I’m not ashamed to admit how much I’ve learned from What would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring his vision and relevance to 21st century politics (edited by Pauline Bryan). It’s full of remarkable facts of which I had no idea. Almost incredibly, the great Christian Socialist was brought up in an unbelieving household; improbably, given his terrifying beard, children adored him as they did Kim Jong Il, although in Hardie’s case there is firm evidence they actually did; and for all Hardie's dogged support for universal suffrage, his relations with Christabel Pankhurst were anything but straightforward. (That bit I might perhaps have guessed).
This comprehensive review from Luath Press attempts to balance a celebration of Hardie’s extraordinary life, achievement, and values with an assessment of Labour’s historic and current commitment to the last of these. Very effectively it does that, too, with contributions from (among others) writer and campaigner Melissa Benn, and Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of much of the British Labour Party.
The book underlines the remarkable emergence of this central figure in the creation of Britain’s traditional Left. The poverty and devastation of his working-class background might have destroyed anyone, yet, with titanic energy and unwavering vision, Hardie overcame it - though in another sense never abandoning it - to become a figure of prophetic status, heralding internationalist, feminist and pacifist struggles.
Particular chapters take my wayward fancy, for example Bob Holman’s on Hardie’s Christianity. Given the horrendous conditions of the time, it's more than reasonable that an agitator like Hardie should lay overwhelming stress on the practical relief of misery, and all but none on nuance of belief. But Holman’s exploration of Hardie’s deep spirituality casts new light for me on Hardie’s nature. And Fran Abram’s account of Hardie’s commitment to female suffrage, fascinating in its balance of Hardie’s shrewd tactical sense in pursuing new voters with a more profound involvement with women’s dismissed and neglected being, opens terra incognita for me.
Inevitable is the book’s summing up (necessarily piecemeal among the contributors) of Hardie’s legacy and its import for the present, with light on the internationalism or otherwise of resurgent Scottish nationalism, as well as the growing gap between rich and poor. As Pauline Bryan notes in her introduction, Hardie ‘continues to be a touchstone for judging whether the Labour Party is living up to his standards.’ The contributors certainly work hard to present those exacting standards, if seeming a little reluctant to consider the sheer impossibility of comparing our vision with Hardie’s. Hardie represents True North not solely because of his astonishing insight and diligence, but also because of the perversions of the intervening century. We have no passage back to that essential innocence.
I sometimes wondered while reading, finger tracing the line to the whisper of my lips, why socialist writers are so little inclined to use commas in the longish paragraphs which crave them, and pondered the theory that, haunted by an instinctive fear of the police breaking up their meeting, they like to cram in as much as possible at blistering speed. Perhaps socialist economists might confirm that, in a society like ours, commas are as near to free goods as anything can be.
But comma-rich or not, this is a marvellous and timely compendium of Hardie thought and lore. If you’re as big an ignoramus as I’ve been on the detail of Hardie’s life and contribution, this book is the perfect remedy.
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