James Keir Hardie lived from 15 August 1856 to 26 September 1915. He rose from extremely humble origins to become one of Britain's most well regarded politicians, and the first leader of the Labour Party. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Keir Hardie was born in Newhouse, North Lanarkshire, in 1856. He was the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant. She later married David Hardie, a carpenter, and the family moved to Glasgow. Keir Hardie never attended school, growing up in great poverty, and from the age of 8 working as a baker's delivery boy: at the time he was the family's only wage-earner. He was fired from his job for turning up late, the fact that he had sat up the previous night tending his dying brother was not seen as an adequate excuse.
The family moved back to Lanarkshire, where at the age of 11, Keir Hardie became a miner in Newarthill Colliery. By the age of 17, Hardie had taught himself to read and write. Having read about trades unions, Hardie set to work organising one at his colliery while still in his early 20s. Meanwhile, on 3 August 1879, Keir Hardie married Lillie Wilson.
In 1881 he led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners for improved pay and conditions. He was sacked, and black-listed by local mine owners, making it impossible for him to find work in the pits. Instead he moved to Cumnock to work as a journalist, before going on to edit his own socialist newspaper. In 1886 he became secretary of the Ayrshire Miners Union and later the Scottish Miners Federation, and he began to edit a paper called The Miner.
Hardie had been a long-standing supporter of the Liberal Party, but became disillusioned by Gladstone's policies, feeling that the Liberals were chasing working class votes without offering anything real in return. He felt that Socialism had more to offer, and in the General Election of April 1888 he stood as an Independent Labour candidate in Mid Lanark. He did poorly, but with Robert Cunninghame Graham, went on to call a meeting in Glasgow on 25 August 1888 at which the Scottish Labour Party was formed, with Hardie becoming its secretary.
At the 1892 election, Hardie stood for a Parliamentary seat in West Ham, London. Standing against the Conservative candidate, Hardie won by 5,268 votes to 4,036. He took his seat on 3 August 1892 causing a stir by dressing very casually by the normal Parliamentary standards of the day. He rapidly established himself as a vocal advocate of graduated income tax, free schooling, pensions, the end of the House of Lords, and women's right to vote.
In 1893 Hardie helped form the Independent Labour Party. The following year he hit the headlines. He proposed that Parliament's message of congratulations on the birth of the future Edward VIII should have added to it a messages of condolences to the relatives of 251 miners recently killed in a colliery explosion in Wales. When he proposal was defeated, he launched into a full scale attack on the privileges of the monarchy. This probably lost him his seat in the election of 1895.
On 27-28 February 1900 a meeting of socialist groups and trades unions took place in London, and the outcome was the formation of a Labour Representation Committee: in effect the embryonic Labour Party. In the 1900 General Election, Keir Hardie was one of only two Labour members returned to Parliament, representing the seat of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, which he was to retain for the rest of his life. Immediately after the next General Election in 1906, the Labour Representation Committee was formally renamed as the Labour Party. The outcome of the election was a landslide victory for the Liberals, sweeping the Conservatives from power. But perhaps most significantly, it saw the number of Labour seats increase from 2 to 29, including fellow Scot and future Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Keir Hardie was elected the Parliamentary Labour Party's Chairman, in effect, its first Leader.
In 1908, Hardie resigned the Labour leadership, preferring to focus on campaigns such as votes for women, self-rule for India, and an end to segregation in South Africa. Keir Hardie was a pacifist who in 1914 was strongly opposed to the First World War, and he was among socialists in many countries who tried to bring about an international general strike to snuff the war out. His stance was not popular at the time, even within the Labour Party.
Keir Hardie died in hospital in Glasgow on 26 September 1915 after a number of strokes. His principles left a lasting legacy. Within the Labour movement he has a stature not far removed from sainthood. In the 1930s the National Keir Hardie Memorial Committee commissioned sculptor Benno Schotz RSA to produce three copies of a bust of Keir Hardy. The copies went to the House of Commons, to Merthyr Tydfil, and to Cumnock. The bust in Cumnock was unveiled by Hardie's daughter Nan Hughes, Provost of Cumnock, in August 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, and it remains on view today in front of the Town Hall: while that in Merthyr Tydfil was unveiled on 2 December 2006 outside the council offices in Aberdare.