The British far left and Scottish devolution in 1979

As the referendum on Scottish independence draws ever closer, Phil BC over at ‘All That is Solid’ (formerly A Very Public Sociologist) has done an excellent job of summarising the positions of the main Trotskyist groups in Britain on Scottish independence. Furthermore, someone on the Leftist Trainspotters mailing list summarised the three possible positions taken by nearly all the far left groups in the UK on the topic:

YES: Counterfire, ISG (Scotland), SWP, SPEW, rs21 (inc. IS Scotland), SSP, RCPB-ML, Socialist Resistance, Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, Class War, Solidarity, RCG, A World to Win

NO: Workers Power, Socialist Action, CPGB-ML, AWL, Socialist Appeal, CPB-ML, Socialist Fight, CPB, Spartacist League, International Communist Current, SEP, WRP (Newsline), Communist Workers Organisation (Aurora), International Socialist League, Respect

ABSTAIN / NO LINE / OTHERS: IS Network (no line but majority for Yes), CPGB(PCC) (abstain), SLP (no position but will respect outcome of vote), SPGB (abstain), Plan C, Left Unity (no position nationally but Republican Socialist Tendency pushing for Yes), Anarchist Federation (vote yes or abstain), Spartacist League (“The referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we are not taking a stand for or against independence”)

In my discussions about this with Phil, I suggested that it would be interesting to compare the positions of the far left groups with their position on Scottish devolution back in 1979. Without going to the library to get the physical copies of the various left-wing journals from the time, I have had a quick scan of the internet and found some material on the positions of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party. Material relating to Militant and the late 1970s International Marxist Group are hard to find on the internet!


The UNZ archive of the CPGB’s Marxism Today shows that the Communist Party did support Scottish (and Welsh) devolution and devolved parliamentary bodies, but were divided over the prospect of future Scottish independence. Firstly, like many in the radical ‘Yes’ campaign today, Willie Thompson, editor of the CP’s Scottish journal Scottish Marxist, argued in 1977 that devolution offered the possibility of breaking away from centralising influence of monopoly capitalism in Britain (emanating from London) and the possibility of establishing a socialist foothold through the proposed devolved assemblies. Bert Pearce, the CPGB’s Welsh Secretary, argued that devolution was important for the advance of socialism in Britain, but warned against Scottish or Welsh independence, writing:

To recognise the right of self-determination does not at all mean that it is always and everywhere essential or progressive to opt for the separation of each nation into its own national state. The struggle for national rights, and for progress and socialism, can effectively combine and reinforce each other within a multi-national state. In Britain it is clearly in our best interests for the rapid achievement for socialism and for the quality of society when we get it, to maintain and strengthen our unity. 

Scottish Morning Star journalist, Martin Gostwick, challenged Pearce in a 1978 issue of Marxism Today, saying that he equated ‘advancing the unity of the peoples with the continued existence of the Union of Great Britain’. Gostwick’s position was that Scottish (and Welsh) devolved governments might eventually want to assert their independence and, like Thompson, Gostwick believed that this might be the starting point for a socialist alternative to the current ‘monopoly-dominated state’. However Gostwick warned that independence could not be an immediate goal and suggested the slogan ‘independence – if, and not yet’.

Glasgow Area Secretary for the CPGB, Douglas Bain, wrote in August 1978 that the Communist Party supported devolution and acknowledged that the devolution of power might lead to a longer term push for self-government (and possible independence), but highlighted that in the forthcoming referendum, the Scottish National Party might subvert the devolution debate towards nationalist ends and stifle any attempts to implement a more socialist agenda. After the failure of the 1979 referendum, Jack Ashton, the CPGB’s Scottish Secretary, stated that the prominence of the SNP in the campaign for devolution had driven many trade unionists to vote ‘no’ or abstain from voting. Ashton also blamed Scottish Labour for isolating itself on the ‘yes’ campaign and its refusal to work with others, such as the CPGB.


In contrast to the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party came out in favour of a possible Scottish socialist republic, offering a critical ‘yes’ vote at the referendum because the break-up of the present unionist state was necessary to challenge the capitalist status quo led from London. Taken from the Socialist Review archive, I was able to find an article on Scottish devolution and the SWP’s attitude towards the SNP. I have reproduced it below because it is difficult to link to the specific article within the archive (hopefully it is readable).



This position was different from the one put forward the Central Committee of the SWP in September 1977, where they argued in the journal International Socialism for an abstention from voting in any forthcoming referendum. The statement said:

This means that if a referendum is eventually held in Scotland and Wales we abstain. This is not a position that means ducking the arguments. Far from it. Most of the time our members in Scotland will be arguing with people who are in the ‘Yes’ camp. We will be saying to them:

‘We do not mind if you get your devolved (or independent) parliament. But don’t believe that it will improve your condition one iota. Only class struggle can do that.’

Our abstention will mark us off from the rest of the Labour movement, retreating in fear before the new reformism, without aligning us with the Unionist, British nationalist camp.

Our position will be somewhat analogous to that of our American comrades faced with a choice between Democrats and Republicans. They know that most of their workmates will vote for the bourgeois reformism of the Democrats, and have to say to them, ‘OK, vote Democrat then – and see what good it does you!’

It’s not as nice as being able to earn the applause of one side or the other – but it is a distinctive revolutionary position that will enable us to put our politics across.

I have been unable to find anything from Militant from 1979, but found a 1992 piece from Ted Grant on Scottish nationalism. The piece is interesting because it was written amidst the schism within Militant over whether the group should become a formal political organisation or remain an entrist one inside the Labour Party, with Scottish Militant Labour being the first foray by Militant into open politics. Grant opposed this move and used this piece to attack SML.

While searching the depths of the internet, I found two interesting pieces on the Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online regarding the positions of Britain’s Maoist parties on devolution. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), started by ex-CPGB member Reg Birch, opposed devolution as seen in this article. The CPB (M-L) saw devolution as part of a counter-revolutionary plot to split the working class in Britain, writing:

The British working class whether in Scotland, Wales or any other part of Britain should declare a resounding NO to devolution, or any other policies which will come in the future, aimed at dividing and weakening our class. We as Marxist-Leninists are totally opposed to divide and rule. -We have to make the ruling class’s divide and rule inoperable by our unite and liberate…

Working class unity makes it impossible for the capitalists to go on in the old way of divide and rule. Working class unity enables us to combine our tactics for defending our class with the strategy of liberating our class. Working class unity is revolutionary.

Chwyldroad nid Trosglwyddiad.


On the other hand, the small Communist Workers Movement, a breakaway group from the CPB (M-L), supported devolution if desired, but also proposed that Scottish and Welsh workers might be better served if they remained within the UK and co-operated with the English working class. In their journal, New Age, the CWM wrote:

English communists should take on the work of convincing English working people that Wales and Scotland should have the right to leave Britain if they choose. Welsh and Scottish communists should mainly work to persuade the working people of their nations that, although they should have the right to decide whether or not to remain within the British state, they should use that right in favour of staying with the English working class in the same state.

The question of devolution back in 1979 might seem more straight forward than the referendum on Scottish independence to be held next Thursday and the disarray that the British far left has found itself in over the prospect of an independent Scotland. But looking back at these documents from the late 1970s, the British far left was far from united on the question of devolution for Scotland and Wales.To paraphrase Karl Marx, ‘once as tragedy, twice as farce’…


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New book project: British Communism and the Politics of Race

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

I am very happy to announce that I have recently signed a contract with Brill’s Historical Materialism book series for a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Politics of Race, deliverable early next year. Here is a little about the proposed book:

This book examines how the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and an influential force within the British labour movement, responded to issues of ‘race’ and immigration from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – from the era of decolonisation and large scale migration to the early days of Thatcherism and the inner-city riots. Informed by its anti-colonial activism in the inter-war period, Communist Party was an attractive option for black workers who had migrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, the Communist Party was one of the first labour organisations that campaigned against racial discrimination and against racial incitement. However its anti-racism was subsumed by the wider struggle for socialism and industrial militancy, and the labour movement, including the CPGB, was often seen as unresponsive to the needs of Britain’s migrant communities and black workers. The CPGB can be seen as a microcosm of how the British labour movement related to the issue of ‘race’ and how the centrality of class was contested by other forms of politics, informed by ‘race’, such as black power, migrants’ rights and various forms of anti-racism.

The history of the Communist Party’s relationship with black workers was the history of a squandered opportunity, one that saw a steep decline from the 1940s and 1950s, when many black activists were attracted to the Party due to its historical anti-colonial stance, to the 1980s, when the Party was in disarray and the black communities were wary of a labour movement that had for so long minimized the problems of racism that black Britons faced. At the heart of the division between the CPGB and black workers was the belief that colonialism and racism were borne out of capitalism and that anti-racism/anti-colonialism were subordinate to the dynamics of class struggle. The CPGB faced major problems in convincing white workers, including the Party’s own members, to be actively involved in the fight against racism and colonialism – how and why this occurred is the focus of this book.

The theme of how the Communist Party lost its close relationship with black workers and the potential that was squandered frames the book’s investigation, addressing a gap in the cultural history of the British left. The book demonstrates an understanding of the extra-parliamentary forces at work in social policy in Britain and an insight into how government and its critics established social policy at legislative and practical level. The book takes up the argument that while the British left, particularly the Communist Party, has not been able to usher in a socialist revolution, its role in political activism, especially in the areas of anti-racism and anti-fascism, has been significant.

The book will attempt to show how the Communist Party went from one of the most influential political parties for Britain’s migrant workers to one of relative insignificance, overshadowed by other political organisations and by other forms of political activism. It will explore how the Communist Party, as part of the wider labour movement, was traditionally a vehicle for progressive politics and how the British labour movement has historically dealt with issues of ‘race’ and the problems facing Britain’s black communities. The book will argue that the Communist Party, as well as other sections of the British left, are integral to understanding the broader history of anti-racist politics in Britain and the transition from the more abstract anti-colonial politics of the early post-war era to the domestic anti-racism of the 1970s and 1980s.

I am very excited to be contributing to this excellent series of historical and political scholarship and am very grateful for the enthusiasm that the series editors have shown for the project. My recent trip to the UK garnered some brilliant new sources for the book (particularly the material from the Indian Workers Association archive in Birmingham and the Grunwick Strike Committee papers at the University of Warwick), which makes me doubly excited… Now on with the writing!


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What have the Trotskyists ever done for us?


Polly Toynbee wrote a very bizarre article for The Guardian today that a bunch of rebel Tory MPs are turning into the ‘Trotskyites of the right’. I think that Toynbee is using the term ‘Trotskyite’ as shorthand for sectarian and I find her comparison with the entrists inside the Labour Party in the 1980s unconvincing. Unlike Militant or Socialist Action in the early 1980s, I would be more inclined to argue that the Tory rebels (and possible UKIP defectors) are motivated by self-interest, rather than having a well-considered agenda. Entryism into the Labour Party for the far left was a strategic decision – these Tory rebellions seem to be merely opportunistic.

And while the Labour right and those who defected to the Social Democratic Party (such as Toynbee) might view the ‘Trotskyites’ as having ruined the electoral chances of Labour in the early 1980s, it seems weird to use the term ‘Trotskyite’ as one of abuse. Having just finished editing a collection of history of the British far left, it is clear that Trotskyists, while sectarian and uncompromising at times, have had a profound effect on British politics since the 1940s.

Here is a very quick list of areas of British politics that Trotskyists have had a significant part in:

  • Fight against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement in late 1940s
  • Critique of Soviet Union while not (or rarely) indulging in anti-communism
  • Significant part in campaign against Vietnam War
  • Establishment of Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League
  • Resistance to Thatcherite policies by Liverpool City Council in 1980s
  • Significant part in anti-Poll Tax movement
  • Leading role in Stop the War campaign

Now I’m sure we can all think of incidents where Trotskyists have behaved poorly, but we cannot dismiss their impact outright.



Trotsky pic from Denver Walker’s Quite Right Mr Trotsky here.


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Far Left book has arrived!

I am back at work after two weeks with dreadful sickness and was happy to have received a package from MUP.

far left book

The book can be pre-ordered from Manchester University Press now. I know that 75 quid is a tad on the pricey side, but if enough institutional libraries (and the like) buy copies now, a much more affordable paperback edition should be out next year.

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Upcoming conference! Racism: From the Labour Movement to the Far Right (Glasgow Uni, 5-6 Sep)


Next week Glasgow University is hosting a conference ‘Racism: From the Labour Movement to the Far Right’. One of the conference organisers asked me to post this about the conference:

The final programme of the ‘Racism: From the Labour Movement to the Far Right’ conference has been published. The conference will take place at the University of Glasgow on 5-6 September.

The keynote lecture will be given by Professor Floya Anthias (University of East London) on ‘Intersectionality and the Struggles against Racism’. Professor Anthias’ research explores different forms of stratification, social hierarchy and inequality, and how they interconnect, paying specific attention to racism, diaspora and hybridity, multiculturalism, gender and migration, labour market disadvantages and class position.

There are also two exhibition planned for the conference. The first one draws on work carried out by Dr Sundari Anitha (University of Lincoln) and Professor Ruth Pearson (University of Leeds) entitled Striking Women. This celebrates the catalytic role played by South Asian women in two industrial disputes in the Greater London area – the strike at Grunwick between 1976 and 1978 and the dispute at Gate Gourmet that erupted in 2005. Through images, text and interviews, the exhibition locates these disputes in the wider context of South Asian women’s activism in the workplace. The second exhibition displayed during the conference is prepared by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER). This exhibition, originally put together for Black History Month, presents Scotland’s – and especially Glasgow’s – intimate links with the British Empire, colonialism and slave trade.

The first day will conclude with two book launches. Wilf Sullivan, Head of Race Equality at the TUC will discuss Satnam Virdee’s new book, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, while David Renton, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers will introduce Neil Davidson’s jointly edited collection, The Longue Duree of the Far-Right.

Please see the conference website for further information:

I am happy to add that three contributors to our forthcoming edited collection on the far left will be attending the conference – Satnam Virdee, David Renton and Mark Hayes. Looks like a great conference!

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CIGH’s Imperial & Global Forum blog on colonial origins of ‘virginity testing’ practice

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 7.39.19 pm

The blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter has kindly published an article by Marinella Marmo and I on the colonial origins of the ‘virginity testing’ practice. The article is based on part of our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which outlines the racist and sexist prejudices that the British in colonial India harboured towards South Asian women during the nineteenth century. I heartily recommend that you check out the excellent blog that the CIGH people run and also, buy our book!

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Keir Hardie in South Africa by Martin Plaut

Martin Plaut is a South African/British journalist and historian, writing on African history and politics since the 1980s. He is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London and maintains this blog. I am very happy that he has been able to write a guest post for Hatful of History on part of his research into South African labour history in the early 20th century. Below is an extract from an article he is writing on how British Labour Party leader Keir Hardie’s visit to South Africa informed the Party’s ideas about empire and ‘race’ in the pre-1914 period.


South Africa as part of Hardie’s journey

It may come as something of a surprise that the first leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Harie visited Cape Town, but in February 1908 he did. The city was the final stop on a round the world tour that had lasted no less than eight months.[1] Hardie’s journey took in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and finally South Africa. It may be that he was attempting to find a way of ending his passionate relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst, but Hardie took the opportunity to visit and get to know the labour and socialist parties across the Empire.

Hardie’s remarks in India, critical of British rule, were widely reported in the UK as well as South Africa. When he arrived in Durban on 11th February 1908 he faced a storm of controversy. Although Hardie attempted to re-assure the journalists who came to interview him in Durban that he was not in the country to stir up a revolution, he had little success. Hardie’s South African journey was dogged by bitter criticism and violent demonstrations, from which he was lucky to escape without serious injury. Most of this has been admirably recorded by Jonathan Hyslop, who provided vivid details of the challenges Hardie faced from the white trade union movement whom he attempted to win over to a more non-racial perspective.[2] But Hyslop’s narrative runs out of steam after the notorious attacks on the Labour leader in Pretoria, when a mob, 3,000 strong effectively ran him out of town, singing ‘We’ll hang Keir Hardie from a sour apple tree’.

South Africa was perhaps the first foreign policy issue the emerging Labour Party adopted. Like European socialists, and a section of the British Liberal party, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were ‘Pro-Boers’ during the war of 1899 – 1902. They saw the Afrikaners as yeoman-citizens resisting the Imperial might. “Try to imagine what the free Yeoman of England were like two hundred years ago and you have some idea of Boer life,” Hardie told his supporters in 1901. “Their Republican form of government bespeaks freedom…while their methods of production for use are much nearer our ideal than any form of exploitation for profit.”[3] The Labour leaders knew and wrote to the former Boer Generals like Jan Smuts, a relationship that continued after the war. Hardie worked with and spoke alongside men like Cron Schreiner (husband of the author Olive Schreiner), who toured Britain speaking up for the cause; often being heckled and sometimes being physically assaulted.

It was therefore no surprise that when Hardie entered the Cape he made a point of visiting the Schreiners in the little railway town of De Aar. Olive had written to Hardie via Smuts, whom she also knew and was delighted when he replied.

Schreiner clearly longed to see Hardie, writing to a friend: “I don’t believe they’ll deliver my letter as I could put no address. If you can let him know he must come to see us here. Oh I do long to see some of my own people so. I mean those who belong to me.”[4] It seems that she had written via General Smuts, with whom the Schreiners were also friendly. To Olive’s joy, the meeting took place on 25th of February. She was later to describe it to the British suffragette, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, as “the most red-letter day in my life since you and your wife were at Hanover.”[5] Olive Schreiner used the time she spent with Hardie to good effect – briefing him on what had happened during the war and providing a gloomy prognostication about the future of South Africa.

Olive Schreiner did her best to smooth Hardie’s path on the next leg of his journey, to Cape Town. Although he apparently turned down a letter of introduction to her brother, the former Prime Minister of the Cape, William Phillip (W.P.) Schreiner, she nonetheless wrote to him, asking him to take Hardie out for a meal and assist him during his time in Cape Town.[6] Unfortunately, this meeting never materialised, despite the best intentions of both men. W. P. Schreiner got the date wrong, and they missed each other.[7]

Cape Town at the turn of the century

The city that Hardie arrived in in February 1908 had recently experienced both boom and bust. Cape Town had been a re-supply point for European powers on the way to the East for centuries, but it had really come into its own during the Boer war. As the capital of the Cape Colony and one of the main ports through which supplies travelled to support the British war effort, the city prospered as never before. The harbour was bursting at the seams to cope with the influx. New cranes were purchased and the facilities could barely keep pace as the tonnage of goods passing through the port trebled. Capital investment doubled between 1899 and 1904, as did the number of workers in factories, reaching nearly 12,000 in 1904.[8]

It was an auspicious time to celebrate Cape Town’s status, and in 1905 a brand City Hall was unveiled, constructed of golden Bath stone and embellished with a neo-classical façade and ornate clock tower. If the war had been good for the community, it had also seen many attracted to its streets from the rest of South Africa, as well as from across the seas. By 1904, Cape Town had a population of 170,000. It had more than doubled in size in just thirteen years. The influx included 34,000 European immigrants; mainly British, but including around 9,000 East European Jews. The city was predominantly a white, English speaking town, but it was also home to 21,000 ‘Coloured’ people, 9,000 Africans, 2,000 local Afrikaners, 2,000 Indians, and a small black community from outside South Africa.[9]

Cape Town had had a long history of militancy. It had seen the first recorded strike in southern Africa (1752) as well as slave uprisings and mutinies.[10] White workers, whose numbers had being reinforced during the Boer war, were mainly organised as extensions of British unions. It was in December 1881 that the British Trade Union of Carpenters and Joiners established its first South African branch in Cape Town.[11] Nor was it alone. The Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers had ten branches in South Africa, which remitted £1,000 a year to its London based executive council.[12] Some unions exclusively organised white workers, but others did not. The tailors’ union, for example, could not have survived if it had excluded the Malay community, whose forebears had arrived from the Dutch East Indies as slaves or political prisoners. They were well established in the industry and could not be excluded. This did not prevent some white members complaining that they were being undercut by Malays and ‘Polish Jews’ who were ‘living cheaper’, and working longer hours for very little money.[13]

During the Boer war the increasing demand for labour gave ordinary men and women the confidence to adopt new forms of organisation. In 1901 a Coloured businessman, John Tobin, started regular Sunday meetings at the ‘Stone’.[14]

In September 1902 Tobin and five others established the African Political Organisation (APO), to defend Coloured rights. Soon branches were being formed across the Cape colony. By 1904 the APO could boast 2,000 members in 33 branches.[15] The following year the party found a new leader in one of the most remarkable men to ever enter Cape politics: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman. The British trained doctor already had a place on the Cape Town City Council, having been elected in 1904 – the first black person to serve on the body. Dr. Abdurahman was to mobilise the Coloured community with great skill. In 1914 he became the first Coloured person to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council and served on the City and the Provincial Councils until his death in 1940.

Yet Dr Abdurahman and the APO could not take their popular support for granted. They were in competition with a range of left wing movements and parties that flourished in Cape Town in the first decade of the twentieth century.[16] The trade union movement, together with the immigrant community and the Cape’s educated Malay and Coloured populations, allowed a diverse range of parties to flourish, challenging the prevailing racism of the age.

Among these parties was the Social Democratic Federation, which was founded on May Day in 1904. Initially linked to the British movement of the same name, it soon lost these ties. It was led by Wilfred Harrison, a British soldier who had been demoted for fraternizing with Afrikaner prisoners during the Boer War. He was a carpenter, trade unionist and skilled organiser. The Federation ran its own newspaper, Cape Socialist, and built an impressive meeting place, predictably called the ‘Socialist Hall’, which held up to 600 people. The Social Democratic Federation’s founders were mostly white immigrants, but it went out of its way to recruit across the colour line. The historian Lucien Van der Walt points out that the party did more than just talk about winning black recruits:

the SDF set up a propaganda commission to reach Africans, gave talks in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (the main Bantu language in the Cape), drew people of color into its committees, reached out to the APO, and even influenced Abdurrahman to employ socialist class rhetoric.[17]

Hardie’s arrival in Cape Town

Hardie must have looked forward to his arrival in Cape Town. Not only was it the final stop on his very long journey, he was also assured of a warm welcome. The city also was considerably more progressive than the rest of the country. Despite this his arrival caused yet another controversy. The Trades and Labour Council and the Labour Representation Committee, almost certainly aware of the trouble his views had caused at his previous meetings, decided they would not host his visit. It was left to the Social Democratic Federation to rise to the challenge. Its leader, W. H. Harrison, wrote to the Cape Argus, expressing his disgust:

It is not altogether surprising though pitiably nauseating, to find that semi-capitalist mixture, styled the ‘Labour Representation Committee’ passing a resolution refusing to participate in the reception of Keir Hardie. Such an insult to one of Labour’s greatest leaders adds to the chagrin of such bodies in the eyes of true sympathisers.[18]

An alternative meeting was arranged at the Social Democrat’s Socialist Hall on the edge of District Six. It must have come as a considerable relief to Hardie that he received a warm welcome. But the Socialist Hall meeting was not the main event of the visit, so after a rousing chorus of the traditional Welsh song, ‘Men of Harlech’, Hardie spoke for just fifteen minutes, promising he would give a fuller talk the Sunday, 1st of March. Hardie was as good as his word. On the Sunday, at the more spacious Good Hope Hall, he spoke to a “large” crowd, which had packed in.[19] This time they were not all socialists, but although at the beginning… “a small hostile element made its presence known, the assemblage was well disposed towards the speaker, and gave him a cordial reception.” Hardie used his Good Hope Hall speech to appeal to the self-interest of white workers; urging them to make common cause with their black brothers, as the Cape Times reported:

Now, Socialism stood for the rights of humanity as human beings, and if the white working people of South Africa countenanced the exploitation of the coloured races, then they (the white workers) themselves must expect to be exploited. Freedom could not be limited by geographical lines or racial lines, and the time would come when unless something were done speedily in South Africa, they would find the coloured man ousting them from their places; because he was a cheaper worker than the white man. Let a strike take place, and they would find then where the blacklegs were drawn from… I don’t want to see, and I shall not be silent and stand by, and see our white civilisation dragged down by the capitalist class employing coloured labour for the purpose. (Cheers)[20]

He concluded with a theme that was commonly held among British liberals at the time – that although black and white were not yet equal, both had an equal right to receive the human rights that they were due.

And so the Socialist movement stands flat-footed for equal rights for every race. We do not say all races are equal; no one dreams of doing that, but I do say most emphatically that the coloured man, the native of South Africa, within his own civilisation, has as much right to have his freedom respected as any have within our civilisation. We stand, I say, for equal rights. (Cheers)

Keir Hardie’s time at the Cape was at an end. He returned to Britain in April 1908 and was given a tremendous reception and a great public meeting organised at the Albert Hall by the Labour Party.[21] Hardie later explained in the Labour Leader what he had learnt in South Africa. Certainly he believed the Cape’s property-qualified, but non-racial franchise might provide a model for the democratisation of Britain’s other South African colonies. In his reflections on his southern African stay, he wrote:

Is [‘the native’] to be recognised as a human being and allowed to vote and own property, or is he to be treated as being part wild beast and part child? Shall the Cape take from the natives the rights they possess or shall Natal, Orangia [sic] and Transvaal adopt the Cape Standard?[22]

There was no doubt where he stood on this issue and Hardie remained engaged with the rights of black South Africans in the years ahead.


Keir Hardie returned to Britain a changed man. He had experienced the racism and the venom of the white working class in Natal and the Transvaal at first hand. The Union Jack that he seized as he fled from the hall in Johannesburg, remained on display at his flat in Nevills Court as a proud souvenir.[23] No longer would he refer to the Afrikaners in the terms he had used in 1900. Hardie’s South African visit had opened his eyes to the harsh realities of white racism and made him much more sympathetic to the plight of the black majority.

At the same time the Labour Party leaders remained in touch with Afrikaner leaders, including Jan Smuts.[24] This posed something of a challenge as the years went by and the nature of their rule became clear – first in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and then, after 1910, in the Union of South Africa. By 1909, when the new Union Constitution came before the British Parliament, the Labour Party had moved firmly away from supporting white South Africans in general and the Afrikaner leaders in particular. Rather, the Labour Party drew on the experience and expertise that Hardie and MacDonald had gained from visiting the country. Labour sided with W. P. Schreiner and the non-racial delegation that he led against the official South African deputation, which included men like Botha and Smuts. The Labour Party listened to what Schreiner’s deputation had to say, entertained the deputation in Parliament and supported their case to the end of the debates.[25] When the Bill came before the House of Commons, Hardie was scathing in his attack on the racial bar that it was introducing into a constitution approved by the Imperial Parliament.[26] He concluded his speech with these words:

…it is of the utmost importance that the last word should not be spoken in the way of washing our hands of responsibility, either towards the people of South Africa, or the Empire as a whole, and that the House of Commons should not assent to the setting up of the doctrine that because of a man’s misfortune in having been born with a coloured skin he is to be barred the possibility of ever rising to a position of trust.

Ramsay MacDonald was even clearer:

This is not a South African question only, but it is a great Imperial question, and one which is probably going to have more to say in shaping the future of this Empire than any other single question which is before us now.[27]

But the Liberal government of the day had set its face against making any concessions to the argument. In reality the die had been cast in the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Boer war. The British establishment was enormously relieved that it had ended its battles with the Afrikaners. By 1909 all the goodwill in the world was not going to rupture this new-found relationship between London and Pretoria, a relationship which had little to offer the majority of South Africans.

Keir Hardie’s trip set the tone for a growing relationship between the Labour Party and southern Africa. His travels together with the previous visit to South Africa by Ramsay MacDonald meant that the emerging party had first-hand experience of the situation. This helped form the background to the party’s stand during the debate on the Union constitution in 1909. It might have resulted in a more active engagement, had not the First World War intervened, consuming international attention.[28]


[1] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie; radical and socialist, Phoenix Giant Paperbacks, London 1997 (first published by Orion Books 1975) p. 178 – 199

[2] Jonathan Hyslop, The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908, Journal of Global History (2006) 1, pp. 343–362

[3] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, p. 104 – 105

[4] Olive Schreiner: John & Mary Brown MSC 26/2.2.10. ‘Olive Schreiner to Mary Brown nee Solomon, 1908, NLSA Cape Town, Special Collections, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[5] Olive Schreiner BC16/Box8/Fold4/MMPr/AssortedCorres/FredPL/9

Olive Schreiner to Frederick (‘Fred’) Pethick-Lawrence, 27 February 1908, UCT Manuscripts & Archives, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[6] Olive Schreiner BC16/Box4/Fold1/1908/10. ‘Olive Schreiner to William Philip (‘Will’) Schreiner, 26 February 1908, UCT Manuscripts & Archives, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[7] LSE. ILP/4/1908/89. 2 March 1908. W.P. Schreiner to J. Keir Hardie. (Capetown).

[8] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden, Cape Town in the twentieth century, David Philip, Cape Town, 1999, p. 26

[9] Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the

revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, 1904–1931, Labor History, Vol. 52, No. 2, May 2011, p. 141

[10] Worden, Nigel. ‘Artisan Conflicts in a Colonial Context: The Cape Town Blacksmith Strike of 1752’. Labor History 46, no. 2 (2005): 155–84. Nicole Ulrich, Counter Power and Colonial Rule in the Eighteenth-Century Cape of Good Hope: Belongings and Protest of the Labouring Poor, PhD Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2011

[11] Ernest Gitsham and James Trembath, A first account of Labour Organisation in South Africa, E & P. Commercial Printing Co. Durban, 1926, p. 14 – 15

[12] Andrew Thompson, The Empire Strikes Back? The impact of Imperialism on Britain from the mid-nineteenth century, Pearson Education, Harlow, 2005, p. 69

[13] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic pride and racial prejudice in Victorian Cape Town, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p.174

[14] The Stone was, in reality, a series of stones, more or less in a circle, with the largest one used to stand on to address the crowd. Vivian Bickford-Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden, op. cit. p. 27

[15] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic pride and racial prejudice in Victorian Cape Town, op cit. p. 204

[16] This section draws on Lucien van der Walt’s path-breaking work in re-interpreting Cape history. Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, op cit.

[17] Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, op cit. p. 145

[18] Cape Argus, 29 February 1908

[19] Cape Times, 2 March 1908

[20] Cape Times, 2 March 1908

[21] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, op. cit., p. 198

[22] Labour Leader, 5 May 1908, in Jonathan Hyslop, The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908, p. 361

[23] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, p. 197. There is a photograph of Hardie’s study in the National Library of Scotland which shows the Union Jack.

[24] There are a number of letters between Smuts and Ramsay MacDonald in the National Archive at Kew. PRO 30/69/1203 I

1897 – 1909 South Africa: Correspondence JRM & MEM

[25] Martin Plaut, A menu for change, p. 64

[26] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 19 August 1909 vol 9 cc1553-605

[27] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 19 August 1909 vol 9 cc1553-605

[28] The South African Labour Party, a member of the Second International, opposed the war, passing resolutions against it in December 1914 and January 1915, although many of its branches took the opposite view and it supported the war in Parliament. See Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 61-62

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