22 MARCH 1957, Page 19


Keir Hardie


TN the one room of the tumbledown thatched 'cottage with the mud floor, which was little more than a shelter from the cold and the rain, the widow's daughter gave birth to her unwanted son.' •

We're off ! There is the authentic opening, the archetypal prelude, to that most potent of twentieth-century 'social myths'—the hard life of the old-fashioned labour leader. Mr. Emrys Hughes, MP, author of The Crown and the Cash, Winston Churchill (a critical Biography), etc., has written a life of his father-in-law, Keir Hardie.* It cannot be described as critical, but even if the his- torian may cavil, the connoisseur of this kind of literature will enjoy it to the full. The chapter headings alone—The Reader in the Attic,' The Miner in Revolt,' Campaigns for the Bottom Dog'—what an agreeably archaic flavour they have! What a pleasant sense of nostalgia, too,they will bring to those members of the `Movement'— an ever-diminishing band—who really have come from humble and poverty-stricken origins! And what envy to those who have not! The legend of the downtrodden toiler. struggling upwards to assert the rights of his order against the forces of reaction and privilege is an integral' part of Socialist folk lore. It affects the attitude of the party even now in the 1950s, however little resemblance it bears to the career of the typical Socialist leader of today and tomorrow. The biographer of these latter-day Socialists will, indeed, search Mr. Hughes's chapters in vain for analogies and parallels. 'Struggle with the Old School' may seem promising for a moment. But, no : it does not help him at all for his own chapter—`Winchester: the Formative Years.'

A well-known periodical recently declared, somewhat pontifically, but not without reason, that the main function of the leader of the Socialist Party today is `to turn his back on the age of Keir Hardie.' Mr. Hughes will very naturally have none of this. Keir Hardie, he says, 'was fifty if not a hundred years in front of his time,' and again, 'one wonders whether the Labour Party today has caught up with Keir Hardie.' These are loyal but unconvincing utter- ances. After reading Keir Hardie's nebulous observations on Socialism and comparing them with the scarcely less nebulous programme of the modern Labour Party, one might well wonder exactly what is supposed to have caught up with What. For Keir Hardie was not a thinker or even a politician. He never tried to work out the detailed application of Socialism to conditions in Britain. He was an agitator and a rebel attack- ing the abuses of the 1890s and 1900s—the famous cloth cap in the House of Commons * KEIR Haltom. (Allen and Unwin, I 5s.) symbolised his attitude—but he was incapable of clear thought as opposed to emotional protest. History seldom repeats itself, and it is not very likely that Keir Hardie's protests in 1900 will be much help to Mr. Gaitskell in 1957.

As a matter of fact his protests did not always help the Socialist cause in his own day. For example his strong anti-monarchist sentiment caused him to oppose a congratulatory motion in the House on the occasion of the birth of the future King Edward VIII. As the ex-King wrote in his memoirs half a century later : 'In the midst of the polite rejoicing over my birth at least one grumpy voice made itself heard.' But grumpiness about royalty had even then ceased to have any popular appeal and it certainly has none today.

Equally unpopular was Keir Hardie's pacifism. He lost most of his hold over the masses when he bitterly assailed the decision to fight in 1914. As for the South African War his language knew no bounds. He even refused to take the oath in the House of Commons in case he might have had to kiss the same book which had been used by Joseph Chamberlain, preferring to affirm, although he was a Christian of undoubted sin- cerity. In 1901 he skilfully combined both forms of unpopularity by objecting to any show of military pomp at the funeral of Queen Victoria.

It is all a far cry from Socialism in the 1950s. Mr. Hughes may have a nostalgic feel for the good old days when the Labour 'MPs were nearly all former manual workers. As he somewhat acidly observes : `Middle-class intellectuals inter- ested in political careers were still with the Tories and Liberals. They had not yet realised that there were prospects in the Labour Party.'

Yet it is not really justifiable for a modern Socialist to complain at the part played by middle- and lower-middle-class intellectuals in his party, however much—and understandably—he may personally dislike them. The party would not have got far without them. Neither of its two past Prime Ministers nor its present leader has been a -manual worker, nor, with a few excep- tions, have the abler members of its successive Cabinets. The 'working class' is not the sole repository of political wisdom. At all events Keir Hardie himself would have been very unlikely to have made a successful leader if the party had achieved power in his time. He was an angry idealist, a cross sentimentalist, a curmudgeonly Scotch prophet crying in the wilderness, but never a politician. Had he lived on into the 1920s he would have been outmanoeuvred by Ramsay MacDonald and laughed at by Mrs. Webb.

Perhaps he would have found an ally in Lansbury, and together they might have fought a more successful campaign than Lansbury single-handed, on the grave question whether, as MacDonald insisted, all members of the Cabinet should wear court dress at Buckingham Palace. Lansbury had to compromise on a top hat •and morning coat. Doubtless Keir Hardie's 'cloth cap and tweeds would have been vetoed, but pos- sibly the people's cause might have gained a step in the direction of progress by, say, a bowler and a city suit.

If Keir Hardie has left any legacy to the modern Labour Party it is not one of ideas, for his are mostly irrelevant today, nor of political technique, for, although he was the Labour Party's first leader he was never an effective par- liamentarian. His legacy is rather one of emotional attitude. Here his influence has been profound—and deplorable. For Keir Hardie believed passionately in the class war, and he felt a real personal loathing for the rich and privi- leged of every description. He may have loved humanity but he had a remarkable capacity for detesting particular human beings. He invariably attributed the blackest motives to his opponents. Asquith and Haldane were 'cold-blooded reac- tionaries of the most dangerous type . . . despots at heart.' The Chamberlain and Asquith type alone has sufficient lack of honour and absence of moral conscience to make them callous enough for the dirty work of the magnates of the Stock Exchange.' As for the magnates—it was during the Boer War—they should be hanged as 'despicable traitors.' Churchill was a typical example of 'the Marlborough record'—`a great parasite sponging on the state.' The naval rearmament programme of 1908 was principally designed to give 'snug billets for the sons of the rich and well-to-do.' And so on. It is not a very agreeable feature of his character, however understandable in view of his own life and times, but its influence can be seen all too clearly in the barren programme -of the Socialist Party today. Egalitarianism is ostensibly based on jus- tice, but is in fact all too often based on envy. Certainly it could be said of Keir Hardie, as Cardinal Manning is supposed to have said of Cardinal Newman, 'He was a great hater.'