Keir Hardie: Socialism the World for the Workers: Roger Spalding Examines the Continuing Controversy That Surrounds One of the Key Figures in the History of the Labour Party. (Profiles in Power)

By Spalding, Roger | History Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Keir Hardie: Socialism the World for the Workers: Roger Spalding Examines the Continuing Controversy That Surrounds One of the Key Figures in the History of the Labour Party. (Profiles in Power)


Spalding, Roger, History Review


HARDIE'S CONTESTED LEGACY

The February 2000 edition of Inside Labour, a Labour Party journal, was largely given over to celebrating the Party's centenary. The cover of the journal carried twin portraits of Keir Hardie and Tony Blair, obviously designed to convey the impression of continuity of outlook between the leader of the Labour movement around the start of the twentieth century and today's Labour Prime Minister. Later that year John Prescott, the Labour deputy leader, asserted: `the values that motivated Keir Hardie are the same ones that motivate Tony Blair'. This claim subsequently produced a public denial from Roy Hattersley, a former deputy leader, that Tony Blair's policies had anything in common with Keir Hardie's socialism. What this exchange illustrates is that Hardie's legacy is a contested one. This is an interesting example of how history can be used to fight the battles of the present. In this dispute the two sides are seeking to legitimate their views by aligning them with their versions of Hardie's politics.

The same kind of division may be found within the biographies of Hardie. According to Caroline Benn, whose biography appeared in 1992, an earlier biographer, K.O. Morgan; had a `hidden agenda', which was to bring about a `re-evaluation of the historical extremist Keir Hardie as a true moderate'. Benn is much more inclined to see Hardie as open to a range of radical ideas, including Marxism. Indeed, in many ways Benn's Hardie resembles her husband, former Labour minister and MP Tony Benn. Both Morgan and Benn argue that their version of Hardie's legacy has an enduring significance for the Labour Party.

These debates clearly indicate that Hardie has a continuing importance, particularly for members and supporters of the Labour Party.

HARDIE'S EARLY LIFE

Hardie, the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant, was born in 1856. The name Hardie came from David Hardie, a ship's carpenter, whom his mother married some time after Hardie's birth. His early years were characterised by grinding poverty. All his biographers tell how in the 1860s, at a point when his stepfather was unemployed and his mother pregnant, he took a job as a baker's delivery boy. They also tell how he was dismissed for arriving late. He had spent the previous night helping his mother attend to his dying brother.

At the age of 11 Hardie found work in the Lanarkshire coalfields. Despite working 12 hours a day Hardie, who never attended school, found time to learn to read and write. He even taught himself shorthand by scratching the characters onto slate with wire in slack moments in the pit. This drive to acquire an education was indicative of a strong desire for self-improvement. In the late 1870s he joined the Independent Order of Good Templars, a Temperance organisation, and also converted to Christianity; his mother and stepfather were both atheists. At this time religion and Temperance were both seen as movements that provided worthy individuals from the working class with the self-discipline and support to rise above their circumstances.

Hardie was also closely involved in mining trade unionism. At the age of 21 he became secretary of the Hamilton District branch of the Lanarkshire Miners' Union. In 1879 he emerged as a militant leader in the so-called `Tattie Strike' (a reference to the potatoes that strikers were forced to subsist on) called to resist wage-cuts. In the aftermath of this bitter and defeated strike, he was blacklisted in Lanarkshire pits and never worked underground again. In 1881 he was invited to become paid secretary of the Ayrshire Miners' Association. Taking up this post Hardie moved, with his new wife, to Cumnock, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. When the Ayrshire Miners' Association collapsed, about a year after Hardie's arrival, he found work on a local newspaper and supported his family in this-way until 1886. The Hardie of this period was more a moderately successful example of individual self-improvement than an apostle of socialism. …

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