At the recent Durham miners’ Gala we marched proudly behind the images of James Connolly, Lenin and good old Keir Hardie.
From the platform of the Big Meeting RMT leader Bob Crow called for the formation of a New Party of Labour invoking the spirit of Keir Hardie.
Others like Owen Jones and Len McCluskey were not so sure and argued that the LP can be transformed.
This week a ‘royal’ baby will be born and we are reminded how Keir Hardie took up the institution of the monarchy when the Duchess of York at the time gave birth to a son and a future Prince of Wales.
Hardie was alone in Parliament as a representative of the working class and faced massive hostility from all sides of the House.
There was a motion to congratulate the Royal family on the birth of the child. Hardie opposed the motion and pointed out that while Parliament could find time to debate such an issue there was no time apparently to pass on condolences to the Welsh miners and their families as in June, 1894, occurred the terrible disaster at the Albion Colliery, Cilfynydd, South Wales, when over 250 men were killed.
Hardie wanted a message of sympathy to be sent to the bereaved families in Wales. This was sidestepped and ruled out of order. Hardie then opposed the address of congratulations.
When, therefore, the House interrupted its proceedings to pass an Address of Congratulation to the Queen on the birth of a son to the Duke and Duchess of York, Hardie put down an amendment protesting at the time the of the House being wasted on a matter which did not concern it.
He rose to speak in a House where the silence was cold and contemptuous.
‘I owe no allegiance to a hereditary ruler’, he began, and went on, as an angry murmur of interruptions disturnbed the silence, ‘and I expect those who do to allow me the odinary courtesies of debate.’
Through a crescendo of interruptions, he said of the newborn infant, the future King Edward VIII:
“We are asked to rejoice because this child has been born, and that one day he will be called upon to rule over this great Empire. Up to the present time we have no means of knowing what his qualifications or fitness for that task may be. It certainly strikes me – I do not know how it strikes others – as rather strange that those who have so much to say about the hereditary element in another place should be so willing to endorse it in this particular instance. It seems to me that if it is a good argument to say that the hereditary element is bad in one case, it is an equally good argument to say that it is bad in the other. FROM HIS CHILDHOOD ONWARD THIS BOY WILL BE SURROUNDED BY SYCOPHANTS AND FLATTERERS BY THE SCORE (Cries of “Oh! oh!”) and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. (“Oh!” oh!”) A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over. In due course, following the precedent which has already been set, he will be sent on a tour round the world, and probably rumours of a morganatic alliance will follow (Loud cries of “Oh!” “Order!” and “Question!”), and the end of it all will be that the country will be called upon to pay the bill. (Cries of “Divide!”)”….. ‘The Government will not find an opportunity for a vote of condolence with the relatives of those who are laying stiff and stark in a Welsh valley, and if that cannot be done, the motion before the House ought never to have been persisted in either. If it be for rank and title only that time and occasion can be found in this House, then the sooner the truth is known outside, the better for the House itself.’
He sat down amid the stony silence that had greeted him. The Speaker put the question and a general shout of ‘aye’ was greeted by a solitary voice, ringing out in broad Scottish vowels ‘NO!’
A reporter from the West Ham Herald said (Hardie was MP for West Ham South)
‘I’ve been in a wild beast show at feeding time. I’ve been to a football match when a referee gave a wrong decision. I’ve been to rowdy meetings of the Shoreditch Vestry and the West Ham Corporation, but in all my natural life I have never witnessed a scene like this. They howled and yelled and screamed, but he stood his ground.’
The Liberals and Tories had to contend with a genuine working class representative.
Fast forward over a hundred years and another Royal birth. Hours of TV and radio given over to the event and acres of news print. In between photo opportunities with Chris Froome the party leaders will issue solemn congratulations to the happy couple. Meanwhile benefit cuts, unemployment and big business lobbying of Government are conveniently forgotten.
Today the House of Commons is full of ‘Labour’ MPs and some of them are even from working class backgrounds.
Is there even one Keir Hardie amongst them? Someone who will get up and question the mad charade of this latest Royal birth.
On the Durham Gala march I was struck by the relevance of the messages and slogans on the banners. Connolly, Lenin, Keir Hardie and Marx all stood for independent working class representation. On the Chopwell banner there is a message which we would do well to heed today:
“We take up the task eternal, The burden and the lesson, PIONEERS! OH! PIONEERS!”
More than ever we need pioneers in the Labour movement who are prepared to stand up and be counted for the working class like Keir Hardie was.