James Keir Hardie

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James Keir Hardie & Labour Conditions

Scotland may have been a wealthy country in the Victorian era - but much of its prosperity was created at the expense of its workers.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children toiled in factories and down mines to build business empires for their employers.

They often worked for long hours in appalling conditions. Inevitably, there had to be a backlash sooner or later. When it came, it was in the formation of the Scottish Labour Party.

One man - James Keir Hardie - was the brains behind the modern Labour movement. To this day, he remains one of Scotland's most famous politicians, and his struggle for working class justice still provides inspiration for those who believe in a fairer and more equal society.

Hardie was born in 1856. He was illegitimate: his mother Mary worked as a maid at Holytown near Airdrie in Lanarkshire. His stepfather lost his job in the Govan shipyard due to ill health, forcing the young boy into work at the age of ten.

Hardie opened and shut the trap in a local mine, bringing the air in and out and allowing the men to breathe as they dug the coal out. He worked for nearly 12 hours a day but soon decided to try and improve himself, taking lessons in a local night school to give himself and education.

His campaign for workers' rights began almost immediately. When he was 23, he joined the Lanarkshire Miners' Union as a trade unionist, which eventually led to him being driven out of the industry. Instead, Hardie opened a newsagents' shop in Hamilton and began a new career as a journalist, writing for radical newspapers and magazines.

He did not, however, lose his interest in mining. He moved from his native Lanarkshire to neighbouring Ayrshire and became secretary of the Ayrshire Miners' Union. The organisation quickly expanded and by 1886, he was running the Scottish Miners' Federation.

Hardie had a house in Cumnock, which he was to regard as his home for the rest of his life. He was by nature a Liberal but his outlook progressively became more and more radical. He did not particularly believe in class warfare, but felt that society had to do more to help people escape from the trap of poverty and deprivation.

In 1886, his outlook changed. A strike in the Blantyre coalfield led to bitter confrontation between police and strikers. Hardie realised that harmonious negotiation between bosses and workers was no use - a tougher solution was needed if working people were to obtain their rights. From that time on, he became a socialist.

Despite his changed beliefs, he still remained a Liberal at heart, and his increasing interest in politics led him to think about standing for parliament. His first opportunity came in 1888, when a by-election was held in Mid-Lanark.

Hardie offered himself to the local Liberal Association as a radical, but failed to achieve the nomination, which went instead to a wealthy Welsh barrister called Wynford Philips.

Undaunted, he decided to stand as what he described as an Independent Labour candidate instead. Hardie attracted a lot of support from other organisations, particularly from south of the border, where the Labour movement was also beginning to take off.

The campaign was a tough one. In the villages, the local miners stayed loyal to Gladstone's Liberal party. The outcome was a disappointing one for the socialists: Hardie actually came bottom of the poll, recording just 617 votes.

In other ways, however, his venture into politics had been a success. He managed to focus attention on the question of labour and the place of the working classes in society, and also brought him to the attention of a wider public.

It also led to the creation of the Scottish Labour Party in Glasgow in May 1888. Despite its name, the new party's attachment to socialism was actually quite loose, and it still identified itself - to a point, at least - with Liberalism.

The Scottish Labour Party lasted for six years. But it was hardly a firebrand organisation, out to liberate the working people of industrial Scotland from the chains of their masters in the mines and factories. Its commitment to socialist principles was vague, it was riven with tensions between its leaders, and its most passionate policy was for land reform rather than industrial change.

The party came close to striking a deal with the Liberals offering it guaranteed candidacies in three Scottish seats, but the plan fell apart when the Liberals refused to show any commitments to promote working class candidates.

Instead, Hardie become more immersed in socialism. He moved to London and stood as a candidate for the 1892 general election in the strongly working class seat of West Ham South - winning, ironically, with the strong support of the Liberals.

He was the first Independent Labour Party MP, arriving at parliament in a blaze of publicity. Yet back north of the border, the Scottish Labour Party had done extremely badly. The best performance it could manage was in Aberdeen South, where it polled just 991 votes.

The SLP clearly had little future. In 1893, the new Independent Labour party was founded in Bradford, and Hardie, as its sole MP, became its first president. The Scottish Labour Party affiliated to the new movement and died altogether the following year.

By now, Hardie was an immensely influential figure. He was a busy MP, had become something of a celebrity, and also edited his own weekly newspaper, the Labour Leader. Yet he still returned home to Cumnock, where his wife Lillie lived and brought up their three children, as often as he could.

Another election was held in 1895, and this time Hardie, for all his reputation, lost West Ham. He tried to obtain a nomination in the North Aberdeen seat, but failed when some of the opponents he had made in his SLP days turned against him.

By 1900, Hardie was back in parliament again, this time representing the Welsh mining seat of Merthyr Tydfil. He also created the new Labour Representation Committee which went on to become the Labour Party.

He also moved onto the international stage, taking part in the movement for independence in India and across the colonies. Hardie was a tireless campaigner, and another of his great passions was feminism: he supported the fledgling suffragette movement in its campaign for votes for women.

The 1906 election was a landmark for the ILP - it won nine seats, including Dundee and Glasgow Gorbals in Scotland. The party's success pushed the Liberal government into a programme of social reform which included the introduction of old age pensions, free school meals and industrial injuries compensation.

Hardie was chosen to lead the ILP's parliamentary party, but by this stage but the years were beginning to take their toll: he had to resign the following year for health reasons.

By now, the clouds of war were beginning to gather on the horizon. Hardie was as passionate about military conflict as about many other things - he vehemently opposed the Boer War, and shared the same view about the forthcoming conflict with Germany.

He suggested that a general strike might halt a conflict with Germany, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. War broke out in 1914, and there was nothing anyone in the socialist or international peace movement could do to prevent it. Hardie finally died, bitter and disillusioned, in 1915 at the tragically early age of 59.

However, his efforts had not been in vain. He had laid the foundations of the modern Labour party, and the war was to bring a huge shift of attitudes in society and give the working classes a new confidence and belief in their own power to change things for the better.

James Keir Hardie did not live to see the birth of the Labour movement as we know it today. But he was instrumental in its creation, and will always be remembered as the Scot whose contribution to socialism can never be underestimated.

Meanwhile...

  • 1879 Albert Einstein is born
  • 1880 New York?s streets are lit by electricity
  • 1888 ?Jack the Ripper? murders six women in London
  • 1888 George Eastman perfects the ?Kodak? camera
  • 1892 Ibsen writes, ?The Master Builder?
  • 1892 Diesel patents his internal combustion engine
  • 1879 The Tay Bridge Disaster. Part of the structure collapses under a passing train during a severe storm.
  • 1888 Celtic Football Club is founded
  • 1892 Sir James Dewar invents the thermos flask

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