Keir Hardie

One hundred years since his death

To mark the centenary of his death (26/9/1915), we publish two specially commissioned book reviews. Coming from Newhouse, North Lanarkshire, Hardie was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) as well as the Labour Party itself. He is widely seen as embodying the heart and soul of the Labour Party as a democratic socialist party. Hence, the oft-used phrase since the arrival of ‘new’ Labour in 1994 that ‘Keir Hardie would be turning in his grave’.

What Would Keir Hardie Say? Pauline Byran (ed.), Luath, Edinburgh, 2015, 9781910745151, £9.99

Reviewed by Ewan Gibbs

The release of this collection of essays on various aspects of Keir Hardie’s politics and life is a timely occurrence. Not only does it concur with the centenary of the death of Labours founding father, it also comes at a time when once more the purpose and ideology of Labour is being freshly debated by a new generation. The enthusiasm generated by Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, and the vitriolic response he is receiving from the Labour establishment, demonstrates that many of the historical contentions addressed within What Would Keir Hardie Say? remain very much live issues.

The contributors include academics, and labour movement figures, largely from Scotland. Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd, adjacent to Hardie’s old constituency of Merthyr Tyfdil, and Jeremy Corbyn add perspectives from elsewhere within the UK. Smith considers the power of Hardie as a mobiliser of ‘emotional connection’ with coalfield communities and union struggles. He emphasises how Hardie used parliament as a platform for industrial and social movements, ‘carrying the cordite and sulphur stink of industrial conflict into the cloisters of Westminster’. Corbyn’s chapter concerns Hardie as an international peace campaigner, arguing Hardie’s brave stance against the First World War, which placed himself in an embattled minority within Labour, set trends which resurfaced in fissures between supporters and opponents of NATO and nuclear armaments. These were more recently visible in the movement against the war in Iraq, which shared Hardie’s opposition to imperialism and his internationalist perspective.

A key strength of this collection is its attention to historical details, which burst some influential myths about Hardie and Labour. The appendix includes Hardie’s maiden Westminster speech in which he railed against the injustice of unemployment brought but also against Jewish migrants replacing British workers who had emigrated to Commonwealth countries. Elsewhere attention is given to Hardie’s ideological development. Bob Holman considers Hardie’s conversion to evangelical Christianity but also his often fraught relationship with religious bodies. Richard Leonard succinctly addresses the popular misconception that Hardie’s ethical socialism was not enthused with class conscious politics. Dave Watson effectively challenges recent portrayals of Keir Hardie as a Scottish nationalist, situating his support for home rule within the legacy of Scottish radical liberalism and localism.

Perhaps most importantly this collection addresses arguments over the character of Labour. William Knox’s chapter argues Hardie’s key achievement, namely, ‘the conscious coupling of the economic and political struggle of the working class’, was far from historically inevitable. The party emerged as ‘a broad alliance of middle class intellectuals of the Fabian Society, socialist societies and trade unions’, rather than an overtly doctrinaire socialist organisation. Knox draws attention to its ‘broad church’ status, but also notes ideas around weakening the union link and a ‘one nation’ party are alien to this conception. At our present juncture, this book provides important historical context and comment on contemporary trends at a crucial time for Labour’s future.

Ewan Gibbs is a PhD researcher studying Scottish labour history at the University of Glasgow with a focus on coalfield politics.

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Keir Hardie: From Serfdom to Socialism; introduced and edited by John Callow, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 9781910448472, £12.99

Reviewed by Cathy Jamieson

This publication is timely not only in light of the centenary of Hardie’s death but also with regard to the current debate on Labour’s fundamental values and future direction. In his introduction, Callow paints a vivid picture of Hardie’s political beliefs and activities, providing sharp analysis of the reception that From Serfdom to Socialism received at various points in history. As Callow says of Hardie’s book: ‘It was conceived of as a testament to principle, written to satisfy highly diverse alliance of labour interests – a heterogeneous federation of socialists, co-operators and trades unionists and sought to convey for them a coherent platform for socialism and the vision of what they could hope to achieve through their collective efforts’.

While Callow’s introduction is a worthy read in its own right, he draws the reader in, encouraging consideration of Hardie’s own words and beliefs. Originally published in 1907, From Serfdom to Socialism has been a seminal text, initially for Labour activists and then for Labour historians. Hardie wrote on a range of issues, from the basic principles of socialism, to his ideas on religion, women’s rights and local government. He also provides an appendix of quotations from others, helping to define socialism, and commenting on development of society. This publication includes photographs of Hardie’s life, many of which can be viewed in the Baird Institute in Cumnock, helping to bring a real sense of his life onto the pages. Everyone in Labour should read this, as a reminder of where we came from, and to help us take forward our values in principles in the future.

Cathy Jamieson is a former Labour Deputy Leader in the Scottish Parliament. She was MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley from 1997-2011, and MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun from 2010 -2015. She is President of the Keir Hardie Society.