Keir Hardie: Labour’s greatest hero?
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THE Blair cabinets had a remarkably high proportion of professed Christians in them, even if — notoriously — politicians no longer “do God” publicly. But it is doubtful whether Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the modern Labour Party and its first parliamentary leader, would have welcomed his Labour heirs’ cosiness with business. He was a fierce critic of capitalism and of social privilege, an ardent advocate of equality, and no compromiser.
But he was a committed Christian, even if, as Bob Holman acknowledges in this engaging short biography, his modern admirers have all too often been embarrassed at the thought of a churchgoing, Bible-quoting Hardie.
Born near Glasgow in 1856, Hardie had a hard childhood. He missed out largely on formal education, and at the age of ten went down the mines. Brought up in unbelief, he was converted as a young man, and the Church and trade unionism proved to be his escape. He became fully involved in the life of his local church, and took the pledge — he was an ardent teetotaller all his life.
His ascent through Labour journalism and trade unionism was rapid, and after a spell as an MP on a reluctant Liberal-Labour (“Lib-Lab”) ticket, he was elected to Parliament again in 1900, becoming the first leader in the Commons of the new Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
A man of enormous energy, he was a compelling speaker, fired by the social injustice he had witnessed and experienced in youth, and a restless enquirer after the conditions in which his fellow-workers lived. He was an advocate of women’s rights, of education for all, and of the provision of national systems of welfare. He was an unashamed and unapologetic Socialist, though influenced less by Marx than by the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.
No one could be better placed to write the life of this extraordinary man than Bob Holman. Although this does not set out to be a work of original scholarship, Holman shows very convincingly, drawing at times on church records and on Hardie’s own journalism, how central his religious beliefs were to his social commitment.
Rumours of affairs swirled around Hardie in his last two decades, but Holman rightly dismisses these as fabricated largely by his enemies. He was a dedicated family man, if all too often an absent one.
Hardie died in 1915, nearly ten years before his work bore fruit in the formation of the first Labour government (a minority govern-ment). But he remains a pillar of Labour mythology.
Holman’s highly readable and sympathetic book is a miracle of balance: avoiding hagiography, it does not spare criticism when merited, but it does provide a fascinating insight into the making of a Labour hero.
The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.