Harry Leslie Smith death: The veteran political campaigner's complete columns for The Independent

Champion of the welfare state used personal experience of mid-century hardship to provide timely perspective on contemporary issues

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 28 November 2018 13:55
Harry Leslie Smith on the NHS

Harry Leslie Smith, the Second World War veteran and left-wing political activist, has died aged 95.

The popular campaigner, who rose to national prominence with a moving address in defence of the NHS at the 2014 Labour Party Conference, was taken ill in Canada and passed away overnight, according to his son John.

A powerful voice on Twitter, particularly in support of the welfare state and on an array of humanitarian issues, Mr Smith also wrote for Independent Voices on several occasions.

Here we look back at his columns for The Independent.

I’m 94 years old, I fought in the Second World War and I have a serious warning about where 2017 is headed

6 September 2017

Drawing on his own experiences of the final days of the war, Mr Smith expressed concern about US president Donald Trump’s nuclear sabre-rattling with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and warned us not to idealise populist demagogues.

“Too many of our leaders in government or in business today seem to possess the sociopathic traits that made Tsar Nicholas 2nd of Russia, Hitler, Mussolini or Mao destructive leaders for their people. Yet we idolise our oligarchs of business for their ruthlessness and emulate them, which is why Donald Trump has been an admired icon for conspicuous consumption since the 1980s,” he wrote.

“I am an old man in the apogee of my days and that’s why I know we are on the cusp of war – if not in North Korea then somewhere else – simply because we are letting the greed and the self-interest of the few lead the many into the cul-de-sac of war.”

What Christmas was like for my generation during the Great Depression

24 December 2017

Last Christmas Eve, Mr Smith wrote very movingly about his memories of Christmas Day 1930, spent in desperate poverty in Bradford with his father Albert, an unemployed coal miner with whom he was about to lose touch.

The piece served as a timely reminder to consider those less fortunate in the austerity Britain of the 21st century.

“When Christmas morning came that year, I awoke like too many children across Britain with hunger in my belly and the realisation that there was no Father Christmas for the poor. I remember crying in anger and desperation. My dad tried to calm my agitation as best he could by hugging me and saying: ‘Go into my trouser pocket. It’s not from Father Christmas and it’s not much, but it is from thy dad’.”

“I went over and rustled through his pockets and found a few bits of penny sweets that I ate for my breakfast. Afterwards, I went down to the cramped room my mother shared with her boyfriend. She told me there’d be no Christmas lunch but, because we were Catholics, the church would provide us bairns with a bit of turkey and some comfort and joy down in a hall near the cathedral.”

Brexit threatens everything I fought for in the Second World War. On my 95th birthday, this is what I need people to know

24 February 2018

Mr Smith tackled Britain’s divisive bid to leave the European Union by pointing out that togetherness, not isolation, was crucial to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

“The political descendants of Winston Churchill are turning our nation into a hermit kingdom whose wealth and ingenuity are being squandered for an idealised notion that we are still a mighty power that the nations of the world want to trade with on our terms,” he said, underscoring a key irony of the Brexit debate.

“I have almost a hundred years of lived history pulsing through my blood and memories. So when I tell you that this is the best of times for the one per cent and the worst of times for everyone else, heed my words.”

His account of living through a bombing raid while celebrating his 22nd birthday on an airfield in Belgium was particularly vivid.

I’m nearly 100 years old, I saw the 1945 refugee crisis firsthand – and I need people to listen to my warning

20 June 2018

Angered by the international refugee crisis raging in the southern Mediterranean, Mr Smith recently travelled to Ottawa to discuss the issue with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts.

Electing to make the issue his “last stand”, Mr Smith again revisited his war experiences: “We were a generation bleeding out from the madness of fascism that had butchered a continent. Humanity, however, hadn’t deserted my generation even if the war had stolen our innocence.”

Expressing a commitment to activism in support of the 64 million displaced people of the world, Mr Smith was on rollicking form.

“I cannot sit back in good conscience while the world my generation built is left to turn feral in the hands of right-wing populists and indifferent capitalists.”

I was there when the NHS was first founded – and this is why you shouldn’t think of my generation as heroic

5 July 2018

On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, Mr Smith used the occasion to remind us not to lionise the “Spirit of ‘45” that led to its creation to the detriment of the present.

Stressing the ordinary drabness of post-war Britain, Mr Smith argued there was nothing more or less exceptional about his generation than any other and that its achievements on behalf of the collective good could be repeated whatever the political moment.

“In many ways, our placing this era onto a pedestal prevents us from solving the many catastrophes that pester Britain today: from Brexit to the refugee crisis, or the growing economic divide that threatens our democracy,” he wrote.

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“Turning my generation’s struggles into a myth has tethered us to inept politicians like Theresa May or centrist politicians cut from the neo-liberal cloth of New Labour. It allows us to wallow in the mediocrity of political indifference or ignorance, instead of raising us to the heights that are in every human being.

“But as someone who lived in that far-off place now called history, I know this generation is more than capable of doing great things – if it remembers that the past is populated with the same type of people as today. No matter the moment in time, we are all capable of weakness, sloth or courage.”

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