Keir Hardie's centenary year is an opportunity to remember the contribution he made to our movement and keep alive the ideas he championed.
"I am an agitator. My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong". This is classic Keir Hardie and for me what he was all about. Academics can pour over his words and look for deep meaning, but for me he wasn't a great theorist, he was an agitator. He took the message of socialism to hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the UK and changed the way a generation thought about what was possible.
2015 is the centenary of his death and last night I was at Westminster with the Keir Hardie Society to launch a programme of events we are planning this year. Our first Honorary President was Tony Benn, and his daughter Melissa opened last night's event with her own thoughts on Keir Hardie's legacy. There was no alcohol at last night's reception - Hardie would have approved!
Cathy Jamieson MP and our Secretary, Richard Leonard, outlined the programme for the year that includes meetings at UK and Scottish Labour Party conferences, lectures and a book of essays in which writers will address different aspects of Keir Hardie’s life, ideas or main achievements. The Scottish Labour History Society conference this year will focus on Hardie and discussions with several council's are well advanced on developing Hardie Trails in the areas he lived and worked. There is a planned reprint of Hardie's classic "From Serfdom to Socialism" and a local schools project.
There was a good turnout of Labour MPs from around the UK, reflecting Keir Hardie's appeal across the country. I put together a Powerpoint presentation of visual media for last night's event and I was struck by how many parts of the UK remember him in street names, health centres, schools and many other buildings. While the society is based in Scotland, we never forget that he was an MP in Wales and London. He also had an international perspective and traveled extensively across the world in solidarity with workers everywhere. Yes, he was a supporter of Home Rule, but James Keir Hardie was no nationalist.
He also wasn't a big fan of the abuse of patriotism during the First World War. Writing 100 years ago this month, he said;
"…I conclude by calling the attention of organised Labour to the facts that Imperialism, Militarism and Patriotism have added during the past fifty years nearly £200,000,000 a year to the financial class from investments abroad……But the war will end …and the Imperialist monied property owning, ruling class who today are so proud of the patriotism of the working man, will still be supreme….Their incomes from Colonial and Foreign investments will not be touched. And everyone of those ‘patriots’ will once more combine their strength to keep the working man in the lowly station to which it has pleased God to call him." (HT Vince Mills)
While Hardie was a founder of the Labour Party and its first parliamentary leader, he was first and foremost a trade unionist. Sacked as a mine worker in 1879 with his brothers in Lanarkshire by the colliery manager for speaking out; "We'll ha' no more damed Hardies in this pit". He would recognise the attempts by the modern day Tories to weaken employment law and the right to strike, for what they are. The UK already has the most draconian strike laws in Europe.
Hardie's centenary year is of course an historical event, a reminder of the labour movement's great traditions. However, it will also put Hardie's life and work in a modern context - stirring up a divine discontent with wrong!