The Keir Hardie Society held a meeting in Hamilton last night in conjunction with the South Lanarkshire Branch of UNISON. This was the day after Hardie’s birthday. The rooms above the library are excellent and the library service did a fine job with their display on Hardie and his times. A great example of what a public library service can do. This all contributed to a good audience turnout.
The main speaker was to be Jimmy Hood MP, who was like Hardie a Lanarkshire miner. However, sadly Jimmy has taken ill and was in hospital - our best wishes for his recovery. His replacement was Gregg McClymont MP, who before becoming an MP taught modern British history at St Hughes College, Oxford. I have heard Gregg speak on Hardie’s life and times before and he has a detailed understanding of the period and the ability to show the relevance to political debate in Scotland today. The Society’s President, Cathy Jamieson MP added her own contribution, again with contemporary references.
While giving a general overview of the principles that drove Hardie, Gregg gave some focus to one aspect that gets little attention, what Gregg called his Puritanism. Hardie was strongly opposed to drink and gambling and the temperance movement was a strong influence, not only on Hardie, but the early Labour Party. The temperance movement in this period had a strong political edge with campaigns to close outlets and it gave opportunities to develop public speaking and debating skills. Temperance groups also gave equal status to women and Bob Holman speculates in his book that this may well have determined Hardie’s early commitment to female suffrage. In a West of Scotland context, it was one of the few areas where Catholics and Protestants could make common cause.
Gregg pointed out that this was not always an electoral strength to the early Labour Party, but it was important in the development of many Labour movement leaders including Snowden, Henderson and Tom Johnston. Cathy followed up this theme with reference to Hardie’s moral purpose and its relevance to modern politics. In the era of public outrage about tax dodging and bankers bonuses, she argued that people know when something isn’t right and proper. Political parties should reflect that moral stance. A good example, used by both speakers, is the debate over the liberalisation of gambling laws.
I was thinking about these ideas this morning when reading new research by Christian Aid that shows 56% of British adults believe, even legal tax avoidance, by multinational companies is morally wrong. Only 4% thought these practices were fair. Note the use of morally wrong. The public can and do distinguish between conduct that is “just not right” as Cathy Jamieson put it. Gregg later argued that even Margaret Thatcher may not have understood the consequences of unleashing the rapacious free market forces that subsequently brought the economy crashing down.
In this context there may be an opportunity for Labour to reflect a changing public mood by emphasising the moral purpose of socialism. Albeit in a 21st Century context and, I emphasise, this is economic morality not a drive for social conservativism. A good starting point is supporting the Christian Aid ‘Tick for Tax Justice’ petition when the Tax Justice Bus visits your area over the next few months. Keir Hardie would have been with us on the campaign to stop rich tax-dodging companies robbing people in poverty of the vital public services they need.