On September 25th 1915, with the Great War in full flow, James Keir Hardie passed away. His life had been dedicated to improving the lot of the working man, and the working man's lot at the time was terrible indeed!
Born illegitimate to a servant girl in Lanarkshire on the 15th of August 1856 he started at the bottom of life. Eventually his mother married a ship's carpenter and the family moved to the new area of Partick in Glasgow with the intention of finding work. The young lad had to work himself from an early age and at eight years old became a Baker's delivery boy working around seventy five hours a week! With his father unemployed, his mother pregnant and with a brother to care for he became the wage earner of the family, at three shillings and sixpence a week! When he was ten years of age his brother lay dying and the young Hardie tended him through the night. This caused him to be late for work so he was sacked, and fined a weeks wages by his boss! Some people still question why unions came into being?
With work difficult to find the family left Glasgow and returned to Lanarkshire and after his step-father had gone to sea, he was a ships carpenter, the young lad became a miner, at the age of ten, in Newarthill Colliery! Working as a 'Trapper,' he spent ten hours a day opening and closing doors enabling air to reach the miners. The unschooled boy was taught to read by his mother and became literate by the age of seventeen, and this in spite of twelve hour shifts down the pit. This was not unusual in the second half of the nineteenth century. David Livingstone the missionary,taught himself to read and write by placing books on his machine as he weaved cloth in nearby Blantyre. A hunger for self development to improve an individuals position spread throughout the nation. Reading newspapers taught Hardie that others were forming unions and taking a stand to improve their working conditions, and in an effort to improve his own mine Hardie formed a union and led the first strike in 1880. He was dismissed!
Moving to Ayrshire he found work as a journalist, having been 'blacklisted' by the mine owners, and married a fellow temperance campaigner, Lillie Wilson. She was to find a life of struggle bringing up the bairns while he travelled around addressing meetings while he fought for the miners interests. In 1886 he was appointed as secretary to the 'Ayrshire Miners Union,' and shorty after the 'Scottish Miners Federation.' This was a time of growing economic wealth in the United Kingdom, and many men had formed guilds and unions to improve their conditions and educate themselves. Miners also desperately wished for change and a fairer share of the wealth. In 1887 a newspaper was produced as he attempted to educate the miners, called at first 'The Miner,' and later the 'Labour Leader.' In 1888 he decided that a new political party was required to benefit the workers. The Liberals, in whom he had trusted up till then, were not seen as being supportive enough of the working class, and Hardie stood, and came last, as an Independent Labour candidate at the local election. At this stage only around one man in three had the vote, and while artisans had received the privilege most had not. On August 25th 1888 the Scottish Labour Party came into being with James Keir Hardie as secretary!
In 1897 Hardie became a Christian and claimed the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had been the main inspiration for his ideals. He had been brought up an atheist, but one infused with the teachings of the 'Sermon on the mount.' Hardie described Jesus teachings as 'Communistic,' meaning a sharing and caring society as opposed to the Stalinism that grew up in the east. A great many leaders of the Independent Labour Party were from a Christian Socialist background. It is difficult to relate that Tony Blair claims he also belongs to that class!
In 1892, after travelling the world investigating working class politics and conditions, meeting leaders of similar organisations throughout Europe, Hardie stood and won, as an Independent Labour candidate in the West Ham South constituency, a rough industrial area. John Burns in Battersea and J. Havelock Wilson in Middlesbrough were also elected as Independent Labour men. The MP's dress of the day required top hats and tail coats but Hardie entered the house wearing a cloth cap and a tweed suit! A sensation resulted! A year later he became the leader of the newly formed Independent Labour Party. MP's were not paid at that time, most had sufficient wealth to avoid the need for salary, however this, and an increase of tax on the rich were among the policies campaigned for by the new members. Pensions for the old, free schooling, votes for women and abolition of the House of Lords were also on his menu.
In 1894 a motion was presented congratulating the monarch on the arrival of a grandchild. On the same day the French president had been assassinated and over two hundred and fifty men had died in a mining accident in Wales. Sir William Harcourt offered the motion of congratulations on the birth, and condolences to the French for their loss and Hardie asked if an addition, regretting the deaths of the Welsh miners could be added to this. Harcourt refused and in an offhand manner offered regret to the miners. Hardie then launched into an attack on the monarchs privileges and continued in spite of the House viciously attacking him as he spoke. He then opposed the motion. His loss the next year in the 1895 general election may well have been the result of this action.
In 1900 Merthyr Tydfil sent Hardie back to the House of Commons where he joined by Richard Bell from Derby. He then produced a masterstroke by agreeing with the Liberal Party not to stand against one another in thirty seats at the next election, this meant that at the 1906 election the Labour numbers rose to twenty nine and the Liberals won the election. This also led on to pensions for those over seventy, Labour Exchanges and many other much needed reforms. During the early years of the century Keir Hardie involved himself in many issues, including calling for equality of races in South Africa, independence for India and many others that brought him much opposition.
He suffered much more opposition on the outbreak of war in 1914. His pacifism led to him addressing large meetings calling on working men to refuse to enlist, and he suffered taunts of "Traitor," although he was never a traitor to his beliefs like some in his party. Many of his former colleagues and friends disagreed with his stance, and it must be recalled that the socialist leader in France who opposed the war was shot in a cafe at this time! The workers did not listen to Hardie and by December 31st 1915 over two and a half million men had volunteered to enlist. The strength of character and determination to speak for his beliefs in spite of opposition from friends and foe did not stop him speaking out. Opposition is always the reward for truth! Much of his life was of course spent in being opposed! A sick man, he suffered from strokes, suffering a heart attack in late 1914 and unhappy with the pain of war, along with his friends decision to support it, he shrank away slowly. Returning to Glasgow to die in hospital there on September the 25th 1915. His heart would have suffered much had he known that as he died thousands joined him on the Loos battlefield, dying for the war he had so strongly opposed.
What would James Keir Hardie think of the Labour Party that now sits in the House? He would be frank about their leadership certainly, especially the lack of real work experience and lack of understanding of the working class today. His willingness to sustain opposition would certainly lead to a full and frank expression of opinion on David Cameron, George Osborne and Ian Duncan Smith that's clear. The 'belief empty' front bench would remind him of much that he saw in the House when he arrived. The late 19th century house of Commons had seen great men like Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli. Today we have Cameron and Osborne, Milliband and Balls. What a contrast, what would Hardie say?
Pitwork Keir Hardie