Scottish Independence: The spectre of Keir Hardie [& his beard]
My late father was a Scottish Communist born on Clydebank in 1924 so my parentage provokes a certain personal interest in the forthcoming vote in Scottish independence, but also a sense of some historical perspectives.
It can be argued that there is no interest in keeping an imperial United Kingdom with its current structure and that the current British State’s renewed enthusiasm for wars might be caused to pause by a ‘yes’ vote.
Then it might also be said that the working class and the left are better united across the British Isles, although that is not a definitive argument against independence. It is though an argument that Salmond cant make.
Then again it could be suggested that in principle the Scots have a right to independence but that it might not be the best idea to pursue that right now when the key issue is ejecting the most reactionary Government in Westminster for many decades from Office.
Perhaps that is a point in favour of Devo Max
A study of labour history can’t offer any definitive guidance on these points and nor should it. However some interesting perspectives can be offered.
Take, for example, the political career of Keir Hardie.
Hardie’s original base, from the late 1870s, was amongst first the Lanarkshire and then the Ayrshire miners in Scotland. He was a trade unionist, a full time organiser, with a Lib-Lab perspective on the world that focused strongly on issues of respectability such as temperance and religious observance. He also had a beard.
Hardie stood as an independent labour candidate election in Lanark in April 1888 and in August of the same year he became the first Secretary of the new Scottish Labour Party.
A career in Scottish politics surely beckoned. Except that it didn’t because that wasn’t quite how Hardie saw the world.
In 1892 he travelled to the East End of London, another centre of a newly organising working class, to stand, without Liberal opposition, as a labour candidate for Westminster. Hardie won and in August 1892 took his seat as an MP.
Questions were asked about where Hardie’s campaign funds came from. While Hardie presented himself as moving beyond his trade union background, as Caroline Benn’s definitive biography underlines, unemployment was even more of an issue in West Ham than it was in Ayrshire. The Scottish miners understood the link well enough and certainly gave some of the money for Hardie’s election.
The following year he was one of those who formed the Independent Labour Party.
When it came to the 1900 General Election Hardie in era when it was possible to stand in more than one seat was nominated in Preston and Merthyr in South Wales.
Preston was never likely at this point, on a still restricted franchise, to return a labour MP.
Hardie’s chances in Merthyr weren’t thought to be too good either. After all he was a Scot who had held a seat in London’s East End and was largely unknown in the area.
Hardie however had two things going for him. Firstly he had been a miner and a miner’s union official. Merthyr was a mining seat, but one which remained firmly Lib-Lab. This however was the period when the new Trades Councils were being formed in the area, and they were often a bedrock of support for independent labour politics
In a two member seat Hardie was elected MP and in the 1906 General Election was re-elected with an increased majority.
During his period as MP for West Ham and Merthyr when not representing his constituents in London, Hardie continued to live in Cumnock in Scotland where he had been based as a union official.
The historical point that Hardie’s trajectory as a union and labour activist demonstrates is that while issues of national independence are important ones, class politics transcends boundaries.
I live in London and Cardiff so I don’t have a vote on 18th September. If I did it would be hard to envisage why one would vote to keep the imperial structure of the United Kingdom as it currently is. At the same time the thought of a smiling Alex Salmond on 19th September is just as upsetting as that of a smiling David Cameron in May 2015. Neither man of course has ever had a beard, unlike Keir Hardie.
Whichever way you look at it, perhaps the debates and the energy of the campaign will provoke an upsurge not in the Establishment politics of Salmond and Cameron, but movement at the grassroots, from below. That is what all those in authority in London and Edinburgh really fear.
The spectre of united working class internationalism that Hardie, and his beard, in a way personified.