Keir Hardie & the Power of Anger

Labour’s founder is often presented as old and sad at the state of the world. But, argues PAULINE BRYAN in the Introduction to her latest volume of essays on Hardie, his main motivation wasn’t sadness, but anger.

Keir Hardie is often cited in order to defend an argument or support a position. He is used as a touchstone to justify any number of political statements, but rarely using his own words. In this volume [Keir Hardie & the 21st Century Socialist Revival], we analyse and comment on some direct quotes from Hardie’s own speeches and writings, and consider their relevance to the present day.

Hardie is often presented in a sentimental way and the photos used to portray him are usually him as an old man with sad eyes. His speeches and writing do show that his own experiences had made him sensitive to the misery of the lives of women and children and the damage done to the lives of men, but his main emotion wasn’t sadness – it was anger.

His anger and outrage at the House of Commons ignoring the deaths of 250 men and boys at the Albion Colliery in Cilfynydd, while discussing a ‘humble address’ to Queen Victoria on the birth of her grandson in 1892, is a powerful example:

We are asked to rejoice because this child has been born, and that one day he will be called upon to rule over this great Empire. Up to the present time we have no means of knowing what his qualifications or fitness for that task may be. It certainly strikes me – I do not know how it strikes others – as rather strange that those who have so much to say about the hereditary element in another place [the House of Lords] should be so willing to endorse it in this particular instance. It seems to me that if it is a good argument to say that the hereditary element is bade in one case, it is an equally good argument to say that it is bad in the other. From his childhood onward this boy will be surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score (Cries of ‘Oh! Oh!’) and will be taught to believe himself as a superior creation. (‘Oh! Oh!’) A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morganatic alliance will follow (Loud cries of ‘Oh!’ ‘Order!’ and ‘Question!’), and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill…

The government will not find an opportunity for a vote of condolence with the relatives of those who are lying stiff and stark in a Welsh valley, and, if that cannot be done, the motion before the House ought never to have been proposed either. [1]

Two days later he wrote the following in his column in the Labour Leader:

The Welsh holocaust puts everything into the shade this week. Two hundred and fifty human beings, full of strong life in the morning, reduced to charred and blackened heaps of clay in the evening. The air rent with the wail of the childless mother, the widowed wife and the orphaned child… We are a nation of hypocrites. We go wild with excitement and demand vengeance when some hungry half-mad victim of our industrial system seeks to wreak his vengeance on the society which is murdering him by inches; and we piously look heavenward and murmur about a visitation of providence when 250 miners are blown to bits because society places more value on property than it does on human life. [2]

His was a lone voice in the House of Commons. He was surrounded by people who despised him and all he stood for. He probably had the least formal education of anyone in the House; he had no parliamentary party to support him, yet he had the courage to stand alone and to rebuke the other members for their callousness and sycophancy.

He described the House of Commons “as a place which I remember with a haunting horror”. Yet he knew he had to go back and take the fight there, even though he was more at ease campaigning in the country, travelling across the globe and writing his column for children.

His writing for children is probably the greatest contrast. His tender language to his child readers and his encouragement to them to take up the fight for themselves and their families is so different to that of political contest. He wanted them to feel that they had rights and that they should participate and feel that the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was as much interested in them as their fathers and mothers.

Caroline Sumpter [in her chapter, ‘Keir hardie and the Right to Childhood’] shows us a very different view of Hardie as a writer for children. His biographers have referred to his attachment to children and the special care he took to remember their birthdays. At a time when children were largely ignored in adult company he was happy to be in their company. Sylvia Pankhurst recalled her first sighting of the great man, sitting in the library at her parents’ house:

Kneeling on the stairs to watch him, I felt that I could have rushed into his arms; indeed it was not long before the children in the houses where he stayed had climbed to his knees. He had at once the appearance of great age and vigorous youth. [3]

Whether it was his own childhood that gave him a special affinity or his experiences later in life of seeing the impact of insecurity on the whole family, he had a burning anger against the hypocrisy of judging people who were driven by destitution to criminality.

If a workman steals five shillings from the pocket of his employer, he gets 60 days in jail; if an employer steals a thousand a year from the wages of the workers, he is made an elder in the kirk, created a Baille, and invited to deliver lectures against Socialism. [4]

Hardie’s belief that children should have a political voice and be taken seriously is a lesson for us today. Children and young people have found a voice on the issue of the environment. They are taking a leading in role in demanding a faster response to climate change and economic inequality.

They see the Green New Deal as offering the “…promise of well-paid and secure jobs in the renewable and other green sectors, it would go a long way toward addressing the economic inequality that has disproportionately affected so many communities and regions around the UK as well as tackling climate change.”

This was said by a 16-year-old student from Devon who was joining the Youth Strike 4 Climate campaign in April 2019.

Unions & the ILP

Sharon Graham, Head of Organising in Unite the Union, describes [in chapter 2] how Hardie was born into an era of rapid change. New technologies were replacing the jobs of workers which resulted in stagnant or falling pay. What we now call the ‘gig economy’ was the daily experience of many working people. Being required to work at the beck and call of an employer with no security or rights at work was a common experience. Such insecurity made trade union recruitment difficult, but a new type of union came into being.

Hardie was closely involved with the early days of the first general union along with Ben Tillett, William Byford, Will Thorne and followed soon after by Eleanor Marx. The National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland was formed to organise the supposedly unorganisable workers. Eleanor Marx wrote to her sister in Paris: “I’m glad we have Keir Hardy” [sic]. [5]

Defending his trade union members was Hardie’s first role in the Labour movement. He recognised that unity was strength. Today the unions are still fighting for the rights of working people. In 2019 we remembered the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre when 60,000 women, children and men gathered at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to peacefully campaign for parliamentary representation were charged by the cavalry, resulting in 18 deaths and around 700 injured.

But these events are not just history. Campaigners are still trying to uncover the truth of the events at Orgreave in 1984 and demanding a public enquiry. The Scottish Government’s enquiry into policing during the miners’ strike was due to report in 2019.

Hardie’s first organising role was to build a trade union. He began in Lanarkshire where he and his brothers were soon blacklisted. He quickly understood that trade unions without political power were not enough.

Joe Cullinane [in chapter 3] describes his lengthy campaign to establish an Independent Labour Party. It was to be independent of the Liberals and their Lib-Lab arrangement where the Liberal leadership could handpick working-class people to stand as candidates on the understanding that their loyalty to the Liberal whip would come before their loyalty to their class or trade union.

Hardie could not accept that restriction. He was vitriolic in his attacks on those trade union MPs who opposed the eight-hour day and defended coal owners’ interests above their own members. His greatest venom was directed at Henry Broadhurst who, as an MP, had voted against the eight-hour day while at the same time being President of the TUC. Broadhurst also supported a fellow Liberal candidate who was well known for using sweated labour in his factories.

What sort of party the Labour Party should be is as contested as much today as it was during Hardie’s lifetime. There are those who believe it should be a party of the centre and those who see its role as representing working people the many not the few. This has been particularly true since 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader by a huge majority of Party members and trade unionists, but without the support of many Labour MPs. Hardie had the same experience when he was at odds with other MPs who found him an embarrassment for supporting women’s suffrage and opposing the First World War.

The ILP, established in 1893, adopted an approach encouraged by Hardie of ‘making socialists’. Socialists, they believed, weren’t born, neither did they develop naturally; they had to be made by bringing people into arenas of conflict.

As well as trade union activity, Hardie was concerned about local government. Dave Watson’s chapter on municipal socialism deals with an issue to which Hardie gave much attention. Many women members of the ILP who had no voice in Parliament devoted their energies to winning improvements that could be made through councils, school boards and local welfare committees. Margaret McMillan was elected to the Bradford School Board in 1894 and, along with fellow ILP member Fred Jowett, persuaded the School Board to introduce free school meals. This was illegal but that didn’t prevent ILP campaigns.

Local government in the 21st century has sadly lost much of its radicalism. There is one council that is being looked at as a beacon of how local authorities could make a difference, very much as they did in the late 19th century. The ‘Preston model’ has revived its local economy, leading to an increase in jobs and workers receiving the Real Living Wage. It has revitalised the city centre and retained spending that would otherwise have gone elsewhere. Last year Preston was named ‘Most Improved City in the United Kingdom’.

Writing & women’s suffrage

Hardie’s mother ensured that he could read, though he was at work by the time he was eight years old. Whatever the shortcomings in his education, he overcame them so well as to become a journalist, a role that he kept on for the rest of his life. His early reading of Robert Burns and Thomas Carlyle gave him a love of poetry and an understanding that society could be changed. When he had the opportunity to write a column to supplement his income, he immediately used it as part of his trade union and political campaigning.

Richard Leonard [in chapter 5] covers his early writing in the local paper, The Adrossan & Saltcoats Herald, which lasted five years. He only gave it up to launch his own paper, The Miner, which then became the Labour Leader – one of the major journals of the Labour movement in the Britain. He reported from all his travels and these articles gave a lasting account of conditions and political campaigns from all over the globe.

The Adrossan & Saltcoats Herald is still going today. It was first published in 1853 and continues to be a source of local news for its community. Many local papers have not survived and those that have often lost dedicated journalists and instead depend on journalists working from a central hub with no local connection.

A 2016 study found UK towns, whose daily local newspapers had shut, suffered from a ‘democracy deficit’ with reduced community engagement and increased distrust of public bodies. Working for his local newspaper gave Hardie an understanding of the importance of newspapers and he remained a journalist for the rest of his life.

John Callow gave a service to the movement in 2015 when he edited a re-publication of From Serfdom to Socialism. Callow writes of the original book:

It was conceived of as a testament to principle, written to satisfy a highly diverse alliance of labour interests – a heterogeneous federation of socialist, co-operators and trades unionists – and sought to convey to them a coherent platform for socialism, and a vision of what they could hope to achieve through their collective efforts. [6]

Gordon Munro picks up the themes from the collections of essays using case studies from present day Scotland and showing its relevance to many of today’s campaigns.

The breadth of Hardie’s thinking and writing is demonstrated in From Serfdom to Socialism. Its relevance to the 21st century can be picked up in every chapter. His legacy was in danger of being confined to history, but his writings and campaigning would not stay in that box and are looked to as a way of understanding the role of the Labour Party today.

In From Serdom to Socialism he traced the development of working people from the manual labourers in Greece and Rome through to his own time. What would shock him today is that our Parliament still has an unelected House of Lords with a number of hereditary Peers on its benches. The very least we in the 21st century should do is to end that undemocratic part of our legislature as soon as possible.

The 100th anniversary of some women getting a vote in parliamentary elections reminds us of the important role of some men in that struggle. In Parliament, the most committed were Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.

Ann Henderson points out in her chapter that Hardie did not believe that an extension of the franchise would, of itself, materially change women’s conditions, but it was a means to an end. Hardie always understood that, in fighting for change, women’s struggle for liberation could develop into a fight for wider social emancipation, as it did with Sylvia Pankhurst.

It is interesting that after the First World War Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst joined the Conservative Party. They rejected the Labour Party that had given support to women’s suffrage, though many had opposed the tactics of the WSPU. They rejected the work continued by Sylvia Pankhurst who stayed close to the family’s earlier socialist roots. She showed that it was possible to support women’s equality and be part of a wider working class struggle.

This debate has never gone away. Liberal feminism seeks individualistic equality of men and women through political and legal reform, without altering the structure of society. Socialist feminism has a class analysis and seeks to change the balance of power in society in favour of working women and men.

Over the past 200 years, Ireland has played an important part in Westminster politics. During Hardie’s life and his time as an MP, it was an important issue in many constituencies in England and Scotland as well as in Ireland itself. Many potential Labour seats had Irish populations, a reality that sometimes benefitted Hardie’s vote and sometimes undermined it.

Vince Mills points out that supporters of Home Rule often put that above support for other issues. In his maiden speech, Hardie reproached the Irish MPs who would not support his amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 1893:

And if the hon. Gentlemen who represent the cause of Nationalism in Ireland would have felt justified in risking the life of the Government on the question of Home Rule, I claim to be more than justified in taking a similar risk in the interests of the unemployed.

John Redmond, Leader of the Irish Party in Westminster, even though he held the balance of power in Parliament in 1910, did not use it to support women’s suffrage. “As the likelihood of Home Rule increased, so too did Redmond’s antipathy towards the feminists, whose agitation threatened to divide the nationalist ranks.” [7]

The controversy over the so-called ‘backstop’ as part of the Brexit negotiations spotlights the continued importance of the relationship of Ireland to Britain and the failure to resolve social, political and religious differences within and between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It may be the case that Hardie was naive in his belief that socialism of his kind – parliamentary success combined with trade union action – was sufficient to overcome the historical divisions of the working class in Ireland, formed by centuries of oppression. Nevertheless he understood the necessity of and worked tirelessly for the unity of the Irish working class. Unfortunately, the ‘backstop crisis’ is yet one more example of the interests of Irish workers taking a backseat the needs of corporate capital.

Empire & internationalism

Hardie wrote extensively about his travels in what was then the Empire. He visited India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Jon Hyslop shows the extent of his travels and the depth of his growing critique of imperialism. His understanding of Britain’s role in the world became clearer with the Boer War. He joined the ‘Stop the War Committee’ formed in 1899. Kenneth O. Morgan writes:

Hardie’s reaction, like that of almost all his ILP colleagues, was immediate and unequivocal. It was for him a capitalists’ war, the product of the exploitation of the native South African, white and black, by British investors, mine owners and speculators, a last desperate struggle for survival by a decaying class. [8]

When he began his travels and witnessed first-hand the impact of the Empire on India and South Africa, he gained an appreciation and respect for the struggles of other oppressed people and saw what they shared in common was more than what made them different.

From his birth in a small town in Lanarkshire, Hardie went on to travel the world. He probably travelled further and for longer than any MP of his time. This brought him into contact not just with European socialists in the Socialist International, but with people in struggle in India, south Africa and Australia, with whom he formed strong links. He learned the importance of supporting those struggles.

British 21st century socialists probably have fewer international links than they did 100 years ago. Even with the ease of travel and instant communication, the movement is probably less in touch with struggles elsewhere in the world.

When he travelled to the United States, he may well have carried an image, like many before and since, that this was the future. He was, however, quickly caught up in industrial struggles and made aware of the levels of violence used by the bosses. One of his first visits on arriving in 1895 was to meet with the trade union leader Eugene Debs.

Peter Cole draws parallels between Hardie and Debs and how they both moved through religion, trade unionism and finally to electoral politics. On a later visit in 1908, he wrote:

He was glad to note the growth of the trade the growth of the trade union movement in the USA, urged the trade unions to enter politics and become Socialists. ‘America’ he wrote ‘is the land of big things and a big Labour movement which would impress the imagination with its size and the judgement with its sanity would proudly result in the United States having the first socialist Government in the modern world. [9]

Hardie had high expectations of the US Labour Movement and he would be shocked to see how little has changed. Capitalism has been truly resilient in defending its dominance. In the Democratic Party primaries before the election in 2016 the word ‘socialism’ was heard for the first time in decades. This was followed by the election of ‘the squad’, the four Congress women Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts who have been so reviled by President Trump.

Hardie also travelled much in Europe, working tirelessly to build an international socialist movement until his death in 1915. He would have attended the Socialist International due to take place in August 1914 but for war being declared. By then his great comrade Jean Jaures had been assassinated and the International had begun to disintegrate with the British Labour Party joining others in supporting their own nations against international peace.

Hardie died while still an MP, but his death went unacknowledged by the House of Commons. No tribute was made. It was unlikely that he would have wanted one. In his maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1893, he began as he meant to go on. Avoiding the non-controversial, his first act was to move an amendment to the Queen’s Speech which was considered the equivalent of a vote of no confidence in the Government. In his speech he said:

The question of the unemployed is to me of such importance that I would be unfaith and untrue to every election promise I made if I did not insist on it receiving due consideration at the hands of any Government which may be in Office…

We are now discussing an Address of Thanks to Her Majesty for Her Speech. I want to ask the Government what have the unemployed to thank Her Majesty for in the Speech which has been submitted to the House? Their ease is overlooked and ignored; they are left out as if they did not exist. Their misery and their sufferings could not be greater, but there is no mention of them in the Queen’s Speech. I take it that this House is the mouthpiece of the nation as a whole, and that it should speak for the nation—for the unemployed equally as for the well-to-do classes. But this House will not be speaking in the name of the nation, but only in the name of a section of the nation, if something is not done, and done speedily, for those people whose sufferings are so great, and for whom I plead.

It is said that this Amendment amounts to a Vote of Want of Confidence in the Government, and that, therefore, hon. Members opposite will not vote for it. The Government that does not legislate for the unemployed does not deserve the confidence of this House. [10]

This speech could be made today. Jeremy Corbyn, when leader of the Labour Party, confronted Theresa May in Parliament in September 2018 with the following accusation:

Everywhere you look this Government is failing: one million families using food banks, one million workers on zero-hours contracts, four million children in poverty, wages lower today than ten years ago.

On top of that, there’s the flawed and failing Universal Credit, disabled people risk losing their homes and vital support, children forced to use food banks and the Prime Minister wants to put two million more people onto this.

The Prime Minister is not challenging the burning injustices in our society, she’s pouring petrol on the crisis. When will she stop inflicting misery on the people of this country? [11]


This is a slightly adapted version of the ‘Introduction’ to Keir Hardie & the 21st Century Socialist Revival, edited by Pauline Bryan. It was published by Luath Press in 2019 and is available here for £9.99.

Pauline Bryan also edited What Would Keir Hardie Say? in 2015. She is a member of Scotland’s Campaign for Socialism, the Red Paper Collective and the Keir Hardie Society. In 2018 she became a Labour Peer in the House of Lords.

[1] Hansard 28 June, 1894, The humble address to Her Majesty to congratulate Her Majesty on the birth of a son to his Royal Highness the Duke of York.
[2] Labour Leader, 30 June, 1894.
[3] Pankhurst, S, The Suffragette Movement, Wharton Press, reprinted, 2010.
[4] Labour Leader, April, 1889.
[5] Benn, C. Keir Hardie, Random House, London, 1992.
[6] Callow, J, ‘Introduction’, Serfdom to Socialism, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1915.
[7] Ward, M, ‘“Suffrage, first above all else!” An Account of the Irish Suffrage Movement’ Feminist Review, (No.10), 1982.
[8] Morgan, K O, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, Phoenix, London, 1997.
[9] Hughes, E. Keir Hardie, Allen & Unwin London, 1956.
[10] ibid
[11] Hansard 12 September, 2018, Prime Minister’s Questions.