This article first appeared in the Ardossan and Salcoats Herald.
September 26th 2015 marks the centenary of the death of Labour’s founder, the Party’s first MP and its first Leader, James Keir Hardie.So it is a good time to reflect on the fact that the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald has a unique place in the life story of Hardie and thus in the very making of British political history itself. For it was for this paper, still going strong in this his centenary year,that Hardie wrote a weekly column under the heading “Black Diamonds or Mining Notes WorthMinding.” from April 1882 until December 1887. He signed each column off not in his own name but with the nom de plume “The Trapper” – a reference to the first job he had as a ten year old boy in the Lanarkshire coalfield.
Through those columns posted week after week from Cumnock, it is possible to read the evolution ofHardie’s political world view from liberalism to socialism, and to see his writing and his journalism flourish.
From a tentative first column written in April 1882 in a couthy Ayrshire tongue to a final column published in the 30th of December 1887 edition the change is cathartic. By the time of his last column he writes with commanding authority and confidence. Over the course of five and a half years Keir Hardie finds his voice.
TRANSFORMATION & TEMPERANCE
As early as July 1882 Hardie was publishing a passionate call to the Ayrshire miners to get organised in a union. A week later he extolled the virtues of the temperance and co-operative movements which he believed would elevate the working class to a position of “high social comfort…when the profits accruing from labour shall be paid to the labourer, and not as is the case at present, go to make millionaires of those who neither toil nor sweat…”
In his end of the year column in that his first year of 1882 he wrote “The sober man…has money because he does not spend it with the publican; he is respectable because he does not prefer to clothe the publican and his children at the expense of his own wife and “wee bonnie weans”… Give up the dram shop, and then you will have in reality A HAPPY NEW YEAR.”
It became a familiar refrain in the Trapper’s columns: the need for transformational social and economic change, but always starting with temperance.
In March 1885 he wrote “With independence of mind social degradation and misery such as the miner knows only too much of at present, would be simply an impossibility. Poverty there would be but abject servility which makes the workmen bend low in the mud before the shadow of his employer’s tool would be gone, and men would be recognised and valued because they were men, and not because they are walking money bags…the first step towards this coming emancipation…is that the liquor trade be put down.”
And the following year he addressed the miners in his column declaring “If you would be successful in your struggle, shun the public house as you would the mouth of hell.” (6 August 1886)
So Hardie called for a change in the fundamental master-servant relationship in the world of work, and a shift in power from those who owned the wealth to those who through their hard work and endeavour created it.
The column ran regularly with news stories of industrial action in the mining communities of Scotland but of Northumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, West Cumberland, Derbyshire, North and South Staffordshire, North and South Wales too. He updated his readers on conditions in the coalfields of America too, including the great American miners’strike of 1882, and the Belgian riots of 1886.
But he saw the need for organised political as well as industrial action by the working class. In a column on the Mines Bill and the Truck Bill earlier in 1887 he writes “Members of Parliament move exactly in proportion to the pressure brought to bear with them from without.”
And he writes of the impact of legislation like the 1880 Employers Liability Act
In the wake of the 1885 General election where he urged the miners to vote Liberal he wrote “Part of my duty is to fight Toryism, and when I hear the enemy crying out, I am apt to think that my blows are not going for nothing.”
Health and safety in the mines was a subject he exposed again and again and in a column on March 14th 1884 he sets out a ten point plan “a political (programme?) for the consideration of miners” for improving safety in the coal industry.
And in January 1886 he wrote “There is in our mines a certain carelessness, almost criminal, shown towards the preservation of the life and limbs of those who toil under ground.”
He published output and wage statistics for the industry. And he reported on deals negotiated, lay-offs enforced, wage reductions imposed and the scandal of Mining Royalties, pointing out thatlandowners like the Duke of Hamilton received more in royalties than the miners received for “getting the coal”.
In his final column for the Herald in December 1887 Hardie wrote that
“…other fields of usefulness are opening out before me”
That year he had begun to edit his own newspaper “The Miner: A Journal for Underground Workers” – also incidentally printed by the Herald owner Arthur Guthrie. In 1888 the paper doubled in size, and developed the following year into “The Labour Leader”. Within weeks of his final column he became the first ever Labour candidate in the Mid Lanark Parliamentary By-Election on the 27th of April 1888.
In that final column Hardie writes of “the beauties of temperance” and the “truths of Christianity” of being “the friend of the poor, the needy and they who have no helper…” and of not courting popularity “The man who seeks this must float with the stream not go against it.”
His first call in his last article is for the miners to join and organise the union pointing out that “Parliament may pass Acts in shoals. These without organisation among the men will be so much waste paper.”
But that the union must have a political voice is unquestioned, “The fearful dread of introducing political matters into trade affairs must be faced and overcome. Politics must be engaged in…” he argued
And he finishes on a sentimental note “I feel like giving up an old friend in thus taking leave…”
The Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald, “an old friend” to Keir Hardie, is such a rightful place to remember him on the centenary of his death and once again to read the power of his writing back in print. To remember Hardie is not to look wistfully backwards but to toremind ourselves of the absolute necessity of unflinching principles, vision and determination in looking forward.
Joe Cullinane and Richard Leonard
We would like to thank the staff at the SaltcoatsHeritage Centre for their kind co-operation in accessing the archives of the Ardrossan & SaltcoatsHerald.
Richard Leonard is a contributor to the new book “What Would Keir Hardie Say?” edited by Pauline Bryan and published by Luath Press.
Joe Cullinane and Richard Leonard are both members of the Executive of the Keir Hardie Society. For more information on the Society contact email@example.com