Born today 1856 in New House, North Lanarkshire, Scotland, in dire poverty in a single room cottage, this illegitimate son of a servant, Mary Keir, was to become a giant in the socialist movement, rising from coalminer to become the first Labour Party Leader, and to become one of the greatest evangelists for the ideas of socialism.
He would derive from his mum, many of his good qualities. She was a woman of marked individuality and strength of character, nothing could daunt her, or dampen her convictions. At the age of ten, he went to work in a local mine, where through self-education he would learn the lessons of solidarity and comradeship. This would help him as he used his voice to speak of a world where woman and man were born equal. Denouncing the rich, the politicians and the establishment, all exploiters, and would see him calling for the destruction of the capitalist system. He was one of the greatest agitators of his day. ( who reminds me of another bearded teetotaller, and advocate of passion currently spreading his message, one Jeremy Corbyn, who earlier this year spoke at the annual Keir Hardie Lecure put on by the Cynon Valley Labour Party in Aberdare.)
He was to help found the Independent Labour Party in 1893, and was one of the first two Labour M.P's elected to the UK Parliament. He was to mark himself out as a radical both by his dress- he wore a tweed suit and cloth cap, whilst most other members of Parliament wore more formal dress- and the subjects that he advocated - the nationalisation of the coalmines, for the unemployed, womens rights, republicanism and free education. Stuff that still echoes strongly today.
His first constituency was in West Ham, London (1892) and later Merthyr Tydfil here in Wales.
In 1894 251 miners were killed after an explosion at a mine in Pontypridd and after his request for a message of condolence to be sent to the families of the berieved was refused by parliament and a message of congratulation to Buckingham Palace on the birth of the future Edward VIII agreed, Hardie delivered a vitriolic attack on the monarchy, which resulted in him losing his seat at the next election in 1895.
During this period Hardie travelled across the world to learn from other labour movements, and visited the South Wales coalfields on numerous occasions, especially during the 1898 strike. As a result he was invited to stand in the Merthyr Tydfil constituency and won the seat on 10 October 1898. With only two Members of Parliament, it was not easy for the Independent Labour Party in Westminster, but success came in the January 1906 elections as a result of an entente with the Liberals. The Independent Labour Party won 29 seats and Keir Hardie kept his seat in Merthyr Tydfil.
.Hardie spent the next five years laying the foundations of the future Labour Party and returned to parliament in 1900 as an MP for the Labour Representation Party, which in 1906 changed its name to the Labour Party, with Hardie becoming its first leader.For the rest of his life he was to devote himself to the causes that he believed in, publicly defending calls for general strikes, syndicalism and militancy. He was also one of the first to call for equality between the races in South Africa, and because he was a lifelong committed pacifist and humanist, this led him to believe that the interests of the working classes were inseperable from peace, and when the First Wold War broke out in 1914, he was to oppose it, and was to address anti-war demonstrations up and down the country and to support conscientious objectors.
For years he tirelessly addressed meeting after meeting, nearly every day and night, travelling long distances to be known for his powerful oratory, often negating meals and continuing to spread ideas with comrades long into the night. Never to forget his working class roots, these people who he completely understood, he realised their plight, never deserting them, with his untarnished devotion and faith in their cause.
Sadly his dreams of peace were not to be, and after a series of strokes he died in Glasgow on 21st September, 1915 at the tragically young age of 59.He is buried in Cunnock, Ayrshire.
Today I remember him,because he stood in many respects unprecedented as a working class leader in our country. He was the first man from the midst of the working class who completely understood them, completely sympathised with them, completely realised their plight, and completely championed them. After entering Parliament he never deserted them, never turned his back on a single principle, and retained his unbroken affection and respect for the working class, his untarnished loyalty to them, his championship of them, his enduring faith in their cause.We owe an awful lot to his example and the legacy which he left. We owe it to him and his like to continue to struggle for a party we can be proud of.It is with much sadness when one considers the modern labour party and it's current infighting,with the Blairites constant attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, who do not seem to have retained Keir Hardie's principled values and unquavering faith and spirit, Keir would be probably rolling in his grave at the distance that some of the party has travelled from it's roots.
On the future Edward V111
' From his childhood onward this boy will be surrounded by sychophants and flatterers by the score - and will be taught to believe himself as a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morgantic alliance will follow - and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill.'
- House of Commons speech (1894)