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International Socialism, January 1976


Raymond Challinor

Flawed Heroes


From International Socialism, No.85, January 1976, pp.25-27.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Keir Hardie
by Iain McLean
Allen Lane, £2.75

The Strange Case of Victor Grayson
by Reg Groves
Pluto Press, £2.00

Keir Hardie’s life lends itself to romantic portrayal. Born in an earth-floored, one-room cottage, the illegitimate son of a servant-girl, he became one of the most significant figures ever produced by the British labour movement. Most biographies of him have been exercises in hagiolatry, failing to mention his considerable weaknesses. Keir Hardie was a vain, obstinate, narrow-minded individual, with severe political limitations. Not merely anti-socialist, he could also be accused of being anti-social – in his early years, as a temperance fanatic, he bricked up the entrances to public houses.

Dr Iain McLean does not fall into the usual trap. He paints Keir Hardie warts and all. A vivid and interesting portrait, he has probably produced the best biography so far written.

Keir Hardie was born at a time when the working class had become reconciled to capitalism’s existence. Instead of the wild, sometimes violent, utterances of the Chartist period, the masses contented themselves with making modest demands for improvements within the prevailing class system. One of the most important means for securing these small gains was the trade union movement, and it was under its aegis that Keir Hardie’s political involvement began. By the very nature of the coal industry, miners acquire an interest in politics. They need parliamentary legislation to secure improvements in safety standards, to regulate hours of work and to make provision for men injured down the pits.

As an official in the miners’ union, Keir Hardie looked to the Liberal Party to attain these objectives. The appeal he made to colliers at the 1885 general election reveals how he combined political orthodoxy with religious enthusiasm:

‘When in the quietness and secrecy of the polling booth you stand alone with God, with no eyes to see you but His alone, cast your vote for Home, Freedom, and Country, in favour of the Liberal candidate.’

Happily, the Almighty – alive, well and living in heaven – intervened in the general election to give the Liberals a majority over the Conservatives. Although no theologians seem to have noticed it, God appears to have modified his political views a few years later, coming out in support of independent Labour candidates. When, in 1900 Keir Hardie successfully stood at Merthyr, he confidently told the electors: ‘My cause is the cause of Labour ... the cause of God.’

Powerful pressures pushed Keir Hardie – or, as he was sometimes called, ‘Queer Hardie’ – along the path that led to the building of the Labour Party. It arose from no fundamental disagreement with Liberal principles, but rather because working class representation in Parliament had reached an impasse: Local Liberal Associations, imbued with an attitude of deference, would not nominate a worker if some wealthy businessman or aristocrat wanted the candidature. So the group of Lib-Lab MPs remained small in number. They were also ineffective. Their failure to obtain any significant reforms aroused growing dissatisfaction. The trade union movement, with its membership increasing, became more and more impatient with the poor performance of the Lib-Lab parliamentarians, particularly since the public was acquiring newer and higher expectations. The final breaking-point came when the courts reached a series of decisions, of which Taff Vale is the best known, that the trade unions regarded as imperative to change. Since clearly the Lib-Lab MPs would never accomplish this task, it was vital to create an organisation that would – the Labour Party came into being. The new body, it was envisaged, would concern itself with a small number of problems that significantly concerned working people; on other issues its Members of Parliament would espouse the policies of the traditional parties.

It is a moot question when really independent labour representation actually began. Some would argue it happened at West Ham in 1892, when Keir Hardie won the seat and held it for the next three years. Among those making this claim was Frederick Engels, who wrote:

‘Keir Hardie, the workers’ candidate – one of the few who did not accept any Liberal money and gave no pledges to the Liberals – is so far the only one who has succeeded in changing a Conservative majority (of over 300 in the last elections) into an anti-Conservative one (of over 1,200) ... An independent labour party is casting its shadow before.’ [1]

But Engels was incorrect. Of the £293 donated to Keir Hardie’s election funds, Dr McLean calculates only £25 came from working-class sources. The rest came from capitalist politicians and industrialists, including £100 from that representative of rugged American individualism, Andrew Carnegie. Equally unimpressive was his political line: he told the public he completely supported the National Liberal Federation’s manifesto. Insofar as he did introduce a distinctive elements into his campaign, it possessed a pathetic quality. At his first meeting he explained the aim of a Labour Party would be ‘to introduce into life more sunshine, beauty and happiness’. (Presumably on this basis, we have Harold Wilson to thank for the good summer of 1975!)

There was also a certain amount of ambiguity about the 1900 election. He stood jointly with D.A. Thomas at Merthyr, a constituency where everybody had two votes as it returned two MPs. Not only was D.A. Thomas, his running mate, a Liberal but also one of South Wales’ biggest coal owners. A poor employer, D.A. Thomas grew increasingly unpopular, especially with miners, who used to gleefully recall the newspaper that reported the sinking of the Lusitania under the banner headline: ‘GREAT NATIONAL DISASTER: D.A. THOMAS SAVED’. [2]

Arrangements similar to those at Merthyr occurred elsewhere in 1900. Richard Bell, of the railwaymens’ union, was returned to parliament along with a Liberal partner for the two-member constituency of derby. At Sunderland, also a two-member constituency, Alexander Wilkie, of the shipwrights’ union, unsuccessfully stood alongside a Liberal candidate, G.B. Hunter, of Swan Hunters, the Tyneside shipbuilders.

Significantly, these instances of class collaboration were underpinned in tow ways. First, there was the formation, also in 1900, of the National Industrial Association, a body designed to promote harmony and goodwill between both sides in industry. And the Association’s leaders? By some strange coincidence, they included G.B. Hunter, D.A. Thomas, Richard Bell and Alexander Wilkie. Then, second, there was an electoral pact between the Liberal chief whip and Ramsey MacDonald, secretary of the Labour Representation Committee. Its aim was to resolve differences between the Liberal and Labour parties to their mutual advantage. Vote-splitting, which might result in Tory victories, were to be avoided by one or the other side agreeing to stand down in single member constituencies. At the 1906 general election, largely due to Liberals giving Labour a free hand in certain seats, the Labour Party had 29 MPs returned.

The electoral pact necessarily had to be kept secret. Conservative working men, who would never contemplate voting Liberal, might be inveighed into voting Labour if they did not think the Labour Party had any connection with the Liberals. Likewise, it might have caused demoralisation among socialists who supported the labour Party mistakenly believing they would be building an entirely independent working class party. So leaders continued to deny its existence. As Dr McLean says,

‘Hardie must have found it very painful and a considerable psychological burden to have to tell reassuring lies to every member of the ILP who suspected that something was afoot with the Liberals.’

Rank and filers, frustrated by what to them seemed an inexplicable timidity on the part of the leadership, sometimes revolted. The most famous example of this happened at Colne Valley in 1907. Local socialists, defying the party hierarchy, which wanted the seat left to the Liberals, put up Victor Grayson, a virtually unknown young man, as their candidate. Disregarding the customarily accepted practice of fighting on a platform of respectable moderation, Victor Grayson fought on a full-blooded socialist programme. His campaign generated tremendous enthusiasm. When, quite unexpectedly, he beat his Tory and Liberal opponents, the rejoicing among his socialist supporters in Colne Valley was only matched by the anguish of Labour MPs in London. ‘I am simply a bullet,’ he explained, ‘fired by the Colne Valley workers against the established order.’

Victor Grayson became a national figure over night. He personified the feelings of anger and militancy awakening within the masses. At a time when living standards were declining and the gulf between rich and poor growing, Grayson stomped the country with his fiery message. He told his audience in Wigan:

‘I am looking forward to the time when a British soldier will emulate his brother of the National Guard of France and when, asked to fire on the people, who are fighting for their rights, will turn his rifle in the other direction. We are making a socialist now of Tommy Atkins by propaganda in the Army.’

Grayson wanted the masses to bestir themselves, not just stoically accept misfortune:

‘As a socialist, I have no hesitation in saying it is more moral, more manly, infinitely more preferable to steal when you are starving than to die of hunger. I have nothing but the profoundest and completes contempt for the man who allows his wife and children to starve and accepts this as being according to the supposed will of God.’

In November 1908, the growing levels of distress prompted Grayson to make his most spectacular intervention in Parliament. The Licensing Bill was making its slow, sedate and rather tedious way through the Commons when he suddenly interrupted: ‘Mr Chairman, Mr Chairman, before you proceed any further ... Thousands are dying in the streets.’ Grayson demanded the House immediately discuss the question of unemployment. The Speaker refused, but Grayson would not accept his ruling. Amid shouts of ‘Sit down’ and ‘Order’ from other MPs, he continued to talk about the thousands who were out of work: ‘I will not give order in a chamber that starves people wholesale.’ Parliamentary business could not continue until the Sergeant-at-Arms had removed him. As he was being escorted from the chamber, he shouted at the Labour MPs: ‘You are traitors – traitors to your class!’ His parting shot was: ‘I leave this House with pleasure ... it is a House of murderers.’

Victor Grayson considered Parliament an instrument of capitalism. He had no illusions that it could somehow be used to accomplish the socialist transformation. All he thought an individual like himself could do was to use Parliament as a platform, a place for occasionally gaining publicity, while the important political struggles happened outside.

Alas, personal problems marred Grayson’s political approach. He drank heavily. With the amount of blood in his alcohol stream diminishing rapidly, Grayson became less and less coherent, more and more unreliable. The scandals of his personal conduct helped to lose him Colne Valley in 1910, and he fell out of serious political activity two years later.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, it has some inadequacies. Reg Groves is far too generous to Grayson. It is debateable whether Grayson’s erratic political course was not caused more by his lack of theory than by alcohol. Re-reading some of his speeches is embarrassingly like hearing the intellectual meanderings of a youth who has been in the movement for about six months. Allied to this was Grayson’s failure to understand the need for regular and systematic industrial work. Nor did he see that a revolutionary party needed to be made of steel; it could not be constructed from the flabbiness of the SDF and ILP – an entirely different approach was required.

If Reg Groves wants to establish Victor Grayson’s credentials as a revolutionary socialist, then he should first answer the case against him. It is no use replying to the political lightweights, men like Max Beer and Fenner Brockway; Reg Groves has to explain why that small band of dedicated people who, slowly and laboriously, were laying the foundations of the communist organisations of the future shunned Grayson and his theatrical pyrotechnics. Why does Reg Groves not even mention the criticisms of Grayson coming from the Socialist Labour Party, which was the most serious revolutionary tendency in Britain at the time? Then he has nothing to say about Lenin: Lenin was right when he described Victor Grayson as ‘a fiery socialist, without many principles and given to mere phrases’? [3] And what about James Connolly? He was very critical. In a letter to an old friend, John Carstairs Matheson, of the SLP, he even went so far as to say that in the quarrel between Keir Hardie and Grayson he sided with Hardie:

‘Hardie’s mistakes have been monumental, but through them all he has had the instinct to lean upon the labour movement. While his critics want a “socialist” party, not a “labour” one. Ye gods.’ [4]

Connolly’s remark requires some explaining. He was not advocating deep entrism, like the Militant Group today. In any case, that was impossible since constituency parties did not exist before 1918. Rather he was arguing for raising the struggle for socialism inside the trade unions instead of remaining aloof from the masses. Before the First World War the labour Party consisted almost entirely of trade unions. He wanted socialist groups to break down their isolation by using trade union branches as a vehicle for political action and discussion.

As for Connolly’s reference to Hardie’s instinct to lean upon the labour movement, there is considerable truth in it. Keir Hardie related himself to the level of class consciousness. As workers began to shake themselves free of Liberalism, so did he. When they started to demand reforms, he became their spokesmen. If they became involved in industrial disputes, he did what he could to help.

His most impressive period came in the industrial battles before the First World War. Entirely disregarding both his previous association with D.A. Thomas and the union officials’ opposition to the strikers, Keir Hardie completely sided with the men in the Cambrian Collieries dispute, he used parliament to denounce army and police thuggery. Going to considerable trouble, he embarrassed the Home Secretary, Churchill, by giving all the details about government-sponsored violence against miners and their families. After soldiers shot strikers at Llanelli, he wrote a pamphlet, Killing No Murder, to expose the government even more. Nor was it merely the miners’ strikes: Keir Hardie was equally prepared to align himself with any worker in struggle. Alone in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he told the Commons:

‘Syndicalism is the direct outcome of the apathy and the indifference of this House towards working-class questions, and I rejoice at the growth of Syndicalism.’

One of the things I realised about Keir Hardie only after reading Dr McLean’s biography was that intense pressure and hard work wore him out. It comes as a shock to think that many of those photographs of Keir Hardie, where he looks like Old Father Time, were taken of a man about 50 years of age. Numerous meetings in various parts of the country, the tiring train journeys, the people’s homes in which accommodation was not always satisfactory – all took their toll. Even when he was living in his London home – an attic in Nevill Court – he does not appear to have taken much care of himself. Politics concerned him more than personal comfort. On one occasion, told by his doctor to rest because of ill health, he still could not resist combining work with relaxation. He took himself off to the Continent, where he planned to meet other social democratic leaders. As he entered the Belgian parliament, the police arrested him because they thought this strangely-dressed individual was an anarchist, come to blow the place up.

What a contrast with labour leaders today. A politician like Roy Jenkins is in no danger of being mistaken for a dangerous anarchist: he is more likely to be mistaken for the governor-general of the bank of England. But then, of course, Roy Jenkins is in favour of putting trade unionists in prison whereas Keir Hardie was always concerned with getting them out.


1. Marx/Engels, On Britain, p.527.

2. T.A. Jackson, Solo Trumpet, p.76.

3. Lenin, On Britain, p.115.

4. Letter of James Connolly to J.C. Matheson, 10 June 1909, in National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

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