How Keir Hardie Kept the Faith

Bob Holman

In 1899 in Glasgow, Keir Hardie, arguably the main founder of the Labour Party, launched a furious attack on Lord Overtoun in a pamphlet called White Slaves. Overtoun was a rich factory owner, a donor to charities and an evangelical Christian who criticised the local authority for allowing trams to run on Sundays.

Hardie revealed Overtoun’s other side in his treatment of workers at his chemical works. They toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Deadly fumes were liable to poison their lungs. All this for low wages and no sick pay.

Hardie countered with another pamphlet. His theme was that Overtoun’s practices were unchristian.Overtoun backed down, increased wages, improved conditions and largely abolished Sunday working.

So who was this Hardie? Tony Benn calls him “Labour’s first and, in many ways, greatest leader”. Yet, unlike Burns, his birthday is not celebrated in Scotland. Born illegitimate in 1856, for a while as a child he was the sole earner in his family. A prosperous Christian baker sacked him for being late. It provoked in Hardie a venomous scorn of hypocritical Christians.

As a young coal miner, he had two turning point experiences. In his diary, he penned, “Brought up an atheist –converted to Christianity” in 1878. Then his readiness to speak out for miners got him the sack. Later he was appointed a full-time trade union official. His developing socialism stemmed less from Marx and more from his observations of poverty and his acceptance of Christ’s teachings.

In 1892, Hardie won a sensational general election victory at West Ham South and was soon dubbed “member for the unemployed”. He lost that seat but then won at Merthyr Tydfil.

Hardie never abandoned socialism. What about Christianity? After leaving the pit, he lived in Cumnock where, after arguing with the middle class deacons at the congregational church, he helped found a working class church.

On becoming a full-time political activist, he appeared to stop regular attendance. Yet my study of his speeches shows that he remained an outspoken Christian. He continued to attack rich Christians whom he considered ignored both Christ’s injunction not to pursue money and possessions and also Christ’s lifestyle of being close to the needy. Towards the end of his life, he declared, “I myself have found in the Christianity of Christ the inspiration which first of all drew me into the movement and has carried me on in it”.

He died in 1915. No official tributes were voiced in the Commons yet hundreds of working class men and women marched to his funeral in Maryhill, Glasgow.

It is difficult to transpose Hardie to today but I reckon he has implications for the Labour Party and the church. He shows the party that socialist policies are not necessarily vote-losers. Within a decade of his death, Labour was in government. The church can be credited with attacking poverty, but they often fail to follow Hardie’s example and condemn the hypocrisy of prominent wealth-accruing churchgoers. Both Labour and the church should remember Keir Hardie.

Keir Hardie. Labour’s Greatest Hero, £10.99 by Bob Holman published by Lion Hudson, priced £10.99.

1 Comment »

  1. sanjitagnihotri says:

    Inspirational.Having said that,I must add that leadership qualities are usually inborn.This person showed leadership qualities since an early age-which he used later on in life.Since I personally lack such qualities,I think that no one should expect me to play such roles.I am more a deep thinker than a leader.In my obsevation,leadership and activist roles are inter-linked.It is also my obsevation that generally people gravitate towards ‘leaders’.The way I am exercising my capacity for courage now-a-days,is through words;words spoken by me and words written by me.I also am taking due care that these words are at least partially in sync with my inner thoughts and my outward actions.That is a way of avoiding hypocrisy.


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