A recent episode of Melvin Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme was on the Temperance Movement. It reminded me that when doing an after-dinner speech on Keir Hardie, I always point out that the great man would not have approved of the alcohol being consumed!
In Keir Hardie's time, drink flourished among the very poor and was probably a bigger problem than drugs are today. Hardie's stepfather could be abusive when drunk, and drink was a strong tradition in certain trades, including shipbuilding and mining.
Keir Hardie and his mother believed that drink was a widespread social evil that had to be countered by social action. They saw hope in the temperance movement that had been strong in Scotland since the 1840s. Hardie took the pledge when he was seventeen. The movement was not just a puritanical and religious movement. It was strongly associated with radical liberalism and the early socialists. A tradition followed by other Scottish socialists, including John Maclean, Willie Gallagher and Tom Johnston. It was also a significant social movement with libraries and friendly societies.
Temperance was arguably Hardie's first political cause. He campaigned for the strict enforcement of existing laws and legal prohibition. Hardie promoted his view in his column in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald. The Good Templar membership in Cumnock had quadrupled in the 1880s, and the local press put this down to Hardie's efforts.
Many of his policy prescriptions may sound dated today, but they are not a long way from the solutions advocated by many to the drugs problem today. However, it was an uphill battle, as many Liberals regarded legislation on this issue as a challenge to their freedoms. Hardie's instincts sided with state control, a precursor of his later conversion to socialism. In parliament, he supported 'local option' proposals to shut down the local liquor trade, 'Those who can take a glass or let it alone,' he said, are 'under moral obligation for the sake of weaker brethren who cannot do so, to let it alone.' Labour conference voted for state control and for local option.
As the 'In our Time' programme highlighted, the temperance movement was huge in the Nineteenth century and can be seen to this day with Temperance halls in many towns. Preston was at the forefront of the movement, a radical reputation that it continues to this day as a champion of the Community Wealth Building movement.
So, when you raise a glass to Keir Hardie, remember he would not have approved, for a good reason!
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