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Overturning the vested interest

24 April 2015

It was Keir Hardie's Christianity that inspired his politics, and his contribution to the Labour movement, says Gordon Brown


Precursor: the Labour leader, Keir Hardie, delivers a speech in Trafalgar Square, on New Year's Day, 1910

Precursor: the Labour leader, Keir Hardie, delivers a speech in Trafalgar Square, on New Year's Day, 1910

I WILL never forget a story my father told me after our family had left Glasgow, where he was a Church of Scotland minister for more than a decade in two phases before and after the Second World War.

At the turn of the 20th century, Lord Overtoun, owner of the chrome-making Shawfield Chemical Works in Rutherglen, Glasgow, was the country's biggest chemical tycoon, and also a pillar of the Presbyterian Church establishment.

He was the head of the Sunday Rest and Lord's Day Observance Society, but insisted his employees work on a Sunday; if they went to church, they had their Monday's wages reduced. He gave millions to charity, but that generosity was paid for by offering his unskilled workers some of the lowest wages in the country, with no pensions and no sick pay. He preached the highest of Christian standards, but his large plants, using some of the most dangerous chemicals imaginable, had some of the worst health and safety records in the land, as workers were poisoned by the factories' vapours and fumes.

WHEN I first heard this story, I did not realise that the person who had done most to expose this exploitation was the Labour leader James Keir Hardie. In 1899, he wrote a pamphlet, White Slaves, exposing the hypocrisy of Lord Overtoun. But he did so at a cost: Hardie, himself a strong Evangelical Christian, was denounced as some kind of anti-Christ by Christian leaders across Scotland who de-fended their patron Lord Overtoun.

But Hardie did not shirk his moral responsibility. When he saw vested interests holding people back and denying them opportunity, and causing them to be poor, he did not flinch from speaking out, no matter what the personal cost.

I FIRST learned of the early life of James Keir Hardie when, for my undergraduate degree, I did a study on the local history of the Lanarkshire Miners' Union in the 1870s and 1880s. I had been inspired to do so by the brilliant work of Fred Reed, the Warwick University lecturer who had written a pioneering study tracking Hardie's transition from Liberal Party supporter to independent socialist. Blind himself, he had kindly sent me tapes of his research on Hardie to listen to when I was in hospital with my eyes temporarily blinded after a series of operations.

Later, I was able to locate the Lanarkshire Miners' Union Records, and extracts from local papers like the Hamilton Advertiser, which traced Hardie's early work as a trade union organiser during a series of strikes in Lanarkshire in the 1880s. I was able to reconstruct the detailed story of the ups and downs of the early miners' union and Hardie's involvement in it; and the now familiar pattern of events that I had been discovering reappeared. Once again, I found Hardie taking on entrenched interests wherever he found them, and in the Lanarkshire of the 1880s I found him working against the odds in two respects. First, as he supported the miners' claims for a decent wage and decent hours, he had to take on not just the mine-owners, but the combined forces of a very integrated industrial élite - the coal, iron, and steel employers, who organised as one. As a result of an earlier strike in Ayrshire, Hardie had himself been blacklisted, and he knew how vicious the recriminations could be: in an act of vengeance, his brothers Alexander and Willie had also been sacked - "We will have no more damned Hardies in this pit," said the owner.

When no other mine-owner would employ him, Hardie had become a poorly paid miners' agent. And when, in the 1880s, he again supported the striking miners, he did so not only against the employers' establishment, but against the wishes of the official trade-union establishment, including the legendary Alexander MacDonald, the Lanarkshire miner who had first brought miners across the UK together in a British miners' union. The strike failed when hunger forced the miners back to work, and Hardie and his friend Robert Smillie (who was later to become President of the British Miners' Union) and the local union's original leader, William Small, found themselves ostracised.

And then, in 1888, Hardie defied the odds yet again, this time the Liberal establishment, by standing as an Independent Labour candidate in the Mid-Lanark by-election, and resisting pleas for Lib-Lab cooperation, even turning down the offer of a Liberal parliamentary seat elsewhere. He gained only a meagre 607 votes, or eight per cent; but he set in motion the movement that brought Independent Labour representation in the House of Commons, and became the main inspiration behind the creation, in 1900, of the joint socialist/trade-union Labour Representation Committee and then, in 1906, the Labour Party in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected.

NO ONE did more than Hardie to set the pattern of Labour politics in the 20th century, which - forcing the Liberal Party to the sidelines - became a battle between the Labour Party (which adopted its socialist constitution in 1918) and the Conservatives (who defined themselves as the anti-socialist party).

Indeed, none of us would be talking about Labour's prospects of victory at the General Election in 2015 had not Hardie made the first bold move to bring independent socialist societies such as the Fabian Society together with the trade-union movement, and develop the Labour Movement that we know today.

Hardie repeatedly came up against entrenched interests, not least in his opposition to discrimination against women at a time when there were few male supporters of that cause; and, latterly, in his opposition to the First World War.

FOR Hardie, faith and politics were inextricably bound together in his Christian Socialism, and here again he was not afraid to take on the establishment. As early as 1880, when his local church minister was sacked for being too tolerant to the drinking habits of one of his poorest parishioners, Hardie - himself a total abstainer, and one of the founders of the local temperance society - supported the minister, and led a breakaway movement to form a new church, which was a local branch of the Evangelical Union.

So controversial was Hardie, as a result of his outspoken attacks on vested interests and, ultimately, his anti-war stance, that when he died in 1915, not one word of tribute was paid to him in the House of Commons. No representatives from any other political party appear to have attended his funeral in Glasgow. No philanthropist came to his family's aid when Hardie died virtually penniless, with only his small Cumnock house to pass on to his widow, Lillie, and his family. A public appeal had to be launched to help them.

Even in death, newspaper tributes remained hostile and unforgiving: one dismissed the famous cloth cap he had worn when he entered Parliament as evidence of "a personal vanity".

All leaders suffer what E. P. Thompson once called "the condescension of history", but it was Hardie who broke the mould of British politics. This year, 100 years on from his death, his life and work deserve a book as informative and sympathetic as this one.

This is an edited version of the new foreword by Gordon Brown MP to Keir Hardie: Labour's greatest hero? by Bob Holman, published by Lion Books.

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