Robert Smillie was born in Belfast on 17th March, 1857. Both parents died when Robert was very young and he was brought up by his grandmother. He received little schooling before at the age of nine, starting work as an errand boy. Two years later he found employment in a local spinning mill.
At fifteen Robert and his brother James, moved to Glasgow and worked in a brass foundry. However, before he had reached the age of seventeen he had become a miner at Larkhall. He progressed from being a pump man to a drawer of coal tubs. Finally, he became a hewer at the coal face.
Attempts were being made in Scotland to revive the miners union and 1885 Larkhall Colliery was visited by workers from Motherwell. Smillie agreed to chair a meeting of local miners and as a result a branch of the Lanarkshire Miners' Association was formed in Larkhall. Smillie was elected secretary of the branch and this involved him attending national union meetings. This brought him into contact with other union leaders including James Keir Hardie, secretary of the Ayrshire Miners' Union.
Most miners at that time were supporters of the Liberal Party. Hardie came to the conclusion that the working-class needed its own political party. Smillie shared these views and in 1888 helped James Keir Hardie when he stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the constituency of Mid-Lanark. During the election campaign Hardie and Smillie advocated socialism. These views were too advanced for the electors and Hardie finished at the bottom of the poll. However, in 1888 Smillie was elected as a member of the Larkhall School Board.
In the 1892 General Election Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the West Ham South constituency in London's industrial East End. Hardie won the election and became the country's first socialist M.P. The following year Hardie and Smillie joined together with other socialists such as Tom Mann, John Glasier, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Philip Snowden, and Edward Carpenter to form the Independent Labour Party.
Smillie continued as a union leader and in 1894 he was elected president of the Scottish Miners' Federation. Two years later Smillie played an important role in the formation of the Scottish Trade Union Congress. His role was recognised when he was elected chairman at its first conference, a post he was to hold until 1899. The Scottish TUC was more radical than the English TUC with many of its leaders being members of the Independent Labour Party.
Smillie also played an active role in the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). As a member of this organisation Smillie gathered information for the Royal Commission of Mines (1906-1911). The leadership of the MFGB supported the Liberal Party and it was mainly due to the efforts of Smillie that the union affiliated to the Labour Party in 1909. Three years later Smillie became president of the MFGB.
As president of the MFGB Smillie and before the war helped establish the Triple Industrial Alliance. This was an agreement for mutual support between the three most powerful trade unions in Britain, the miners, dockers and railwaymen.
Smillie was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War. He called for a negotiated peace and warned against the idea of forcing men to join the British armed forces. In 1915 Robert Smillie became president of the National Council Against Conscription (after 1917 the National Council for Civil Liberties). In June 1917 Smillie was the leading speaker at the Convention in Leeds that welcomed the Russian Revolution. He was also a supporter of the No-Conscription Fellowship.
David Lloyd George saw Smillie as a dangerous man and in an attempt to control him, offered him a post in his government. He refused and when the war finished in 1918, Smillie was one of the first to call for the Labour Party to withdraw from Lloyd George's coalition government.
Although exempted from conscription during the war, 40% of miners of military age had joined the armed forces. Those miners who stayed in Britain during the First World War enjoyed improved wages and conditions. The main reason for this was that during the war the running of the mines was taken over by the government.
In 1919 Smillie called for the nationalization and workers' control of Britain mines. David Lloyd George responded by setting up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord Sankey. The Sankey Royal Commission failed to agree about the solutions to these problems, but the majority of the members did support the idea of the mines being nationalized. Smillie was furious when Lloyd George refused to nationalize the mines and allowed them to go back into private ownership.
In 1920 the mine-owners notified their workers that miners' wages were to be reduced. The miners decided to go on strike in an effort to persuade the owners to change their minds. Under the terms of the Triple Industrial Alliance, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) declared they would come out on strike in support of the miners. However, at the last moment, the leaders of the NUR and TGWU changed their minds, and although the miners went ahead with their strike they eventually had to give in and accept lower wages. Smillie was devastated by these events and in March 1921 resigned as president of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain.
Smillie had tried several times to enter the House of Commons. He was defeated at by-elections in 1895 (Glasgow) and 1901 (N.E. Lanarkshire) and at General Elections held in 1906 (Paisley) and 1910 (Glasgow). Smillie was finally elected MP for Morpeth in the 1923 General Election. Smillie declined a post in the 1924 Labour Government headed by Ramsay MacDonald.
Robert Smillie retired to Dumfries where he died on 16th February, 1940.
Travelling about the country I was able to meet Socialist personalities beyond the inner circle of the ILP leadership. I loved Robert Smillie, the Scottish miners' leader, a friend in personal approach to everyone who belonged to the working class, contemptuous of privilege and unearned wealth which he regarded as robbery, convincing in his simple statement of Socialism - "the best of life to those who give to life".
It is very unlikely that all the delegates to the recent British Labour Party Conference agreed with Mr. Sidney Webb when he declared in his presidential address that "Robert Owen and not Karl Marx was the founder of British Socialism." The true believers might well have replied, "There is no British Socialism. There is only Socialism and it is international." But there was no spoken protest and Mr. Webb's able address, with its insistence on political democracy and a gradual
progress, with its emphasis on "brotherhood" and consequent disavowal of the class war, was allowed to stand as the keynote utterance of the conference. Sudden increase in power and responsibility have had their usual effect; these Labour Party leaders seem to walk a bit soberly today, as though they feared they might wake up some morning and find the destinies of the Empire actually in their hands.
The conference was considerably enlivened by the expulsion of four Scottish members from Parliament, and it was enormously cheered and heartened by the opportunity to welcome Robert Smillie as a Labour M.P. It is the general opinion that Mr. Smillie will help to give unity and coherence to His Majesty's Opposition. There is such confidence in his honesty and intelligence on all sides, that he may even be able to reconcile the emotional Scotch extremists and the
parliamentarians. It is felt that if Mr. Smillie believed certain "economies" meant the death of little children he would be quite capable of calling a man who urged them a murderer bur that he would know how to do it in parliamentary language.
The official who carried me away with him was Robert Smillie, the president of the Miners' Federation. Crystal Eastman had given me a note to him and he said a few wise words to me about the necessity of coloured labour being organised, especially in the vast European colonies, for the betterment of its own living standard and to protect that of white organised labour.
Smillie was like a powerful ash which had forced itself up, coaxing nourishment out of infertile soil, and towering over saplings and shrubs. His face and voice were so terribly full of conviction that in comparison the colleagues around him appeared theatrical. When he stood forth to speak the audience was shot through with excitement, and subdued. He compelled you to think along his line whether or not you agreed with him. I remember his passionate speech for real democracy in the Congress, advocating proportional representation.
I was Michael Lee's grandfather. As a schoolgirl I had often listened enthralled to stories of the fearful odds pitted against Bob Smillie, Keir Hardie, my grandfather and others like them when they were struggling to build a Labour trade union and co-operative movement.