Profile: Keir Hardie

Scottish Labour leader, co-founder of the Labour Party and champion of miners’ rights, James Keir Hardie (1856 - 1915). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Scottish Labour leader, co-founder of the Labour Party and champion of miners’ rights, James Keir Hardie (1856 - 1915). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Ramsey McDonald met Keir Hardie on the terrace of the House of Commons, looking out on to the river Thames, shortly after he had come back from his South Wales constituency in August 1914. “He was a crushed man, and, sitting in the sun on the terrace, he seemed to be looking out on blank desolation. From that he never recovered,” remembered McDonald.

Hardie had believed workers across Europe would not heed the calls for war in the weeks before it, only to see his dreams dashed. He had been no more far-sighted than anyone else about the dangers posed by the Sarajevo assassinations, believing it to be a local affair.

Instead, in his columns in the local Merthyr Pioneer that summer, he concentrated, like nearly everyone else, on the crisis in Ireland and the threat of civil war there.

On August 6th, two days after Britain had declared war on Germany, Hardie had returned to Aberdare, the least friendly part of his constituency, for a public meeting. Even still, the hostility shocked him – he frequently struggled to be heard against “the tremendous roar of thousands of voices in the remainder of the hall”, noted the local paper.

“Surely we are nearer in thought and feeling to Germany than we are to Russia, ” he said in near despair, before he was drowned out by repeated renditions of Rule Britannia. The Scottish-born trade unionist and politician was escorted back to the home of a supporter where he was staying by a disorderly crowd shouting “Turn the German out!”

In the House of Commons, Hardie was called a coward after he argued that foreign secretary Edward Grey should have discussed last-minute German peace proposals. He discounted the worst of the atrocity stories coming from Belgium – bodies being melted down for fat, or raped nuns being tied to the clappers of the bells in their convents.

In January 1915, he suffered a stroke. Writing to friends in Merthyr in March he said he felt better on a diet of raw cabbage and onions, adding jokingly: “If you never want to die start out on that.”

In a letter in July to the suffragette campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst, Hardie said he expected in “about a week to be gone from here with no more mind control than when I came”. Poignantly for a man who had written millions of words during his career, Hardie, his brain damaged by the stroke, had mis-spelt her Christian name as “Sylphia”.

He died in September 1915, his passing largely ignored in a country now coping with the full horrors of the war that he had campaigned against. No words of tribute were made in the House of Commons, even though he had been an MP for 18 years, while the Times of London offered a brief obituary.

“The bitter passions which he aroused in his life were in great measure forgotten before his death,” it said, arguing that he had lost the ear of the moderate working class.

However, his friends remembered. In its obituary, as warm as the obituary in the Times was grudging, the Merthyr Pioneer said: “The Member for Humanity has resigned his seat.”

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