James Keir Hardie

Posted in Scottish Political Figures

Founder of the Labour party and a still resonant political figure who is seen as the foundation and iconic figure in one strand of left wing Scottish political philosophy.


Born 15 August 1856 at Holytown, a small village between Airdrie and Hamilton. His mother was an unmarried maid, Mary Keir. When she married David Hardie, a carpenter, he became James Keir Hardie. What he didn't receive was an education. Born into poverty he started working at seven, as an errand boy in Glasgow, where his step-father was finding occasional work in the Clyde shipyards.

His step-father left to go to sea, and the family moved down to Newarthill near Motherwell. Here, at the age of ten, Hardie went down the pits. A period of self-education also began, with Hardie reading and going to evening classes. Agitating for better conditions for miners in the 1870s, he was fired and blacklisted by the Lanark mine owners. He opened a newsagents and tobacconists shop near Hamilton in 1878, and began to write socialist papers.

His work for miners' welfare led to his being secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation in 1886. He married a collier's daughter in 1879 and settled in Cumnock. Making a living from journalism, he had two newspapers; The Miner (started 1887), and the Labour Leader (started 1889). The latter was circulated widely in England.

His brand of socialism was neither middle class and intellectual, nor Marxist and atheistic. It was a form of Christian Socialism. In 1888 he founded the Scottish Labour Party, being disillusioned with Liberal politics. He was defeated as candidate in the 1888 mid-Lanark by-election, but won the seat at West Ham in 1892. His appearance at parliament wearing a cloth cap and tweeds was little short of sensational.

In 1893 he had a key role in forming the Independent Labour Party; this was perhaps more for propaganda than a true political party, and in 1900 he assisted in forming a Labour Party based on more organised parliamentary lines. This was the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. He led the party in 1906, but hard campaigning was by now telling and he resigned due to ill-health.

He chaired the Independent Labour Party again in 1913 and the International Socialist Bureau in 1914, but his failure to prevent the onset of World War I left him deeply disappointed.

He died of pneumonia, in Glasgow, on 26 September 1915.