Sunday, 8 February 2009

From methodist self help to democratic socialism

By the mid 1850’s Britain had been transformed from a feudal society, through a mercantile society, into an industrial society.

The old feudal ideas did not die so easily. The bosses (owners and managers) treated the workers as though they were serfs.

It was into this society that James Keir Hardie was born in 1856.

Born out of wedlock to Mary Keir (a servant girl), who later married a carpenter named David Hardie, he would henceforth be known as Keir Hardie.

He started work (for a baker) at aged 8, and by the age of 11 he was a coal miner. He never attended school, but by the age of 17, with the help of his mother he had learned to read and write.

Keir Hardie understood the intolerable conditions of working people, and he became a union organiser. His fame spread.

By 1891 he had been elected as a member of parliament for the West Ham (London) constituency. He was a fervent advocate for women’s rights; for free schooling; for pensions for working people; and for Indian self-rule.

Hardie hit the headlines in 1894 when, after an explosion at a colliery in Pontypridd which killed 251 miners, he asked that a message of condolence to the relatives of the victims be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir (the future Edward VIII). The request was refused and Hardie made a speech attacking the monarchy, which resulted in uproar in the House of Commons[2] . In 1895, he lost his parliamentary seat.

(British working people were also fervent Monarchists!)

In 1893 he had founded the Independent Labour Party, with the intention of representing the working classes in parliament.

Then in 1897, though raised as an atheist he converted to evangelical Christianity, and became a local (i.e. lay) preacher.

From then on his vision was rooted in the Christian Gospel.

In 1900 he, with others worked to merge the various socialist bodies into what became the British Labour Party.


In that year he was also elected as Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, in Wales. He was one of only two Labour M.P.’s, in that Parliament.

By 1906 there were 26 Labour Members of Parliament.

Keir Hardie was in his own words an “agitator”.

He agitated for women’s rights (he was a friend of Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst).

He agitated for Indian self rule, and for Egyptian independence.

He agitated against racial segregation in South Africa.

He was entirely opposed to the “Boer War” – as was a Canon Holland of St. Paul’s Cathedral. London who said the following:

"We should humiliate ourselves for the blundering recklessness with
which we entered on the war, and the insolence and arrogance which blinded us so utterly. Let there be no more vain-glory, no more braggart tongues, and let us at the beginning of the New Year find our true understanding."


(Shades of the Anglo-American Iraq adventure?)

Keir Hardie was also a despised pacifist when World War I broke out.

I salute the memory of this grand Christian socialist. I am grateful that my parents also honoured his memory.

Had they not done so, I would never have included Keir Hardie in my pantheon.

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