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Keir Hardie

Speech to the House of Commons 1901

 

 

I make no apology for bringing the question of Socialism before the House of Commons. It has long commanded the attention of the best minds in the country. It is a growing force in the thought of the world, and whether men agree or disagree with it, they have to reckon with it, and may as well begin by understanding it.

 

I begin by pointing out that the growth of our national wealth, instead of bringing comfort to the masses of the people, is imposing additional burdens on them. We are told on highest authority that some 300 years ago to total wealth of the English nation was 100 millions sterling. At the beginning of the last century it had increased to 2,000 millions, and this year it is estimated to be 13,000 millions. While our population during the last century increased three and a half times, the wealth of the community increased over six times. But one factor in our national life remained with us all through the century, and is still with us, and that is that at the bottom of the social scale there is a mass of poverty and misery equal in magnitude to that which obtained one hundred years ago. I submit that the true test of progress is not the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, but the elevation of the people as a whole. I admit frankly that considerable improvement was made in the condition of the working people during the last century. At the beginning of the 19th century the nation industrially was sick almost unto death. It was at that time passing from the old system of handy craft - under which every man was his own employer and his own capitalist, and traded directly with his customer - to the factory system which the introduction of machinery brought into existence. During these 100 years the wealth of the nation accumulated and the condition of the working classes as compared with the early years of the century improved, but I respectfully submit to the House that there was more happiness, more comfort and more independence before machinery began to accumulate wealth.

 

The high standard of comfort and reached by the labouring classes at the end of the last century has not brought them that happiness which pertained in England three hundred years ago, when there was no machinery, no large capitalists, no private property in land, as we know it today, and when every person had the right to use the land for the purpose of producing food for himself and his family. I said that improvement was made during the last century, but I would qualify that statement in this respect - that practically the whole of that improvement was made during the first 75 years. During the last quarter of the century the condition of the working classes has been practically stationary. There have been slight increases of wages here and reductions of hours there, but the landlord with his increased rent has more than absorbed any advantage that may have been gained.

 

We are rapidly approaching the point when the nation will be called upon to decide between an uncontrolled monopoly conducted for the benefit and in the interests of its principal shareholders, and a monopoly owned, controlled and manipulated by the state in the interests of the nation as a whole. I do not require to go far afield for arguments to support that part of my statement concerning the danger which the application of wealth in a few hands is bringing upon us. This House and the British nation know to their cost the danger which comes from allowing men to grow rich and permitting them to use their wealth to corrupt the press, to silence the pulpit, to degrade our national life, and to bring reproach and shame upon a great people, in order that a few unscrupulous scoundrels might be able to add to their ill-gotten gains. The war in South Africa is a millionaires' war. The troubles in China are due to the desire of the capitalists to exploit the people of that country, as they would fain exploit the people of South Africa. Much of the jealousy and bad blood existing between this country and France is traceable to the fact that we went to war in Egypt to suppress a popular uprising, seeking freedom for the people, in order that the interests of our bond-holders might be secured. Socialism, by placing the land and the instruments of production in the hands of the community, eliminates only the idle, useless class at both ends of the scale. Half a million of the people of this country benefit by the present system; the remaining millions of toilers and business men do not. The pursuit of wealth corrupts the manhood of men. We are called upon at the beginning of the 20th century to decide the question propounded in the Sermon on the Mount, as to whether we will worship God or Mammon. The present day is a Mammon worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place. I beg to submit, in this very imperfect fashion, the resolution on the paper, merely promising that the last has not been heard the Socialist movement either in the country or on the floor of this House, but that, just as sure as radicalism democratised the system of government politically in the last century, so will socialism democratise the country industrially during this century upon which we just entered.

 

 

The British politician Keir Hardie became the first Independent Labour MP in 1892, and went on to become the first leader of the Labour Party.