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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Keir Hardie and the devolution debate

Keir Hardie supported Home Rule for Scotland, but we should be wary about ascribing contemporary views to historical figures. However, there are lessons from his work that we should adopt today.

I was giving the James Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture last night, hosted by Uddingston and Bellshill CLP - which includes his birthplace. The Keir Hardie society not only seeks to remember the life and times of the great man, but also to promote his ideas in a modern context. With that aim, my focus was his views on Home Rule and the relevance for current political debate In Scotland.

It is a bit of a challenge doing a Keir Hardie lecture as an after dinner speech. One thing the Keir Hardie Society won't be producing is a Keir Hardie joke book. As the Times Obituary rather harshly put it: "it was Mr Hardie's misfortune that he inherited more than an average share of Scottish dourness". Typically dismissive from the Times, but it does appear that humour was not one of the great man's rhetorical tools. In addition, he would certainly have frowned at the availability of alcohol at a political dinner!

Hardie's first Scottish Labour manifesto famously called for; home rule, a minimum wage and temperance. While the big issue in Hardie's day was Irish Home Rule, he did support a Scottish Parliament. Home Rule can be an ambiguous title, but it is different from independence.

Hardie was certainly not a nationalist. His life and work had an obvious UK and broader international solidarity context. My first job as a full time union official was in South Wales. I well remember attending a meeting in Merthyr Tydfil town hall where there was a wonderful bust of Keir Hardie - inspirational to a young idealistic union official. More recently, Newham council in London has published an excellent booklet commemorating Hardie's time as the MP for West Ham. It is hard to imagine an SNP politician standing for an English constituency!

We should always be wary about attaching views on current issues to historical figures. Hardie's thoughts on Home Rule were penned more than 120 years ago in a very different political environment. Something nationalists and others would do well to remember. They usually write that Keir Hardie would be 'turning in his grave' at the actions of the Labour Party today. If they are going to do this it would help to do some basic research. Hardie wont be turning in his grave for anything - because he was cremated!

More thoughtful arguments claiming Hardie would have supported independence come from Bob Holman - the author of an excellent concise biography of Hardie. He refers to Hardie's call for more working class MPs and railing against elitism of Westminster. Where I part company with Bob is the idea that the Scottish establishment is inherently more egalitarian. Gender balance, something he campaigned strongly on, yes, but that is largely due to the Scottish Labour Party's 50:50 policy, not the Parliament. Of course Hardie would have attacked privatisation and inequality, but these are political decisions of the Tories, who can be just as wicked as in Hardie's day. The White Paper was also short on substantive proposals that Hardie would have supported. In particular, not a single redistributive proposal, other than a tax handout to big business.

In the lecture I set out my own post-referendum analysis. That is largely as outlined in my blog post at the time, so I won't repeat it here. Similarly, my views on further devolution and the Smith Commission is set out in my column in last week's Sunday Times.

Finally, I do believe there were positives about referendum campaign including a revitalised discussion about politics that Hardie would have recognised as the norm in his day. In effect we have rediscovered that tradition. The other speaker at last night's event, Archie Macpherson, is an excellent example of the oral tradition and helped but some passion back into the No campaign.

Hardie was no political theorist, so we shouldn't treat his words as some sort of bible. He said "I am an agitator. My work has consisted of trying to stir up divine discontent with wrong".

That is the lesson we should take from his life today. He took the message of socialism to hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the UK. He changed the way a generation thought about what was possible. An alternative vision of what today we would call social justice.

If there is a lesson for the Scottish Labour Party today, it is the importance of communicating a radical vision of what is possible. Not the fantasy politics of those who claim to want social justice, but spend all their time attacking Labour. But neither is it the managerialism that sometimes dominates party policy. A fairer Scotland is possible and Scottish Labour should be its champion.




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