Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Hardie, James Keir
HARDIE, JAMES KEIR (1856–1915), socialist and labour leader, was born in a one-roomed cottage at Legbrannock, near Holytown, Lanarkshire, 15 August 1856. His father was a ship's carpenter and trade unionist, and his mother, Mary Keir, had been a domestic servant. His youth was passed in extreme poverty. At seven he became a messenger boy, then he worked for a time in a ship-yard, and afterwards as a baker's errand boy. His parents having moved back from Glasgow into the coal district, he went to work at ten years of age as trapper in a Lanarkshire mine, remaining for twelve years in the pits, and rising to be a skilled hewer. During these years he attended evening school, and became an active worker in the temperance movement, in which he met his wife, Lillie, daughter of Duncan Wilson, collier, whom he married in 1879. In the later 'seventies he began to agitate among the miners, then very badly paid and practically unorganized. His activity cost both him and his two younger brothers their jobs; and Hardie was black-listed by the coal-owners.
In 1878 Hardie opened a stationer's shop at Low Waters, and began journalistic work as local correspondent for the Glasgow Weekly Mail. He had now set to work in good earnest to get the miners organized, and for many years he acted as an unpaid official of various new miners' associations. Thus in 1879 the Hamilton miners made him their correspondence secretary, and he used this position to get into touch with the miners in other parts of the country, with a view to forming a national union. Later in that year he was appointed miners' county agent for Lanarkshire, and a conference of miners from the various Scottish coal-fields gave him the title of national secretary, though no national organization yet existed. In 1880, still practically without organization, the Lanarkshire miners struck against a wage reduction, and, though they were defeated, the struggle prepared the way for a county union. After leading the men in this dispute, Hardie accepted an invitation from the Ayrshire miners to become their county secretary, and took up his quarters at Cumnock, where his home remained for the rest of his life. In 1881 the Ayrshire miners struck and were defeated; but Hardie continued the work of organization until, in 1886, the Ayrshire miners' union was at length formed on a stable basis, with himself as secretary. In the same year he was made secretary of the Scottish miners' federation, formed by the various county unions which he had helped to create. Hardie was paid either nothing at all or only small honoraria for his services with these bodies. He supported himself mainly by journalism, joining the staff of two local newspapers in 1882. During these years he was still a liberal; but in 1887 he was already mooting the idea of a distinct labour party, and proposing to stand for North Ayrshire as an independent labour candidate. In 1888 his rupture with the liberals was complete, and he stood as a labour candidate against both liberal and conservative at the Mid-Lanark by-election, sometimes described as the first independent labour contest. He polled only 617 votes out of 7,381. During the contest unsuccessful attempts were made by the liberals to buy him off. He was offered a safe liberal seat at the next general election and an income of £300 a year. This, as well as subsequent offers of money from several sources, he refused. The year of this election is also notable for the formation, under Hardie's chairmanship, of the Scottish labour party, the first independent labour political party in Great Britain, subsequently merged in the Independent Labour Party.
Before the Mid-Lanark election, at the beginning of 1887, Hardie started a paper of his own, The Miner, which was continued for two years. In 1889, the year of the great dock strike in London, generally regarded as the beginning of a new epoch in British labour history, this was succeeded by the Labour Leader, published monthly till 1894, and thereafter weekly. This paper, which became the principal mouthpiece of the new political socialist movement and the ‘new unionism’, greatly increased Hardie's influence; and in 1892 he was elected as independent labour member of parliament for South West Ham, the death of the liberal candidate shortly before the election giving him a straight fight with a unionist. At the same election John Burns was returned for Battersea. Hardie's election undoubtedly helped forward the movement for an independent working-class party, and early in 1893 the various local and sectional bodies united to form the Independent Labour Party, with Hardie as chairman. With this body and its work his name will always be principally connected. In parliament he rapidly made his name as ‘the member for the unemployed’, adopting from the first a militant attitude on this question. In 1895 he lost his seat owing to the withdrawal of support by the liberals. He then visited America and, on his return, fought an unsuccessful by-election at Bradford in 1896. He incurred much odium by taking up a strong attitude against the South African War; but in 1900, after being defeated at Preston, he was elected for Merthyr Burghs with D. A. Thomas (afterwards Viscount Rhondda) [q.v.]. This seat he held continuously until his death. He took an active part in forming the labour representation committee in 1900. When this became the Labour Party, and a strong labour group was for the first time returned to parliament in 1906, Hardie became its first leader in the House of Commons; but he resigned the leadership, owing to illness, in the following year. In 1913 he again became chairman of the Independent Labour Party, a position which he had held from 1893 to 1900, and presided at its ‘coming-of-age’ conference in 1914. He was chairman of the British section of the International Socialist bureau at the outbreak of war in 1914, having taken from 1888 onwards an active part in international labour conferences and in stimulating international labour organization. The powerlessness of the working-class organizations to prevent war, to which he was strongly opposed, came to him as a severe shock, and from August 1914 his health broke down. After seeming for a while to regain his strength, he suffered a further breakdown. Pneumonia followed, and he died 2 September 1915. He left two sons and a daughter, a second daughter having died in childhood.
Hardie was, in his day, perhaps the best-hated and the best-loved man in Great Britain. To his opponents he was uncompromising and hard-hitting in his language, and he was commonly regarded as much more of an extremist than he really was. His speeches in parliament and still more, during his visit to India in 1907–1908, when his utterances were seriously misrepresented, roused furious anger. In the socialist movement, on the other hand, he was regarded with feelings almost of veneration, and his personal popularity was immense. He was an excellent speaker, relying on homely phrases and simple appeals, with some tendency to sentimentalism. Never an original thinker or theorist, he had a firm grip of practical affairs, which enabled him to carry out effectively his task of drawing the British trade union and labour movement into independent political action on semi-socialist lines. He wrote well, and his journalism had always that personal touch which is essential to popular political writing. At his best, he was not unlike William Cobbett in the manner of his appeal. Like Cobbett, too, he was an excellent companion, with an extraordinary faculty for making and keeping loyal friends. By his example and the force of his personal appeal, he certainly did far more than any other man to create the political labour movement in Great Britain, and to give to it the distinctive character of an alliance of socialist and trade union forces. His London home, in Nevill's Court, off Fleet Street, was the resort of all manner of British and foreign leaders of advanced thought and action. But, though Hardie's life was spent largely in London, he always retained both his home at Cumnock, where his wife and family remained, and his essential character as a Scottish miner. He was acutely class-conscious and clan-proud, obtruding in parliament and in private life his working-class origin and attitude. His cloth cap and tweed suit, which so scandalized parliament and the newspapers when he took his seat in 1892, were worn, partly at least, in order to help him in sustaining this character. In this he was perfectly sincere, and his egoism, like Cobbett's, arose rather from his sense of symbolizing his class than from any personal vanity. Time is already enabling even his opponents to take a more objective view of Hardie. His opportunist and even sentimental socialism exactly suited the mood of the more advanced groups of workers who, escaping from Victorian liberalism, sought a new gospel as the political expression of their economic condition.
[Apart from pamphlets, of which there are many, the only life of Hardie is William Stewart's J. Keir Hardie: A Biography, 1921, which contains a full account of the events of his life (with portraits). David Lowe's From Pit to Parliament, 1923, deals more fully with his early career. For his influence, see also volume ii of Max Beer's History of British Socialism, 1919–1920, and the somewhat malicious references in H. M. Hyndman's Further Reminiscences, 1912. Hardie's own works, in addition to a good many pamphlets and much journalism, include From Serfdom to Socialism, 1907, a simple piece of socialist propaganda, and India: Impressions and Suggestions, 1909.]