Mr. Keir Hardie M.P

Home » Works and Memoirs of W. T. Stead » Mr. Keir Hardie M.P

Mr. Keir Hardie M.P

W. T. Stead (Coming Men on Coming Questions, No: VI, May, 18, 1905) pp. 1-5

Mr. Keir Hardie is one of the few prophets who have found their way into the House of Commons. That does not mean that he is a political tipster predicting coming events. He belongs to the order of the seers. If the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament and the fisherfolk who became apostles in the New Testament were to rise from their graves and enter the House of Commons; they would probably find themselves more at home in the company of Keir Hardie than in that of any other member of the House. It is his distinction to be a prophet among politicians, and a politician among prophets. And the strange thing is that the prophet has not spoiled the politician, nor the politician the prophet.

Like most prophets, he is somewhat difficult to get on with. There is in his composition a trace of ancient Ishmael. He reminds one at his best moments of the prophet Elijah; but sometimes he is a twentieth-century edition of Habakkuk Mucklewrath. If Mrs. Lynn Linton’s Joshua Davidson had not perished beneath the hobnailed boots of a Church and King mob, he might have preceded Mr. Keir Hardie as founder of the Independent Labour Party. He is no prophesier of smooth things, this Caledonian seer, and he is no respecter of persons. He has flouted everything and everybody, from the Prince of Wales to the Leaders of the Liberal Party. It is the way with prophets. Nothing is sacred to them, because everything is sacred, and when they are on the warpath in the name of the Lord they smite and spare not.

It is thirteen years since Keir Hardie sent a shudder of horror through the Mother of all Parliaments by presenting himself at the bar of the House to take the oath, on his election as Member for North-West Ham, clad in the costume of his class. George Fox’s leather breeches never created such a sensation as Keir Hardie’s blue Scotch cap. Parliamentary Mrs. Grundy almost fainted when she scanned the costume of the new-comer. He was “dressed in blue serge double-breasted jacket and waistcoat, fawn-coloured trousers, and, in the place of the decorous starched linen, a striped flannel shirt, with a coloured scarf tied round its collar in a sailor knot.” It was as if the avant courier of the social revolution had knocked at the portals of Parliament.

When he began to speak, his rough Doric was not attuned to the piping of courtiers. Did he not make one unreportable speech on a motion for a wedding dowry of an August Personage, in which the said illustrious bridegroom was, in the rudest vernacular, accused of bigamy? while Mrs. Grundy, shocked into speechlessness, glared unutterable things.

If Keir Hardie spared not princes in his wrath, he was as fierce with prime ministers in his hot displeasure. One sentence of an article which he contributed to a magazine in 1893 still dwells in my memory. He was writing on the Church and the Labour Problem. He said:

“Are we agreed on the treatment to be meted out to the owners of slum property? I, a rough impulsive man of the world, would not remain a member of any club which admitted to membership his lordship the Marquis of Salisbury, who was convicted the other day in a London police court of letting property unfit for human habitation. Will the Church of England, of which I believe Lord Salisbury is a communicant, make an example of the illustrious sinner by expelling him?”

He was as plainspoken in his dealing with men of his own side of the House. His open letter to Mr. Morley in 1903, “Ishmaelitism Justified,” was a very vigorous piece of writing. ‘Mr. Morley had deprecated the Independent Labour movement, which tended to make the Labour party “a sullen and scowling class sitting apart.” Keir Hardie replied:

“Even a ‘sullen and scowling class sitting apart’ would be preferable to a besotted and unthinking class dragged hither and thither by unscrupulous guides. Most of your speakers were living in a far-off past. They reminded me of a gathering of ghosts of other days revisiting the scenes of former triumphs. Their speeches and battle cries were all of the past. The men by whom you were surrounded had no message for the present, no inspiring hope for the future.”

Keir Hardie is emphatically a man of the future. He sees visions of the coming time. He is, therefore, eminently fit to be selected as one of our Coming Men to deal with one of the most important of all our Coming Questions.

No one should ever look at Keir Hardie without remembering the pit from which he was digged. He was sent down the coal mine when a bit laddie of eight. He never had a day’s schooling in his life. His mother must have taught the lad to read, for Keir Hardie “Says he cannot go back in memory to a time when he could not read. He finished that part of his education by reading from the picture books in the booksellers’ shop windows. He was twenty-three before he left the pit. To-day he is a man of culture, much superior to the majority of the college-bred members among whom he sits! He contributes frequently to our first-class magazines. He is a forcible, lucid, and occasionally, eloquent speaker. He is the founder of a party, the leader of the disinherited of the land. He was born the son of a vigorous and militant atheist, who confounded the Calvinism of “Holy Willie’s Prayer” with the faith of the Author of the Sermon on the Mount. He is now an earnest Christian, who ceaselessly urges the Church to regard itself as an organized army of people seeking to establish God’s kingdom on earth by every legitimate means, of which political action is one of the most powerful.

He learned to speak in public at temperance meetings. How he learned to read I do not know; but he was seventeen before he knew how to sign his name. But before he was twenty-three he had not only learned how to read and write, but he had taught himself shorthand. When he had a little spare time in the pit, he took his pit lamp, blackened with its smoke the white stone, and scratched upon its surface the shorthand characters with a pin. It recalls familiar stories of the early struggles of some of the great painters.

James Keir Hardie was born in a pit village in Lanarkshire in 1856. His father was a ship’s carpenter, and after having been six months unemployed in the city of Glasgow, and the family undergoing much hardship, Hardie père went to sea, and the family removed back into the country. Young Hardie had been at work as errand boy and rivet-heater for some eighteen months, and now, just as he had turned his ninth year, he entered the coal pits. When he was twenty-three he left the hewing of coal and became secretary to a Miners’ Union. Two years later he betook himself to journalism, and for four years toiled as sub-editor of a local provincial newspaper. After a brief period of agitation, he aspired to a seat in Parliament when only thirty-two. He stood for Mid-Lanark in 1888, was defeated as a matter of course, but being in no whit disheartened, he went back to his political spade work, and in 1892 was elected as member for South-West Ham by a majority of 1,232.

In 1895 he was defeated, together with twenty-seven other Independent Labour candidates.

During the trying times of the Boer war Mr. Keir Hardie’s conduct was simply splendid. He was not content with emitting a protest against the infamy of the attack upon the Boers and then acquiescing in the prosecution of a war which he believed to be unjust. He was a stop-the-war man of the first rank. He spoke in all parts of the country in denunciation of the great South African crime, and then, to the amazement of the Jingoes, “he was returned for Merthyr Tydvil, in the Khaki Election of 1900, by a majority of over 1,700.

This is not a biography of Mr. Hardie. It merely is an introduction and an explanation. His political views were thus defined by himself when he first entered Parliament:-

“I am a Socialist, and until industry is organized on a co-operative basis, wherein men shall work, not to make profit, but to produce the necessaries of life for the community, the evils complained of will never be eradicated. But much might be done by providing work for the unemployed on home colonies, where those out of work could provide for themselves the necessaries of life. A minimum wage might also with advantage – especially to working girls – be established, making it a penal offence for an employer to engage a worker under a sum sufficient to ensure the necessaries of life. A restriction of the hours of labour to eight per day, or less, in dangerous and unhealthy occupations; a drastic reform of the land laws which would stop or tend to minimize at least the influx of the agricultural labourers to the town; the prohibition of work in dwelling-houses, and the erection of workshops by the municipality wherein work now performed at home could be undertaken, these having crèches attached for the benefit of women with children called upon to earn a living for themselves; and the establishment by the State of provision for the disabled, whether by old age, sickness, or accident – all these would tend to check the deterioration now going on, and give the workers an opportunity to work out their industrial freedom on the lines which experience will suggest as being the best. The municipalities should provide homes which would conform in every particular to sanitary laws, and provide such appliances as are deemed absolutely necessary in middle-class houses, so that the people, and especially the working women, would be able to maintain a sense of cleanliness, which is utterly impossible to-day, Recreation-rooms and reading-rooms should be abundantly provided, especially in poor quarters, together with small open spaces laid down in grass for children to play upon, and thus preserve their contact with nature and mother earth, the loss of which is accountable for much of the atheism which is a natural product of city life.”

The other day at Manchester, at a demonstration of the Independent Labour Party, he was presented with an address, illuminated by Mr. Walter Crane, and signed, among others, by Alfred Russell Wallace, George Meredith, Dr. Clifford, and other well-known leading reformers. The address stated that for twenty years he had occupied positions of responsibility in the Labour and Socialist movement, and had toiled incessantly as a working-class leader to arouse and organize the people to accomplish their political and social freedom. All who signed the address joined in declaring their high appreciation of Mr. Keir Hardie’s great work as a pioneer, and in recording their appreciation of his services in the cause of international peace, his championship in the cause of the unemployed, and his splendid advocacy of the movement for Labour representation. The tribute was not undeserved. He has been a good and faithful servant, and even those who differ from him must needs cry “Well done.”

In the House of Commons this session he has distinctly gained ground, and in the next House he will be one of the recognized leaders of the extreme left.

He has thought out a scheme for the better organization of labour, which he described in the Nineteenth Century for January, and subsequently expounded to the House of Commons.

Following out the recommendations of the Committee on Afforestation, Keir Hardie advocated the acquisition by the Government of three large estates of waste land of 100,000 acres each – one in Scotland, one in Yorkshire or Lancashire, and one in Wales. The land could be bought outright for 25s. per acre, and from five to ten thousand men could be immediately set to work on each of the estates to prepare land for afforestation. The imports of timber, especially of firwood trees, amounted last year in value to £21,000,000 sterling, and this wood might just as well be grown in our own country as in foreign lands. He also proposed the creation of a new county authority for the special purpose of administering the Acts already in existence in regard to small holdings, allotments, and technical instruction, and he would also confer on those bodies the powers already possessed by boards of guardians for dealing with the unemployed. The powers in question were very extensive, and included the acquisition of fifty acres of land in each parish, the building of factories and workshops, and, in fact, everything necessary for setting the unemployed to work, not in the form of pauper relief, but as workmen employed for wages. He was not proposing colonies, but the placing and settling on the land as peasant cultivators of at least one million people. The money necessary for carrying oat these ideas might be found in the proportion of two-thirds by the State and one-third by the localities, and would in the end prove, as all municipal undertakings had hitherto done, a profitable investment bringing in revenue.

Whatever may be thought of the practicability of some of his ideas, he can at least claim for them that at present his is the only comprehensive proposal before the country. It holds the field for the time, and we shall hear much more about it at the coming election.

Mr. Keir Hardie is somewhat unduly nervous about identifying himself with the Liberals. He only consented to deal with the Woman’s claim for citizenship in this series of articles on being satisfied that the Coming Men were not being selected exclusively from the Liberal party.

That, however, is perhaps only the natural consequence of the preponderance of the well-to-do in the Liberal ranks. He is not the spokesman of the Comfortables. He is the voice of the Uncomfortables, and he will make many of us very uncomfortable before he is done with us.

He is married, and has three children. He lives at Cumnock, in Ayrshire.