Monday, February 27, 2006

Keir Hardie in Canada

One of founding fathers of the British Labour Party and the Social Democratic movement in England the last century spent time in Canada as this interesting article reveals. It influenced him in moving the party from narrow apologism for English Imperialism to internationalism.

Postcards from the left


DEAR Jamie, had a great meeting here tonight, which passed off all right. I am now halfway across Canada. It is a wonderful country. Am keeping fairly well, tho' whiles weary. Daddie."

That inscription, on the back of a postcard sent from a globetrotting father to his teenage son back home, would in most circumstances be entirely unremarkable. In this case, however, the brief message is worth closer analysis. The year was 1907, the city was Winnipeg and the man who wrote the postcard was James Keir Hardie, founder and first leader of the Scottish Labour party.

From humble beginnings, the illegitimate son of a servant rose to become an international statesman of the left; an extraordinary role for a man of his background in an age when travel (at least with a return ticket) was largely the preserve of the wealthy. The postcards he sent back to his wife and family in the Ayrshire town of Cumnock from all over the globe give a snapshot of his travels and their influence on his life and beliefs.

His parliamentary leadership had been fraught with difficulties and it was not a role he revelled in. While wholly genuine, his health problems created a convenient reason for him to take a break - albeit in the daunting form of a world tour, financed in part by the Salvation Army, at the time a powerful force for temperance and social reform.

Even if its provenance was rooted in his poor health and despair with internal squabbling, the tour of 1907-8 (from which much of this postcard collection is drawn) was probably the high point of Hardie's extensive international travels. It was good for the Scotsman to escape the hothouse of Labour politics, even more fractious then than now, but it was also good for Labour to have its most prominent figure immersed in international affairs.

Early Labour without Hardie would have had very little of an internationalist dimension. His travels made him an authority on the ethical and political issues that flowed from Britain's role as the world's greatest imperial power. Support for empire was as strong in the working classes as any other, and it took political courage to argue otherwise. The fact that Labour came to identify with the aspirations of colonial peoples, from Ireland to India, was largely due to Hardie, his travels and the lessons he drew from them.

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