A leader named Keir

July 6, 2024

Bucking the current European trends towards the far-right, the British have delivered a landslide victory to the traditionally left Labour Party.  

KEIR WE GO!’ announced the Daily Mirror in large capital letters against a full front-page photo of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria. The new occupants of 10 Downing Street are the sixth First Couple since the 2016 Brexit Referendum. 

Whence the name ‘Keir’? Starmer’s parents – who could never have dreamed of the victory their son would one day have – reportedly named him after the Labour hero Keir Hardie (1856–1915), the radical Christian co-founder, first leader and first MP of the Labour Party. ‘Keir’ was the surname of James Keir Hardie’s mother, a variation of ‘Kerr’. Like his professed Lord and Saviour, Hardie was conceived by an unwed mother named Mary, and had a step-father who was a carpenter. 

Unlike Hardie, however, Starmer belongs to the 37 per cent of Brits who tick the ‘no religion’ box. No doubt this will influence his term in office. On the one hand, Starmer has welcomed the significant role of churches, mosques and other religious organisations in partnership with local government as social networks of support in response, for example, to Covid and the cost of living crisis. 

On the other, Labour has promised to ban ‘conversion therapy’, an issue Tories shelved as a ‘threat to religious freedom’. As the Evangelical Alliance had argued, an expansive ban ‘would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality’ and could ‘criminalise a member of a church who prays with another member when they ask for prayer to resist temptation’.

Just causes

Born and raised in Scotland, young Hardie (his step-father’s name) began working in coal mines when only ten years old. When still only fourteen, he became chairman of a miners’ union and soon led miners’ strikes. After being blacklisted by mine owners, Keir became an editor of a newspaper to represent miners’ rights. 

Aged 23, he helped found the Scottish Labour Party in 1888. If the rich and the powerful were represented in parliament by political parties, he asked, why shouldn’t the poor and powerless also have a voice? 

Meanwhile his earlier conversion through a non-conformist Christian movement, the Evangelical Union, had launched him as a lay preacher. This in turn trained him for effective public speaking, promoting a broad range of just causes alleviating the suffering and misery of the poor, including the Temperance Movement. In both his speaking and preaching, Hardie often cited the Gospels, James and Old Testament prophets.

The Bible inspired both his passion for justice for the workers and his criticism of the ‘churchianity’ of his day. Following John the Baptist’s prophetic example, he railed against pious businessmen who forgot about their religion during the week, and clergy who failed to speak out against social injustice. 

‘Doing, not believing – only the former makes one a Christian,’ he preached. ‘Christ never once denounced the poor, weak, erring sinner,’ he later wrote in a Labour Party publication. ‘He kept the invectives of his wrath for the clergy and religious folk of His day.’ 

Unjust systems

Hardie became a leading voice in the Christian Socialist movement, strongest on both sides of the Atlantic between 1870 and 1930. While socialism – ‘the s-word’ in some Christian circles – has often been equated with communism, Hardie endorsed socialist economics on the basis of the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. While Marx stressed class conflict, he and his fellow Christian socialists fought against unjust systems. 

‘Socialism, with its promise of freedom, it’s larger hope for humanity, it’s triumph of peace over war, it’s binding of the races of the earth into one all-embracing brotherhood, must, must prevail,’ he preached.

After winning his seat in Parliament in 1892, Hardie incurred the scorn of the press and other MP’s by wearing a plain tweed suit, a red tie and a Sherlock Holmes-style ‘deerstalker’ hat instead of the formal black frock coat, black silk top hat and starched wing collar. 

A short video on the Keir Hardie Society website explains that Hardie died in 1915 during the First World War, nine years before the Labour Party first won a parliamentary majority, and before seeing many of the causes he fought for become reality: women’s right to vote, public ownership of key industries, the fall of the British Empire, the creation of the National Health Service, a national minimum wage, an eight-hour working day, the creation of the welfare state, graduated income tax, free schooling, home rule for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and pensions. 

May the new Kier come to find inspiration from the same source which stoked the old Kier’s passion for justice for all.

Join this conversation on Tuesday, July 9, 6pm CET!

Till next week,

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