Maria Fyfe (b 1938), politician, nominated
James Watt (1736-1819)
Keir Hardie (1856-1915)
Considering how famous a figure he is, it is surprising that so many of us were taught in childhood a mistaken version of the reason for James Watt's fame. We were told he invented the steam engine from an idea that popped into his head while walking in Glasgow Green thinking about the steam coming out of a kettle. The better informed know he improved upon the already existing steam engine by inventing the separate condensing cylinder which made the engine far more efficient. The walking in Glasgow Green bit happens to be true. He himself described how it happened:
'I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon, early in 1765. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street, and had passed the old washing house. I was thinking upon the engine at the time and had gone as far as the herd's house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder…I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.'
Watt obviously thought of this idea as a sudden, almost heaven-sent inspiration. It was of course the result of many years of study and research, and familiarity with the engine Newcomen had invented, which had prepared his mind. It was only when we look back on our country's economic and social history that we realise the true breathtaking consequences of this man's idea.
The early use of his improved engine was limited to pumping out water from coal mines. The next step was to make a steam engine with a rotary motion that could drive all sorts of machinery. Manufacturers began to realise this engine could be used in iron works, in blast furnaces, and sheet iron rolling mills. Before the steam engine, water mills stopped in severe winters when the water froze. When the mill stopped, the employees had no work. In those days if you didn't work you starved, or went to the work house.
The steam engines then went to work in potteries, breweries, flour-mills, and spinning factories. Before the steam engine, along with the other developments in the industrial revolution, an ordinary family would have very few clothes, much patched and mended. Household goods such as crockery had always been in meagre supply. A wall clock was a luxury. Nails were made by hand – imagine how expensive that made boots and shoes. Large-scale production made it possible for people to afford what they could only dream of before.
Travel was changed utterly with the steam boat. Until then ships couldn't move unless they had wind in their sails. If there was no wind they were becalmed for days and even weeks. Steam made it possible to make reliably timed sea journeys and have a faster turn around. Travel much beyond the village one lived in was a rare event. The expansion of trade through easier and quicker travel by rail and by sea opened our people up to new ideas and new experiences.
Before the industrial revolution Britain was like an under-developed country today. If the crops failed, you died. Life offered little in the way of entertainment, and education was hard to acquire. The mass circulation newspaper had still to arrive.
It says everything you need to know about the lives of the thousands of domestic servants that they now voted with their feet in favour of the factory and the mill – and these were no picnic. At least now they had fixed hours and freedom to do as they pleased outside working hours.
This industrial revolution was the biggest single thing that happened this millennium, and James Watt was at the forefront making it possible to better the living conditions of all of us, creating worldwide respect for Scotland as a nation, and bringing about dramatic changes such as had never been seen in all of our previous history.
There is a picture of Keir Hardie that hangs on the wall of the Members' tea room in the House of Commons. By all accounts he was never all that keen on the House of Commons as an institution, his gifts being more suited to the soapbox than the despatch box. He joined a House of Commons that was then capable of sending a telegram congratulating the then Duchess of York on the birth of her baby, while in the same week refusing to send a message of condolences to South Wales when 260 people died in a mining accident. No wonder he did not find it congenial. His unsociable reputation, in that light, looks to have been a matter of just being reasonably choosy about his company.
He was often out of sorts with his fellow members of the newly-formed Labour Party in Parliament. It was generally agreed he was not a successful Parliamentary leader. He felt despair when the socialism he held dear and sacrificed his health for, failed to overcome the chauvinism and jingoism of the First World War.
Yet during his life no other MP or political thinker or writer came anywhere near to him in changing people's thinking. No one else was as successful in making this peculiarly British brand of socialism a mainstream political force. Some other leading lights fell by the wayside. He remained firm to the end of his days. People continue to fight the causes he fought: class equality; trade union rights; women's equality; democratic control of local services; full employment; peace and disarmament; internationalism. He was at the opening of the Second International in 1889, and was a committed member of its International Bureau until he died.
Keir Hardie experienced the Liberals' failure to defend the rights of working people over many years before he came to the conclusion that a new party was needed. The Labour Party grew when people saw the Taff Vale judgement in 1901, when the Law Lords swept away rights the unions had taken for granted for quarter of a century and the Liberals had nothing to say. Later the Law Lords entered the fray again. They ruled that any political activity by a trade union was against the law. Keir Hardie declared, in response, 'if the Labour Members were being paid by brewers or landowners or railway directors or financiers to represent their interests in the House of Commons, no objection would have been taken. It is only because they are being paid to represent an interest that is dangerous to all the other interests that the issue is being forced upon us.' The split in the centre-left that has characterised this century could only have been avoided by successful prodding of the Liberals into taking action they had shown over and over again they were not willing to take.
When even today women are still in a battle to ensure equal representation, it is instructive to realise how far ahead of his time Keir Hardie was in supporting the women's suffrage movement. He saw clearly that this was a matter of justice and equality, when other prominent socialists were opposed to women gaining the vote on the grounds that women like Mrs Pankhurst were middle-class.
I have been a member for 40 years of a party that will be a hundred years old this coming spring. I almost feel historic myself. In early days I took its existence for granted. It was simply there. In a more reflective frame of mind, I realise what a remarkable achievement it was. The start in life Keir Hardie had would have crushed any ambition in most people. Born in poverty, the son of a single mother, he was out working to earn money the family needed when he was only eight years old. That he had such soaring ambition not just for himself alone, but for all humanity, demonstrates a great human spirit. That he kept on, faithful to the end, and broke the mould of British politics, was a spectacular achievement.