufferers from the disaster. His motion was out of order but he had the right to speak and he declared in a House tumultuous with anger that the tragedy in South Wales demanded far more of the attention of the House than the birth of any baby. His voice was drowned in the ensuing com­motion and he spoke unheard, unsupported, alone. It was neither a tactful nor a generous speech and, by the manner in which it was reported, it brought him much opprobrium, and did no service to the cause of Social­ism. But his soul was wrung with pity for the grief-stricken colliers' families and he was bitter. It was not a passing impulse that prompted the speech but a deep and righteous sense of disproportion and he wrote in the Labour Leader a new and more national form of The Miner that everyone rejoiced in a subdued kind of way with the Duke and Duchess of York on the birth of their child but it was “to the sore-stricken poor of that Welsh valley that the true hearts of this great nation will turn with overwhelming sympathy.” To this he added, in the temper of his House of Commons speech, that "the life of one Welsh miner is of greater commercial and moral value to the British nation than the whole royal crowd put together, from the royal grandmamma down to this puling royal great-grand­child." The incident had a double significance because of its bearing on Hardie's republican opinions and also on his career since, in the opinion of colleagues outside the House of Commons, it cost him his seat at the next Election. Queen Victoria had celebrated the jubilee of her accession to the throne and the people were already looking forward to a possible diamond jubilee. Hardie's declamation offended their sense of loyalty.

Hardie's wearing of a cap on the day of his arrival at the House of Commons to take his seat provoked censure as though it had been a studied reflection on the manners and decorum of the assembly. It was, in fact, a sheer accident. He had intended to wear a hat, but in the hurry and excitement caused by the unexpected arrival of a waggonette, filled with enthusiastic supporters, to take him to Westminster, he did not find the hat and picked up the cap. As to the story of a "brass band" escort the fact is that the single instrumentalist was a cornet player. But it was, of course, extremely shocking to that day and generation that the cornet should play the "Marseillaise" in the precincts of the House of Commons. The cap became typical, an emblem of Labour's arrival in the high court of Parliament, and Hardie continued to wear it for a time, his independent spirit refusing to be coerced by criticism.

Defeated at West Ham in 1895 Hardie was by no means dismayed and to a discouraged follower he said: "Never mind lad. Don't lose heart. There's plenty of work to be done in other ways to hasten on the good time." He himself sought no respite or rest. He had made the House of Commons a sounding board for Socialism, unafraid of being singular and determined that in the uncongenial atmosphere of Westminster the cause of the common people should be constantly proclaimed and Socialism heard. Nevertheless, he was doing far more than attend the House of Commons. The year after his election was the year in which the I.L.P. was born at Bradford, and he went up and down the country consolidating and strengthening the infant Party. With freedom again from the claims of the House of Commons and Parliamentary constituents he devoted himself with unsparing energy to the spread of Socialism by incessant platform work and by his writings. His reliable income was small and though his personal wants were modest he was frequently in financial straits. He would accept no help that might appear to put a restraint on his complete freedom of thought and action. A few years later, when depressed and in a low state of health, "worn out (as he said) in body and very sad in spirit," he owned that if he were then to die he would leave his wife and family a legacy of debt bigger than he cared to think about. But he kept on with undiminished fortitude.

Out of the House of Commons for five years, unsuccessful in by-election efforts to regain a seat, he had time to visit the U.S.A. for a lecturing tour. This was only an interlude in his crowded life but it was a confir­mation of the position he had now attained as the leader of the Independent Labour Movement. This Movement received a new accession of strength at the turn of the century. The Trades Union Congress was brought into direct association with independent Labour representation. At the Congress of 1899 Hardie supported the momentous resolution which instructed its Parliamentary Committee "to invite the co-operation of all co-operative, socialistic, Trade Union and other working-class organisations jointly to co-operate on lines mutually agreed upon in convening a special congress of representatives from such of the above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means for the securing of an increased number of Labour Members in the next Parliament."

Nothing here about Socialism; one step at a time. Hardie trusted to the force of circumstances and to the gradual instruction of the working classes in political and economic theory and a new understanding of their own interests to bring them along the road that he was marking out. The resolution was opposed with almost as much force as its advocates could muster and was carried by a bare majority. But from that resolution the Labour Party sprang. When the ensuing conference was held in the following February, Hardie steered it away from what he regarded as both an extreme and unwise declaration of class-war policy proposed by James Macdonald of the Social Democratic Federation. Hardie's amend­ment,.realistic and restrained, committed the conference only to the establishment of "a distinct Labour group" in Parliament which should have its own Whips and determine its own policy-a policy which must however "embrace a readiness to co-operate with any Party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of Labour and be equally ready to associate themselves with any Party in opposing any measures having an opposite tendency." With his intimate knowledge of the Labour Movement and his dislike of dogmatic tests Hardie desired a Party constitution that would be widely inclusive and make possible the association of men who belonged to different schools of thought. His view prevailed by 59 votes to 35 in a conference of more than a hundred including several who, lacking precise instructions from their societies, did not vote. The resolution has been described as timid. More fairly should it be regarded as' cautiously constructive. It certainly measured as great a step forward in political independence as any volume of Labour opinion was prepared to take.

Immediate effect was given to the decision by the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. In the work of the committee ability of another type than Hardie's was required. Men with organising capacity came forward and J. Ramsay MacDonald was a well-chosen secretary. But though, as James Maxton wrote, the organisers now came in, "the initiating idea, the moral force and the basis of organisation" were sup­plied by Hardie. This was his achievement at a time of his greatest un­popularity with the general mass of the people. To the antagonism evoked by his outspokenness in the House of Commons was added an even fiercer resentment because of his opposition to the Boer War. To him the war was sheer jingoism and a capitalist adventure. As he thought so likewise did the Independent Labour Party. He was as resolute in denouncing the war as he was in advocating Socialism and his fearlessness not only made him the target of unmeasured vituperation in newspaper articles, but also the victim of malign fabrications. He was accused of being a Boer spy and of rejoicing at British defeats and other equally stupid charges were brought against him. But unpopularity did not silence him, nor modify the tone of his writing in the Labour Leader. Common denunciation of the war brought him and Lloyd George together, and a Glasgow meeting which they were both to address was the occasion of fierce rioting. Both men on other occasions were in personal peril.

Notwithstanding this widespread and violent resentment of his paci­fism, Hardie was re-elected to Parliament in the "Khaki" Election of 1900. He contested two constituencies, Preston and Merthyr Tydfil. At Preston he failed, but at Merthyr he had a majority of 1,471 over a Liberal opponent. Like other Labour candidates in this Election he was threatened with, and actually suffered, severe ill-treatment. The Labour Representation Committee had had little time for electoral preparation but it put fifteen candidates in the field. Only Hardie and Richard Bell, at Derby, were returned and Hardie alone was an independent Labour candidate. He humorously called himself the United Labour Party. Again he was in Parliament, in an environment even less congenial than the one he had known before. Yet it was this Parliament that first had a definitely Socialist notice of motion on its Order paper. Placed there by Hardie and with Richard Bell for the seconder the motion drew attention to the increasing burden which private ownership of land and capital was imposing on the industrious and useful classes of the community; to the poverty and destitution and general moral and physical deterioration resulting from a competitive system of wealth production, aiming primarily at profit­making, and to the danger that trusts and syndicates might provoke war. It went on: "The House is of opinion that such a condition of affairs constitutes a menace to the well-being of the realm, and calls for legislation designed to remedy the same by inaugurating a Socialist Commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land and capital, production for use and not for profit and equality of opportunity for every citizen." It was the fate of the motion to be talked out but Socialism had issued its formal challenge to the old economic order.

In and out of Parliament Hardie continued his campaigning. He did not spurn but accepted the appellation of agitator. "My work," he once said, "has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong." He based his Socialism, just as he denounced the Boer War, on ethical and economic grounds and the wrongs that he opposed inflamed his zeal. The Election of 1906 was a political landmark. In it the independent Labour Movement took firm root. Twenty-nine Labour Members entered the House of Commons and they chose Hardie for their first chairman. They obtained official recognition as a Party by the assignment of a separate room for their use and they appointed Whips and met regularly to decide their line of action. Illness and convalescence kept Hardie away from the House for a long time and for rest and change he travelled round the world, visiting Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Much sound and fury was caused at home by distortions of his speeches in India but was allayed when sober and reliable reports arrived. He was welcomed home with a demonstration in the Albert Hall. Back in the House of Commons he was conspicuous for a vehement criticism of the Government'.s advice to King Edward to invite a visit from the Tsar. King Edward gave instruction that the names of Hardie and two others associated with him should be removed from the list of Members invited to Court functions. The reaction of the Labour Members to this evidence of royal displeasure, in which they detected an interference by the Throne with the unfettered opinions of Members of Parliament, was immediate. They asked for their names also to be taken from the lists. The protest was successful in lifting the ban.

Hardie cherished the hope that the great war which he felt to be menacing mankind would be averted by the international action of organised Labour. The great preoccupation of his later years was to band together the Labour Movements of the Continent in a solid alliance against war. Just as he believed that the forces of capitalism were heading for war, so he held, with deep conviction, that the interests of the working classes were inseparable from peace. His plan was to counter and stifle an out­break of war by an international General Strike. If only the workers every­where would cease work and bring transport and industry to a standstill, then war could not begin. He took this message and appeal wherever he went on the Continent, and it was a constant theme of his writings and speeches at home. When the Great War of 1914 broke out it utterly demolished this hope and in doing so broke Hardie's spirit. International Labour dissolved instantly into its national elements and those elements warred against each other. Hardie never recovered from the blow. He continued to attend the House of Commons but he took no part in its debates. He appeared to shrink from most of his colleagues, separated by the formidable barrier of opposing opinions. To a friend he wrote that he understood "as well as any man living what Christ suffered in Gethsemane." Hardie's world had crumbled into a desolation. In the early part of 1915 he made a gallant effort to look beyond the war to a new day and a new world and took the chair at an inter-Allied Socialist Conference in London. The conference called for the suppression of secret diplomacy, the abolition of the vested interests in militarism and armament manufacture, and for the establishment of an international authority to settle the differences of nations by compulsory conciliation and arbitration and to compel all nations to keep the peace. But Hardie's life was spent; his work was done, and seven months later, on September 26, 1915, he died. His heirs and successors are the Labour Party, the Labour majority in Parliament and the Labour Government.