So who is Keir Hardie?

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Many of you will have heard Jeremy Corbyn finish his speech today quoting and honouring Keir Hardie. As Christians on the Left and previously the Christian Socialist Movement, we have long celebrated this man whose Christian faith inspired his politics. Here Ian Geary explains...

World Changers with Beards

‘I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined’[1], J.Keir Hardie.

One hundred years ago last weekend the Battle of Loos had started in France, Everton were football league champions and Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party passed away. [2]Today, the newly elected Labour Leader in his wide ranging and powerful speech concluded with intentional reference to Keir Hardie.  Mr Corbyn quoted Keir who had said:

‘My work has consisted of trying to stir up divine discontent with wrong’.

You would be hard pressed to generate a better strapline for the mission of Christians on the Left.

Keir Hardie was born in 1856 in North Lanarkshire, he was the son of a domestic servant and his step-father was a ship’s carpenter.  He began work aged seven, by the age of ten he was sent to work in the mines and his parents taught him to read and write in the evenings.  He was elected to Parliament in 1892, was integral to the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (the forerunner of the Labour Party) in 1900 and became its leader in 1906.  His life is a canvas overlaid with the story of the birth of Labour as a movement and its establishment as a Parliamentary force. Hardie’s upbringing and life is an amazing story, both sobering and inspiring:

‘While he had some idyllic early memories of growing up in countryside around Lanarkshire, Keir Hardie later wrote that his upbringing was so hard that he never really knew childhood. First the stigma of being child of single mother in a small 19th century village, then adopted by his mother’s new husband who would call him a bastard when drunk. When children today would have been in the first years of primary school, he was working in the shipyards where he saw another boy fall to his death. Later, from the age of ten, he worked in the mines, often alone for hours at a time in the dark.’

Keir Hardie’s life story and key contribution has been wonderfully summarised in the recent series of vignettes introduced by Blair McDougall on the Labour List website[3], which unpacks the multi-faceted outlook of the bearded Scot who forged the Labour Party. The series testifies that Hardie’s political outlook was not grounded in materialistic Marxism but that his worldview is ‘….in favour of a humane and popular approach to socialism that comes out of his Christianity and other influences.’[4]

His faith was all about resisting the powers and injustices of the day, as a journalist writing in the Labour Leader in January 1899, Hardie reflected that

‘…I believe in Christ’s Gospel of love and brotherhood and service’[5]

Yet, his concern in this context was not pious sentimentality but rather to to expose the shortcomings of Lord Overtoun, a Christian philanthropist responsible for exploiting his workers engaged in a large chemical works. Hardie’s agitation won the day and thankfully Lord Overtoun saw sense and improved the conditions of the workers.

Please read the words in Hardie’s account of the worker’s experience, they have a prophetic edge, we should thank God for trade unions and health and safety and remember why they are necessary.  We also see Hardie’s burning rage against injustice and remember that the creation of the Labour Party was a battle in and of itself. Without people of faith such as Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Arthur Henderson it would never have been created and survived.

As Jeremy Corbyn has reminded us the battles are still with us; to reform private sector housing, to show humanity to refugees, to protect workers, to work for peace and combat climate change, to cherish the welfare state and the NHS and not denigrate them. These are campaigns that require ‘divine discontent with wrong’; this is a party in which the light of Christian faith has shone and must continue to shine.

Listening to the leader’s speech today; reminded me of the passion for social justice which I was taught by my family.  Yet, as Kenneth Morgan observed, Hardie combined passion with a strategic mind:

‘Hardie was both our greatest strategist and our greatest prophet and evangelist’[6]

As the leadership election proved managerialism and electoralism alone cannot construct a compelling vision. However, Labour needs more than the voice of protest to fellow travellers in the echo chamber of a conference hall. Labour must fuse passion with organisation, re-build a movement and win elections in both Nuneaton and Nunhead and in Hamilton and Hampstead. It must reach out to the window cleaner and the public servant, connecting with those attached to family, work, place and faith as the anchors of their lives. We were reminded today of a key element of the Labour story, a rage against injustice and also that from its inception some Labour leaders sought to express their mission in terms of faith. The task is precisely the same today as it was when Hardie passed away one hundred years ago. Our inspiration is also the same as the one which drove Hardie on. Stirring up divine discontent with wrong is the task for Christians on the left in season and out of season.


[2] ‘100 Years on – Keir Hardie without a childhood’- Labour List, 26 September 2015 -http://labourlist.org/2015/09/100-years-on-keir-hardie-without-a-childhood/

[3]‘100 Years On – Keir Hardie – without a childhood’ – Labour List, 26 September 2015 http://labourlist.org/2015/09/100-years-on-keir-hardie-without-a-childhood/

[4] ‘100 Years On – Keir Hardie the Socialist’ – Labour List, 26 September 2015: http://labourlist.org/2015/09/100-years-on-keir-hardie-the-socialist/

[5] ‘100 Years On – Keir Hardie the Journalist’ – Labour List, 26 September 2015: http://labourlist.org/2015/09/100-years-on-keir-hardie-the-journalist/

[6]Labour’s greatest hero: Keir Hardie’ – Kenneth O.Morgan – ‘The Guardian’ 19 September 2008 - http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/sep/19/labour.labourconference1

 

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published this page in News 2015-09-29 18:03:30 +0100