Harry Leslie Smith: War veteran who spoke out against austerity, the far right and Trump

The political activist survived the Great Depression and WWII before taking to publishing and social media to defend the NHS and the welfare state – in his eighties 

Peyvand Khorsandi@PKTWICK
Wednesday 28 November 2018 13:58
Harry Leslie Smith on the NHS

Harry Leslie Smith was the much-loved political commentator who counted the leading lights of the Labour Party among his fans – not least Jeremy Corbyn.

Smith, who has died aged 95, came to prominence after earning a standing ovation, and moving many delegates to tears, at the Labour Party conference of 2014. He recounted the story of his sister Marion who died of tuberculosis aged 10 because his parents had no access to healthcare. Her body was dumped in an unmarked “pauper’s pit”, he said.

“Mr Cameron,” he added, “keep your mitts off my NHS.”

Smith drew on his experiences of the Second World War – he was stationed with allied forces in Hamburg – to highlight the plight of refugees, raising more than £55,000 through his GoFundMe page for the Harry’s Last Stand Refugee Tour.

In 2016 he visited the Jungle in Calais and was keen to visit other refugee camps around the world.

Remarkably, it was in his eighties that he decided to take the path that would make him a celebrated left-wing pundit.

In 2008, spurred on by the financial crisis which animated memories of the Great Depression and fears of a return to Dickensian poverty, he made it his mission to act as a conduit to the past – a “living bridge” as he put it.

Smith at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014 where his speech moved many to tears

Smith was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to Albert Smith and his mother Lillian Dean in 1923. Albert was an unemployed coal miner who would seek shifts at the local Weetabix factory. Sometimes he sent Harry their alone to come back with bars of the cereal which they would have with water instead of milk.

The working class, he said, had been reduced to beggary.

The writer and broadcaster connected with a young audience

“My family were nomads. We flitted from one dosshouse to the next, trying to keep ahead of the rent collector,” he once wrote.

Eventually his mother left his dad for another man. At the age of 10 Harry was delivering coal, and in his teens he worked as a grocer’s assistant.

His clarion call to young people was expressed in a series of memoirs, culminating in last year’s prophetically titled cri de coeur, Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.

Keeping an impossibly busy schedule for someone of his age, he appeared on The Russell Howard Hour last year to implore young people to “get together, form groups, join anything that lets you discuss what’s happening today” in order to save the NHS and the welfare system.

With Andy Burnham at Labour conference in 2014

This world of media engagements was far removed from the decades in which he ran a business importing carpets in Belleville, Ontario – he moved to Canada in 1953 with his wife (nee Elfriede Edelmann) who faced prejudice as a “Jerry” or a “Nazi” in England, where with functional literacy they both had attended night school.

Theirs was a forbidden love – in pursuing it he showed a dogged spirit that would serve him in campaigning decades later.

As British soldiers, he told a newspaper in 2016, “We couldn’t walk or talk with any German girl or any German. But I used to wander the streets when I was off duty. That’s when I saw this girl.”

“Full of beer,” he asked her out. “I felt she was my destiny.”

Unable to speak each other’s language, the couple communicated using hand gestures and a small German-English dictionary Smith had.

Friede, however, was not convinced their love affair would work with all the restrictions on fraternisation – so Smith sought the permission of no less than the mayor of Hamburg.

Harry and Friede on their wedding day in 1947

Shortly after they were married on 16 August 1947 – and he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church – he was devastated to learn that the RAF wanted to relocate him to Manchester. His reluctance to return to the country of his birth, which he associated with hard times, was replaced by dread.

Apart from England being “a land abundant in rain, shoddy housing, limited opportunities and soot” he would lose his status as part of a “conquering army” in Hamburg.

Sure enough at RAF Ringway in the UK, military life left him disillusioned – tasks he performed included days of smashing up disused transistor radios: what was essential during the war was expendable now.

Harry and Fried in a Manchester nightclub

To add to his woes, his other sister Alberta “Mary” Smith who lived in Halifax was not too welcoming of the “filthy European” he had married. “You are welcome in my house, even if you wed a German,” she wrote. “But it’ll cost you 10 shillings a week plus your food.”

RAF officers had no more sympathy for his efforts to bring the “Jerry” he had married to the UK. They mocked him for being one of the lefties responsible for the new Attlee government.

Smith took it all on the chin for he wanted to use the RAF’s leverage to win Friede the permit to leave British-occupied northern Germany. Only then did he break it to his supercilious superiors that he was quitting.

He pointed out that he was entitled to do so as he had yet to complete six months of his latest contract by two days. They relented and he was discharged.

“Everything was done with as much emotion as if they were shipping a lorry full of beans back to the factory rather than discharging a human being from their service.”

The shibboleths of nationhood, whether it was the military or the royals, were never viewed with rose-tinted goggles by Smith, who in later life sought to use his experiences of an era well beyond the reach of most people’s memory as a “weapon”.

Writing in a newspaper in 2013, Smith sparked outrage when he declared himself a conscientious objector to poppy-wearing.

Smith accused politicians of exploiting remembrance to “justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy”.

He did not welcome the advent of Brexit and Trump’s presidency which for Smith marked “the beginning of the end of civilisation”. He argued that the untrammelled greed of baby boomers was trampling the prospects of young people.

Writing for The Independent in June he said: “The United States under Donald Trump cages refugee children, pulls out of the UN Council and uses dehumanising terms about other races; doing so has, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, always been a harbinger of genocide.”

He also lambasted Conservatives over tuition fees and expressed empathy with young people kept off the housing ladder and facing high rents.

His earthy language came in handy on Twitter where he accrued more than 250,000 followers. (He also ran a podcast.) After watching the then health secretary on The Andrew Marr Show last year he tweeted: “If a dog’s arse could talk, it would sound like Jeremy Hunt.”

Ever keen to scold the far right – and never one to mince his words – in May he tweeted: “Let’s be clear if you support #TommyRobinson you don’t respect me, my generation, Great Britain, yourself or anything decent. What you respect is hate and ignorance. And you as a human being are better than that and if you’re not – well then you’re just shit on the pavement.”

He is survived by his sons Michael and John.

“I am no historian,” he once said, “but I am history.”

Harry Leslie Smith, writer and political activist, born 25 February 1923, died 28 November 2018

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