I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the annual Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture, here, in his adopted home. At a time when politicians are held in deep contempt and there is little to choose between the programmes offered by the main political parties, it is valuable to reflect on the life and contribution of Keir Hardie who, in the words of Wikipedia “has de facto sainthood inside the Labour Party and is highly respected outside it”. It worthwhile to ask ourselves if he was with us today, what kind of political programme would he be likely to be advocating.
I am sure that many of you here this evening are very familiar with the story of Keir Hardie’s life. I hope you will nevertheless forgive me if I rehearse that story, relying on the account give in Caroline Benn’s fine biography published in 1992. My purpose is both to honour the extraordinary life journey that he made and then to go on to try to draw from that story and the values he lived by, my thoughts on how his values should be applied to the problems we face in today’s world.
The hardship of Keir Hardie’s early life was very great. His mother Mary was the daughter of a weaver whose craft had been squeezed out by the machine age and the mining of coal and iron ore which was disfiguring the countryside around Glasgow. This was of course the beginning of the industrial revolution, which was to transform the economic potential of the UK and later the whole of Western Europe and North America. It created great new wealth, but its beginning ripped apart the old order and exploited people with great brutality. It is worth noting that a very similar change is now taking place in China and beginning in India and pausing to ask ourselves whether it will generate the growth of similar trade union and working class movements to which Keir Hardie contributed so much and which transformed the history of the western world. If we are looking for historical forces that might challenge the present world order, this may well be one.
It is also noteworthy that his mother’s family had participated in the Chartist demonstrations that swept across the UK in 1848 as working people demanded the vote and people across Europe rose in revolutions to throw out the old feudal order. At a time when disillusionment with politics is deep and strong, it is worth remembering that the values Hardie’s mother nurtured, help to explain the extraordinary achievements of Keir Hardie. Thus, even if we do not see a way of making immediate progress, I suggest the lesson here is that we should nurture principles of equality and dignity for all people in our families and communities, because historical opportunities will arise again and we must be ready to seize them.
Hardie’s maternal grandparents were not married and his mother Mary’s father died of cholera when Mary, the oldest of three, was six. The family moved to a tied cottage on a farm ten miles from Glasgow and Mary worked as a farm servant. At age 26 she became pregnant by a man who abandoned her. Mary took legal action to ensure that the father was named on the birth certificate and was determined that her son should make something of himself. Whilst Mary worked, he was cared for by his grandmother who told him stories and sang to him. Hardie later recalled this time of his life as idyllic.
Three years after Hardie’s birth, Mary married a ship’s carpenter called David Hardie and the young James Kerr became James Keir Hardie. Mary was determined that her son should be educated and taught him herself and also arranged a teacher for him. This was, however, the last generation without compulsory education in the UK and James Hardie, as he was then known, started his first job as a messenger boy at the age of eight years and nine months. His parents tried to arrange an apprenticeship for him but did not have the money for him to work unpaid. After the apprenticeship failed, he worked in a shipyard where young boys in cradles heated up the rivets for men to hammer in. One day, the boy working next to James Hardie slipped and died. After that, his mother refused to let him return to that work.
The next period was very difficult. David Hardie had an accident and this was followed by a recession and prolonged dockyard strike. The family had to move to poorer quarters. James eventually got a job delivering bread. He worked 12 hours. One of his three siblings, Duncan, was very ill and his mother was about to give birth. Years later Hardie recalled what happened when he was a few minutes late for work on New Year’s Eve: “When I reached the shop I was drenched to the skin, barefooted and hungry. There had not been a crust of bread in the house that morning. But that was pay day and I was filled with hope”. He was told that his master wanted to see him upstairs. His master was well known for his piety and he had to wait while the family finished their prayers. He then saw the family around a big table laden with coffee and food and was told “Boy … my customers leave me if they are kept waiting for their hot bread rolls. I therefore dismiss you and to make you more careful in the future, I have decided to fine you a week’s wages.” Hardie took hours to face going home. He knew his mother was waiting for his wages. That night, the first of January 1867, the baby was born in a home without food or fire. His brother Duncan died a few months later. Caroline Benn concludes that “these early years … were the wellspring of Hardie’s politics and personality. He identified with the poverty and misery of others to a degree that often provoked uncontrollable anger.” We must always remember that for many children in the world there is still not compulsory education and that over a billion people the hardship suffered by Hardie’s family continues to this day.
Following these experiences David Hardie went back to sea, Mary and her six children returned to the country to live with her mother. At the age of 10, Hardie went down the pit. There he formed a deep affection for a pit pony called Donald and this tapped a passion for animals that intensified throughout his life and led him to oppose all hunting and cruelty to animals. In Cumnock, years later, Hardie took great pleasure from working in his garden and retained a great care for the natural world that we are now learning is essential if we are to survive the ravages that industrialisation has wrought upon the planet.
Times then got a little better as Hardie’s father and brothers went to work and the family acquired books which Hardie studied intently. He read Carlyle, one of whose stories he referred to throughout his life. It was the tale of two villages – one English, one French – from which leaders were recruiting men for a war in Spain. Carlyle argued that the governors had fallen out and instead of shooting each other, made these men, who had no quarrel, kill each other. Hardie concluded from this reading that war was the greatest oppression of the common people. This is an analysis I suggest that we could usefully re-examine in the present world order of massive arms sales and unnecessary conflict.
By the time he was sixteen, Hardie was working long hours, and also reading and socialising. His mother was determined that her children should not be taken over by the drinking culture that was devastating poor working class communities. (Here again, we have an uncanny parallel with the problems facing our society today).
At the age of 17, Hardie took the pledge and joined the temperance movement. The pledge helped to shape the next phase of Hardie’s life. It was strongly allied to the working-class self help ethic. The Co-operative Society, trade unions, the ILP and the Labour Party were based to a considerable extent on early temperance organisations. These movements not only organised parades and marches, but also friendly societies, sick clubs and funeral funds. Temperance was Hardie’s first political cause and he threw himself into it with great vigour. At the same time, the miners started to organise themselves in Trade Unions and Hardie’s experience in temperance work meant that he was soon pushed forward to chair meetings and lead deputations to colliery management.
Hardie had been raised in a non-religious family and knew little of Scripture, but the temperance movement was strongly religious and Hardie had a deep reverence for his concept of Jesus Christ who came to earth to fight for the poor. There were various accounts of Christ’s life written at this time which stressed the social gospel. Hardie read and was greatly influenced by Ernest Renan’s life of Christ which he later counted as one of the books most influential in his life. Scotland during this period was full of Christian sects competing for support, many of them originating in the US. Hardie chose a church founded in 1841 by a Rev James Morison who had been expelled from the Presbyterians for denying the doctrine of predestination which he saw as inconsistent with freedom for people to remake themselves.
Thus, by the age of 22, Hardie was active in both temperance and union work. The mood in the coalfield was increasingly angry because wages were low. The men wanted to strike but Hardie argued that they had no funds and needed to organise first. Then the colliery manager sacked Hardie and his brothers because of his union work. Hardie was not depressed (we are not informed of how his brothers felt). For Hardie this meant he could work as a union organiser and he went ahead and married Lillie Wilson, the daughter of a publican.
After two years of marriage, and after the birth of their first child, Hardie and his wife moved to Cumnock. Hardie had no work. He had been driven out of Hamilton by the liberal trade unionist because he had supported his branch when they decided to strike, despite him advising against it. And then he obtained work as a correspondent for the Cumnock news section of the region’s main liberal paper. In his columns, he preached self-reliance, temperance and thrift. But he also exposed neglect of safety in pits, the racketeering of company stores. He attacked charges for supposedly free education and supported an extension of the franchise and votes for women. He also denounced jingoism and the slaughter of “Arabs fighting for home and liberty”.
Hardie’s conversion to socialism was a slow process. In his time most trade unionists were Liberals, as were most non conformists. In 1885 and 1886, Hardie campaigned for a Liberal victory in the general election, seeing them as those who ‘desire the greatest good for the greatest number.’ In 1886, he stood for election to the school board as a Liberal and won. But more significantly in that year of rising unemployment and hardship, he returned to work for the Ayrshire miners at their request. He then started to talk of land nationalisation, socialism and the fact that all wealth was created by labour and that capital ought to be their servant and not master. He also founded The Miner, a journal for underground workers. In 1887, desperate miners went on strike, and suffered terribly. Eventually, blacklegs were brought in to break the strike, there was some fighting and then army Hussars were sent in and raided cottages and arrested indiscriminately and brutally. The state’s violence hit Hardie hard and brought to the surface one of his fundamental beliefs, the necessity for non violence in all human struggle.
Around this time, the Lib-Lab MPs failed to support radical amendments to the Miners’ Bill for which Hardie had lobbied. He also started to meet socialists, including Eleanor Marx, Engles and Tom Mann who was campaigning for an eight hour day. He attended international labour conferences, met socialist leaders from throughout Europe and became an internationalist. These were turbulent times; the socialist movements were growing across Europe and the new unionism of unskilled workers growing in strength. In 1888 Keir Hardie became the Secretary of the new formed Scottish Labour Party.
And then in 1892 there was a by-election in West Ham. Local radicals wanted to put up a working class candidate and Keir Hardie was selected. He fought as ‘an independent supporter of the Liberal party who would place the claims of labour above party’. He won against the Conservative candidate by 5,268 votes to 4,036. When he took his seat, he refused to wear the ‘parliamentary uniform’ of black frock coat, silk top hat and starched wing collar that other working class MPs wore, although he had previously bought such an outfit, in his Liberal day. Instead, he wore a tweed suit and deerstalker. In parliament, he was seen as a shocking radical because he advocated graduated income tax, free schooling, pensions, the abolition of the House of Lords and women’s right to vote.
A year later, in 1893, Hardie and others formed the Independent Labour Party. In 1894, he hit the headlines when a explosion in a colliery ant Pontypridd killed 251 miners. He asked that a message of condolence to the victims be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of the royal heir. He lost his seat in 1895 and his attack on the monarchy was thought to be a major part of the explanation.
In 1900, Hardie helped to organise the meeting of trade unionists and socialist organisations that led to the formation of the Labour Party. It was attended by only 129 people and not thought to be a significant meeting at the time. In the same year was elected again as MP for Merthyr Tydfil. Only one other Labour MP was elected that year, but the party grew quickly and formed a minority government by 1924.
As an MP, Hardie was much more a political campaigner than an office seeker. In 1908, he resigned the leadership of the Labour Party and spent the rest of his life campaigning for the causes he held dear, including votes for women, self rule for India and an end to segregation in South Africa. Hardie was deeply upset by the outbreak of the First World War and had hoped the growing international Labour movement would engage in a general strike to stop the war. He spoke at anti-war meetings, supported conscientious objectors and died after a series of strokes at the age of 59.
What then are the lessons we can draw from this remarkable man that might help take us forward through these despondent times in which we are living?
The first is surely to stand for what is right, rather than for what is considered sensible and feasible. Graduated income tax, free education, eight hour day, safety in mines, the independence of India, and the end of apartheid. He demanded such things and was denounced. Now they have all been won. He did not seek office in order to be important, but in order to work, campaign and inspire people to demand what his right.
What are the equivalent things that we should be demanding and working to turn into feasible reality today? My own view is that we face a challenge as large as that of Hardie’s generation. They lived with the challenge of industrialisation, creating great wealth by using new technologies, but generating wealth for a few and misery for the many. They were clear that it was work that created wealth and capital and therefore wrong that working people lived so badly and a few lived in splendour. And in the end they won. They created unions, Labour and Social Democratic parties and mobilised for an ethic of equality. A new society was created because the capitalists feared the workers’ movements and conceded the reforms that led to full employment, the welfare state and democratic rights for all.
But now progress is stalled. We used to assume that these technological and political developments would spread across the world and bring an end of poverty and a welfare state to all. But this is not so. Half of humanity is as poor as were Keir Hardie’s family and nearly one billion are constantly hungry and suffer all the consequences in ill health, loss of children, short lives and lack of dignity.
In addition to this, the way of life of the 20 per cent of us who live in the rich countries is completely unsustainable. We cannot continue to pollute and plunder in the way we have for the past two hundred years, without destroying human civilisation. Climate change and the strain on the environmental resources of the planet promises mounting catastrophe. The only way to manage this crisis is to create a new world order were all people have the necessities of life – food, shelter, health care, education and the chance to influence the government of their communities and countries. We need a world of greater equity and then greater frugality. Our greedy materialism which rewards us with material goods in a society that is increasingly atomised and lonely, must end and we must learn to live in safety and security and greater frugality so that the whole of humanity can live sustainably. Otherwise all of us, rich and poor, North and South, East and West, will suffer terrible consequences. But as ever, the poor of the world who are not responsible for the crisis we face, will suffer the worst.
To manage all of this we need unprecedented international co-operation, so that we can reach agreement on climate change and implement that agreement. We need to agree on sharing water resources, preservation of fish stocks, and preservation of forests to ensure human life is sustainable.
And to achieve this, we must rise to Keir Hardie’s other great challenge. We must create a just peace settlement in the Middle East and end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, otherwise we will see bloodshed and anger for decades to come. And we must cease to surround and alienate Russia when there is in reality no real conflict between us.
We need to see as Keir Hardie saw so clearly that these conflicts are driven by a military industrial complex that makes money, power and pomposity out of war. The present leadership of the world is as foolish as those who led us into the first world war and we, like Keir Hardie, should howl in anguish but also be determined to cast those leaders aside and build a better future for the whole human race.