Clarion History – 7: The Clarion and Labour Leader

The foundation of the Clarion at the very end of 1891 coincided with – and indeed was part of – an upsurge in radicalism centred on working-class struggles – like the long-running strike at Manningham Mills in Bradford. By 1893, as we have seen it had led to the election in 1892 – for as it turned out only until 1895 – of Keir Hardie as an ‘Independent Labour’ MP and then of the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

At this time the only other explicitly socialist paper operating nationally was Justice – like the Clarion a weekly paper. Justice was edited by Harry Quelch, one of those remarkable late Victorian autodidacts who somehow overcame a more or less non-existent formal education to acquire all the skills   necessary to edit a very literate paper. It is said that he taught himself both French and German in order to be able to put the rest of the international socialist movement right at international conferences.   Justice was the paper of the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and had been hard at work spreading the word for the previous decade. Relations between Justice and the Clarion, and between the SDF’s leading figure Henry Hyndman and Blatchford, were pretty good.   You may recall from the second of these little pieces on Clarion history Blatchford saying that ‘I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman’   But the two papers were very different publications.

While Justice was very much the organ if the SDF and largely concerned with its campaigns and internal debates, the Clarion sought – and obtained – a much wider role as a socialist paper independent of any party. Yet in 1893 it had often seemed to speak for the new ILP. That was to change the following year, 1894, when Keir Hardie started his own paper – Labour Leader. Although the Leader was as much an independent paper speaking for Hardie as the Clarion was for Blatchford from the start it was seen as the official organ of the ILP. Such is the power of parliamentary politics in this country. It would eventually – in the early 20th century – be taken over by the ILP when the party bought it from Hardie.

There is little if any doubt that Blatchford and Co resented Hardie’s new paper whose very existence they tended to see as a criticism of the adequacy of the Clarion. That said, they didn’t think much of Hardie’s paper which they regarded as pretty boring and pedestrian. Whatever the rights and wrongs of all this the papers became rival mouthpieces for those involved in disputes within the ILP. As we shall see in later episodes time after time the Clarion would take up the cause of ‘dissident’ groupings in the ILP. If Hardie and Labour Leader were the ILP ‘establishment’, the Clarion was, among many other things, the bolt-hole of its rebels.

Partly this was a matter of the very different personalities of Blatchford and Hardie. To Blatchford and many around the Clarion, Hardie was too earnest and self-important. To those on Hardie’s side Blatchford was too frivolous and lacked the patience to pursue a sustained campaign. I think there was a large element of truth on both sides.

But there was also a philosophical or ideological difference. As his latter career would demonstrate – more than any other single individual he was responsible for the creation of the Labour Party – Hardie was firmly focussed on practical politics – especially winning or at least trying to win elections, Blatchford was not against this but it had a much lower priority in his scheme of things. For him the key task was ‘making socialists’ – something he was supremely good at as I showed in the last episode about Merrie England. For Blatchford the practicalities of the election of MPs and local councillors could be more or less left to happen spontaneously.   Spending too much time on such things was both diverting from the real task of converting public opinion and had the tendency to be mundanely boring .


Next Time – the very beginning of the Clarion Cycling Club





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