Harry Leslie Smith lives by the trademark “I am not an historian, but at 91 I am history” and it is this mantra that enables the 91-year-old RAF veteran, turned Guardian writer and author of Harry’s Last Stand to draw close to unparalleled comparisons to Britain of the past.
Harry’s Last Stand is an “impassioned plea for change over a hedge-funded mentality” drawing on how his life experiences, including growing up in the depravation of 1930’s Bradford, have shaped his perceptions of modern Britain.
In an exclusive interview with Palatinate, Harry identifies the 2007/08 financial crisis as the inspiration to write his memoir. His tone is imbued with evident anger when discussing the crisis and in particular the belief that the government allowed such a crisis to occur while “no one paid the price apart from the public”
It is the subsequent austerity in response to the financial crisis that leads Harry to draw his comparisons of modern day Britain to the poverty rampant Britain he grew up in. Harry familiarises with a sense of despair and hopelessness that “things won’t get better tomorrow” with the only difference between his youth and the youth of today being that today we “have a few more material possessions”
“I could cry when I consider how our world has turned out”, Harry grieves. It is clear that this is far from a statement of hyperbole. Harry speaks with great emotion when he says that “we’ve lost everything we’ve fought for by selling off most of the country for a pittance”
Consequently, Harry has made it his endeavour to save our world that has become measured by money. He believes that the current situation has further distanced the rich from the poor, excluding the underprivileged and resulting in a 42% rise in inequality since 1977. The route for Harry to achieve his bold aim is through his plan to “devote all expense and energy in making the whole of Britain realise change has to happen in the upcoming General Election”.
“This General Election is the absolute most important in my life time and an opportunity to reverse the erosion of the society my generation created”, Harry recalls.
It is conspicuous that Harry is a man of joyful hope, few would replicate him in going backpacking across Europe when aged 75-years-old or when feeling restless, hop on a plane to San Francisco to explore California. However, when considering the future Harry speaks dauntingly that “unless we affirm to change, we’re all lost and will never recover”.
It is hard to disregard such foreshadowing presented by the man who is ‘history’ himself.
Harry’s Last Stand reads like poetry. It is a melodic memoir reflecting a range of emotions from fury to pride. In a political landscape dominated by Oxbridge PPE-graduates, his education dwarfs that of our political elite. Yet, so eloquently Harry is able to resonate and inspire the electorate more than any other politician.
He laughs that his speech at last year’s Labour Party conference was the first time he had ever used a prompter and brought his paper notes as a contingency. In discussing the importance of the NHS the speech drew on a childhood compounded by the death of his older sister Marion of tuberculosis, aged only 10-years-old, and electrified not only the room but the party conference. For many Labour supporters the image at the end of the speech of Harry with, a proud son-esque, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burham’s arm wrapped around him, is symbolic of a commitment to the NHS.
Even for Harry Leslie Smith: the Internet Phenomenon- with a Twitter following of close to 30,000 followers and his Guardian articles ‘This year I will wear a Poppy for the Last Time’ and ‘A Eulogy for the NHS’ shared over 150,000 on Facebook- was “amazed at the response”.
The speech was typified by the coining of the phrase ‘Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS’ that has since evolved into a slogan for many NHS campaign groups. He describes the slogan as an impromptu idea when writing his speech. Yet, the rationale behind it is far from impromptu. Having grown up in a pre-NHS Britain, Harry is convinced of the importance of the NHS. He dismisses the government’s claims that we cannot afford the NHS as “bullshit” to serve their agenda of “crushing the NHS, to serve their many ilk in private companies”.
In 1945 Harry voted for the Labour Party that created the National Health Service leading to the contention that “Election day 1945 was one of the proudest days of my life”. Clement Attlee’s post- World War II Labour Party is one of great difference to Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Harry however, asserts that “the Labour Party is still the party for the working class due to the communal beliefs of compassion, prudence and provision”.
The passion in Harry’s core prevails when discussing Ed Miliband, “the firm believer in social justice”, and affirms that he is the right man for the party and future of Britain. Over the course of several meetings, he has identified Miliband as “a fine man and deep thinker who has the potential to change Britain for the better”.
“This is a generation that has been disappointed and let down in the past.” Harry identifies with the young who have become accustomed to broken promises and a lack a representation. He understands the air of apathy that surrounds the electorate but champions the importance of voting, declaring the message of “get up and vote, vote, vote”. As a man who has fought throughout his life for democracy it is unsurprising that he rejects the apathetic cry of ‘they’re all the same’ as a reason not to participate in voting. Conversely, Harry advocates that a “spoilt ballot is an opportunity to send a message of rejection to government because those votes are still counted”.
Whether you are in consensus with his views or not, it is difficult not to feel inspired by Harry Leslie Smith. A survivor of the Great Depression and World War II, he is still relentlessly and selflessly campaigning to “prevent the young going through what my generation went through”. In a post-WW2 Britain, Harry concludes that “my generation built a country by virtue of democracy” and most explicitly Harry Leslie Smith epitomises the power and importance of voting in generating change.