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
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
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.