The 18th September , the Keir Hardie question & the grassroots left
So in the end it was a no with a sizeable yes vote.
The yes vote was the SNP of course, who I would struggle to see as being in any significant way ‘left-wing’ but lots of grassroots, left-wing campaigns as well. These were focused on a politics of anti-austerity and hatred in particular of Tories. On the ‘no’ side there was also a split. Perhaps some of the Orange Order who marched for ‘no’ do vote Labour but they remain bigots. Likewise there was a labour movement ‘no’vote. You might argue that Gordon Brown’s reworked vision of New Labour twenty years on was a key part of that. I was never a fan of New Labour but listening to his speeches one was reminded that at least here was a politics that stood, very quietly, for trying very modestly to change things for the better for working people rather than march quickly the other way as Cameron has been trying to do for 5 years. By the way, don’t mention the war.
It was said that ‘no’ played on fears but that underlines perhaps an issue of how some of the left doesn’t always fully engage with a far from confident workers movement. If a significant change is suggested people do worry about their pensions, their savings, their jobs. These matters can of course be addressed politically, but I’m not sure how far the ‘yes’ left did so.
Certainly the left of the ‘yes’ vote represents a real grassroots movement for change which it is to be hoped will inspire similar elsewhere in what for the moment remains the UK.
That leads me to an historical point about class politics…
Although Scottish on my father’s side (he was a Communist who lived most of his life in London and fought with some distinction in World War Two with the Durham Light Infantry)I didn’t have a vote on Thursday as I live in North London and Cardiff.
I’ve made my point about the imperial context of 18th September elsewhere. My concern, as a socialist historian, remains that a focus on class politics in an historical context was somewhat lacking in much of the debate.
Keir Hardie- beard aside- was not exactly my kind of socialist, (he didn’t drink for a start off, though he lived in different times in that respect arguably) but he was without a question a socialist.
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. Working class internationalism and solidarity is a worldwide not a national thing, even if national struggles have sometimes been of real importance to this.
So if Salmond has gone the next job is to get rid of Cameron. And then some