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One of the centenaries that threatens to pass by without a murmur in these years of remembering war is one of the most important to the Peace and Labour movements in this country. On the 26th of September 2015, we will pass by the 100th anniversary of the death of Keir Hardie, now no closer to his life than his was to Waterloo.
When great figures fade into myth, they leave behind them a legacy used by any politician who cares to remember their lives. “The Party of Keir Hardie”, “the Movement of Keir Hardie”, even “What would Keir Hardie Do?” have become familiar refrains as the many movements scrabbling to pick up the pieces of his legacy jockey for position, safe in the knowledge that the man himself can never contradict their policies.
The Peace Pledge Union, the Peace Movement as a whole, is one of those groups. We have our own vision of Keir, and that’s who we will remember on the 26th. “Our” Keir was a politician and a reformer, a tireless campaigner for suffrage and the unions. Our Keir was a pacifist and an internationalist.
As we work on our First World War projects, we can perhaps be forgiven for identifying most strongly with those who stood up before the forces of war and militarism long before 1914 was made a year to remember. It was Hardie, then, who united a disparate movement made up of radicals and moderates, idealists and pragmatists, internationalists and protectionists, turning it into the first modern Peace movement.
Keir’s pacifism spoke of men and women around the world uniting against the vested interests that make war both possible and profitable. On the 29th of July 1914, he met with his comrades from around Europe - Jaures, Luxeumburg, Axelrod, Balabnov and others, in a last great attempt to stop the oncoming horror. Their hope was that war could be delayed until a Europe-wide General Strike would send the message that no nation could force its people into the terror of war.
He returned undaunted, organising the largest anti-war demonstration yet seen in Britain (one only paralleled nearly 90 years later in 2003), which met in the last faithful days before the war, on the 2nd of August 1914. His argument was that war creates poverty for many and wealth for a few, that workers around the world were brothers and sisters, divided only by the arrangement of political relations for profit and, most damningly, that war always creates more problems than it solves.
It’s these moments that matter most to the Peace Movement, and these that we remember on the 26th. Keir’s famous speech to the assembled crowds at Trafalgar Square forms a part not just of our collective memory, but a part of our offices, standing as it does as a mural welcoming visitors to the PPU. We draw a direct comparison between Keir’s stand against the First World War and our work today - It was No then, and it’s No now. He stands as he did on August 2nd, looking out over Trafalgar square not just through space, but through to us today and all those hundreds of thousands who have assembled in that place to protest the beginning of many pointless and destructive wars.
Keir’s reasons for campaigning against the looming war in 1914 are as applicable to any conflict today as they were then. One hundred years after his death, broken in body and spirit by the slaughter of men and women across Europe, his words and actions live on. A reformer, a politician, a member of parties and a founder of parties - but most of all a good man - and a pacifist.