James Keir Hardie
( Originally Published 1907 )
I AM not sure that when the historian of the future discusses our time he will not find the most significant event on that day in 1892 when James Keir Hardie rode up to Westminster from West Ham, clothed in cloth cap, tweed suit, and flannel shirt, and accompanied by a band. The world scoffed at the vulgarity, or shuddered at the outrage, according to its humour; but the event was, nevertheless, historic. It marked the emergence of a new force in politics. It was a prophet who came a prophet in " ill country clothes," wild-eyed, speaking in accents as rugged and uncouth as his garb.
A prophet you say— this dour demagogue a prophet? And why not? The prophet has always been dour and generally a demagogue. Even Cromwell, who had been to Cambridge, and was, among other things, a brewer, was both. Sir Philip War-wick, entering the House one day, and seeing him on his feet, has left his picture for all time —a gloomybrowed man, with harsh, discordant voice, dressed in ill-country clothes, and having a splash of blood on his collar. A most unamiable figure to the polite mind of the Cavalier; but a prophet, a rock on which the ship of the Cavaliers was to go to pieces. And, whether you like him or not, Keir Hardie was a rock, too, in those days when he stood, gloomy and alone, in the midst of the Amalekites. It needed such a man for such a role.
The prophet is never a comfortable person. He would not be a prophet if he were. " Tammas is gey ill to live wi'," said Carlyle's mother of her famous son; and Mr. Keir Hardie, who shares Carlyle's rage with the world as well as Carlyle's dialect and gloomy brow, is " gey ill to live wi'," too. He glowers at life from beneath his mournful eyebrows, and he confounds us all in one universal malediction. He shrinks from contact with Society as from the touch of contamination. It is the quality of gilt as well as of pitch to defile. He will not be defiled by the gilt of the prosperous. You will never find a dress shirt under the red tie of Keir Hardie. He will never be petted by Princes and Peers.
He is the pit-lad of politics. He refuses to be any-thing else, for he has none of the spirit of Smiles' Self Help. It is true that, outwardly, his career fulfils all the conditions of a Smiles hero. He went down the pit shaft, a little lad of eight, to win his bread. He never had a day's schooling. His mother taught him to read, but he was seventeen before he could write his name. He taught himself shorthand, practising the characters on the face of the coal seam where he worked. He read Carlyle and Stuart Mill, and came out of the pit at twenty-three with an idea, a purpose, a vision. He would be an Ishmaelite. He would create a party of political Ishmaelites, and with them he would march into the fat pastures of Canaan and challenge the ancient tyrants—a fierce, intractable man, his hand against every man, and every man's hand against him.
Today his dream is accomplished. Whether titular leader or not, he is the chief figure and inspirer of that group of which he was the " first begetter." But success has not been crowned with the reward that attended the Smiles hero, whose hardships were admirable because they led to plenty and the companionship of the great. Mr. Keir Hardie has had no visible reward. I do not think he wants reward. His home is still in the little cottage at Cumnock, where he was once a pit-lad, and in London you must still seek him in that lodging in the ancient house off Fetter Lane, where, when he first sought a room, the good landlady, scanning the rough figure, demanded references, and was placated by the names of half a dozen members of Parliament. He clings to his poverty with the pride of a Highland chieftain.
For he is proud with the secretive pride of his country. The vanity of the Englishman is flagrant and assertive. It displays itself with the frankness of a child, and expires at a sneer. But the pride of the Scotsman hugs itself close. It is like the camomile : the more it is trodden on the better it grows. It asks for no recognition. It is self-contained. Flattery cannot exalt it; inappreciation cannot wound it. It never comes to the surface, and is most happy when it is most misunderstood. When Mr. Keir Hardie was entering the House one day a policeman stopped him. " Are you at work here, mate? " he asked. " Yes," was the laconic reply. " On the roof? " "No, on the floor." And he passed in, happy in the pride that would not reveal itself. An Englishman would have wanted the policeman's number, and would have had his day embittered by wounded vanity. And I can imagine that he happiest moment Mr. Hardie ever had was when he was arrested in Brussels in mistake for Rubino, the assassin. I think he would rejoice to be hanged as the wrong man. The knowledge that he was right and his executioners were wrong would fill his last moments with a sombre joy.
He is, too, the most typical Scotsman in the House, in appearance and outlook. He is " the Knight of the Rueful Countenance.". His face is cast in a tragic mould, and his temperament has the gloom of Calvinism and the severity of the Shorter Catechism.
When your eye passes from the cheerful Irishmen behind him to his sad and foreboding figure, you recall a passage in one of Scott's letters: " While a Scotchman is thinking about the term day, or, if easy on that subject, about hell in the next world while an Englishman is making a little hell in the present because his muffin is not well toasted Pat's mind is always turned to fun and ridicule." There is no fun and ridicule about Mr. Keir Hardie, and the perfectibility of his muffin leaves him uncheered. He has a soul too sorrowful to be moved by muffins. His figure brings up the vision of the Covenanters and that grey Galloway land, " where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying." One seems to see him out-rivalling Habakkuk Mucklewrath in the dark frenzy of his declamation, and rushing to the attack at Bothwell Brig with damnatory psalms upon his lips.
The child-man of Plato's fancy who had come to maturity in some dark cave and suddenly emerged into the light of day was intoxicated by the glory and splendour of the universe. He was filled with wonder at the miracle which we have ceased to see. When Mr. Keir Hardie emerged from the pit he was filled with wonder too. But it was wonder at the fantastic disorder of society, at a world in which realities are buried deep beneath a cake of custom and convention, where we see not the thing, but the appearance; not the cause, but the effect, and where the point of view is still that of the " Northern Farmer."
'Tisn't them as has money that breeäks into houses and steals,
He has kept the freshness of that first revelation. The wonder light is still in his eye. Contact with the world has not blurred his sight. He remains a seer, not dazzled by shows; but with his eye fixed on realities. It was not rudeness that he intended when, on a memorable occasion, he spoke of bigamy in a certain connection. It was that his eye penetrated the polite fiction, and came to the plain, human fact. And when he attacked the late Lord Salisbury in connection with some slum revelations, and said, " I would not remain a member of a club which admitted his lordship to membership," he was not insolent, or even humorous, though the world laughed at the joke. He simply saw the naked fact. The circumstance that it was a Prime Minister who owned slum property did not make the fact less flagrant, but more.
I have been told by one who was present that his animus towards the Liberal Party dates from a meeting when a local Liberal of consequence refused to go on the platform if the irreconcilable miner's agent were allowed to be on the platform too, and when he was left to nurse his wrath outside. But he never was and never could be a Liberal. He is a rebel ridden by a theory. Liberalism stands for the adaptation of existing society to new needs: he stands for the recreation of society. Toryism is an ally. It stands for the old structure, crumbling and decayed. It makes his task possible; while Liberalism, by making the structure habitable and watertight, defeats his dream.
Of the three Socialist leaders of European reputation, he is the most doctrinaire. Jaures has the statesman's outlook, and applies his theories to the practical criticism of Government. Bebel is a man of affairs. He revels in the fight. As he talks to you his eye twinkles with merriment and sly enjoyment.
He is always happy, always sanguine. A pleasant, human man, enjoying the drama of politics, with its cut and thrust, its humours and its gravities. Mr. Keir Hardie is solitary and menacing an embodied theory.
He is not a politician or a statesman. He is a fanatic. The politician must temporise and compromise. He yields as little as he can, and takes as much as he can. He studies the weather, and is governed by the seasons. He equivocates and waits upon circumstance. The fanatic knows nothing of this opportunism. The thunder is always on his brow, the lightning always in his eye, the fire at his heart always smouldering into flame. He is a man obsessed with an idea. It gives him no rest, and he gives you no rest. Hence Mr. Keir Hardie's failure as a Parliamentarian. He has none of the plasticity necessary for the man of affairs. He is stiff and irreconcilable. He is indifferent to detail. He has no gratitude for small mercies. His eye is on the far-off vision. He is the only man who could have created the Labour Party, for concentration and intensity are the creative impulses. But he is almost the only man in the party who is not fitted to lead it. It is plain, common-sense men like Mr. Shackleton and Mr. Henderson, and astute politicians like Mr. Ramsay Macdonald who have made it a political instrument. His party is not as himself. He is as isolated in it as when he stood alone in the House. For no party can exist on anathema and prophecy. A cause comes into being at the breath of the prophet, and then leaves him in the desert.
It goes without saying that there is a strain of poetry in him, for no poetry, no idealism. The prophet must not only see the naked fact; he must have the visionary gleam. It goes without saying, too, that it is the poetry of Burns, with its fierce democratic passion and its exaltation of the humble and the sincere, that appeals most to him. One who heard him lecture on Burns told me that it revealed to him a world of unsuspected tenderness and emotion in the heart of this rugged, uncompromising man. But, indeed, it must be so. It is the fierce antipathies of the theorist that the world sees; but deep down in his heart these antipathies are seen to have their roots in a sympathy as fierce the sympathy with the class from which he sprang, and which he has never deserted. He hates the palace because he remembers the pit.