James Keir Hardie

The British politician James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) helped to initiate the 20th-century labor movement in Britain.

Keir Hardie was born on Aug. 15, 1856, at Legbrannock, Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, domestic, and William Aitken, miner. He took the name of his stepfather, David Hardie, a ship's carpenter. He worked as a messenger boy when he was 8; from 1867 to 1879 he worked in or around the coal mines. Self-educated, he especially enjoyed what he read of Robert Burns, Thomas Carlyle, and Henry George. A convinced socialist at 21, he was converted to Christianity at 23, to the astonishment of his firmly atheistic mother.

Fired and blacklisted for union activity, Hardie was undismayed, and he married Lily Wilson, a publican's daughter, Aug. 3, 1879. After local union service he became secretary to the Scottish Miners' Federation in 1886. Hardie clashed with old-line "Lib-Lab" members of Parliament, whom he thought overly conservative about state intervention on the miners' behalf. Hardie's agitation for an 8-hour day brought cooperation from R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, a member of Parliament and a cofounder of the Scottish Labour party in 1888.

Hardie's election to Parliament for South West Ham in 1892 as an Independent Labour candidate won attention; publicity increased with his appearance at Westminster in a cloth cap, his maiden speech on the misery of the unemployed, and his dissent from congratulations on the birth (1894) of the future Edward VIII.

Hardie presided at the Bradford conference which inaugurated the Independent Labour party (ILP), pledged to socialism and intended as a weapon against unconverted Gladstonian Liberals. He lost his own seat in 1895 but pressed ILP candidates to challenge Liberals at by-elections. Returning to Parliament from Merthyr Tydfil in 1900, he denounced the Boer War constantly. Despite his feud with Liberals, Hardie approved the negotiation which reduced Liberal-Labour rivalry and produced 29 Labour members in 1906, who chose Hardie to lead them in Parliament.

In 1907 Hardie toured the world, expressing his sympathy with Egyptian independence, Indian home rule, and fairer treatment of native Africans in South Africa. He was often a difficult colleague within the Labour party before the war. He detested militarism and preached a general strike among workers internationally to prevent war. When war came, it crushed his spirit. He was howled down by his own constituents before he died of pneumonia on Sept. 26, 1915.

For years Hardie symbolized the working classes for cartoonists. He never forsook his soft hat for a bowler. Bearded, pipesmoking, with a mournful Celtic visage, his single-minded devotion to the workers' cause made him seem fanatical to some contemporaries but enhanced his reputation with later generations of the Labour party.

Further Reading on James Keir Hardie

The earliest biography of Hardie is William Stewart, J. Keir Hardie (1921; new ed. 1925). It was followed by David Lowe, From Pit to Parliament: The Story of the Early Life of James Keir Hardie (1923); Hamilton Fyfe, Keir Hardie (1935); and Emrys Hughes, Keir Hardie (1956). Hardie's role in the Independent Labour party is treated by Henry Pelling in The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900 (1954; 2d ed. 1965), and by Philip P. Poirier in The Advent of the British Labour Party (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

McLean, Iain., Keir Hardie, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975.

Reid, Fred., Keir Hardie: the making of a socialist, London: Croom Helm, 1978.