Lessons from the life of Keir Hardie

By Jacob Dunn 11 Mar 2021

As well as considering the mechanics of social reform, there is also a need to consider the character of the social reformer. What qualities may be required of those called to challenge unjust social structures? One way of considering this question is through studying the lives of past social reformers. 

One such figure is Keir Hardie (1856-1915), a hugely significant but surprisingly little-known politician and activist. Born into grinding poverty in the middle of the nineteenth century, he “rose from the pits of Ayrshire to change the world”. Throughout his life, he fought for unpopular causes. such as the rights of the unemployed, women’s suffrage and home rule for British colonies. Hardie also helped create a political movement which sees its fruit in the modern Labour Party. Although he often clashed with the church, his efforts to reform society were driven by a deep faith in Jesus and a commitment to the principles set out in the Sermon on the Mount. While many of his ideas belong to his own time and not to our own, we can nevertheless draw several lessons for today from Hardie’s unique life.

Hardie is a classic example of a certain kind of social reformer; those unappreciated within their own lifetimes and yet achieve the greatest popularity and results for their ideas after their own death. During his life, Hardie did not succeed in doing much more than raising the consciousness of working-class people. However, within ten years of his death, the Labour Party achieved its first short period in government and in 1945 won a parliamentary majority for the first time. Clement Attlee’s Labour government was able to realise policies that Hardie could only dream of during his own time in parliament, not least the establishment of a welfare state, the crowning achievement of a movement that would not have been possible without Keir Hardie. There is a clear lesson here about the nature of success in social reform: while some reformers do achieve real success in changing laws or structures in their own lifetime, sometimes success lies in building a movement which will last.

An additional lesson for the social reformers of today may lie in Hardie’s willingness to stand alone, and to endure sometimes vicious opposition for his beliefs. In response to his opposition to the First World War, Hardie underwent such venomous public criticism that he was heard to say, “I understand what Christ suffered in Gethsemane as well as any man living.”[1] Our culture often rejects struggle as a vehicle for growth, preferring to see it as an obstacle to success or comfort, but the life of Hardie and of others who have faced opposition to their beliefs, makes a sharp statement: if we truly seek to reform the conditions of society, struggle will come. This struggle may be intense and may result in damage to reputation, but seeing how reformers like Hardie faced adversity can help us to weather the trials that may confront us.

Lastly, Hardie’s life can speak to us of the importance of popular pressure and agitation in social reform. Throughout his life, Hardie regarded himself as an agitator more than a politician and said that “my work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong”.[2] While he never advocated revolutionary violence, Hardie consistently felt more comfortable on a platform at a mass demonstration than in the chamber of the House of Commons. Our own time has seen many mass movements for social change, from the Occupy movement to Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. While Hardie may have had some catching up to do in regard to these issues, it is likely that he would be found supporting such initiatives were he alive today. His life is a testament to the power of popular movements to make real change, regardless of the actions of individual politicians.

Social reform is a difficult process and often requires deep commitment over a very long period, with a high likelihood of opposition and no guarantee of success. The lives of past social reformers and the faith they have shown provide an encouragement to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:2).

[1] Bob Holman, Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero? (Oxford: Lion Books 2010), 177.

[2] Melissa Benn, “An Agitator: The Enduring Principle of Agitation”, in What Would Keir Hardie Say? ed. Pauline Bryan, (Edinburgh: Luath Press 2015), 149-157, at 151.

Image credit: National Portrait Gallery NPG D 452979 CC by-nc-nd/3.0

Jacob  Dunn is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. He has a degree in Theology from the University of Glasgow.

To read Jacob's full research essay - and to see a video of his presentation at the 2021 SAGE Conference - click here.

This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jubilee Centre.

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