Meet Harry Leslie Smith, the woke 94 year old campaigning to remind young people of their power
“say ‘look we are not satisfied with this, if you want to be running this country you’d better start listening to us”
As a published author, a contributor to the Guardian and a twitter master who destroys fascist trolls on the reg – Harry Leslie Smith isn’t your average 94 year-old. His career as a political commentator who is passionate about the preservation of the welfare state comes from a lifetime of first-hand experience. As a survivor of the Great Depression, Harry is one of the few remaining Britons who remember life before the NHS; during which he suffered the tragic loss of his sister to tuberculosis simply because his family couldn’t afford a doctor. As a young man he witnessed the terrifying rise of fascism and fought against it in the RAF in the Second World War. Having lived through such precarious times, Harry’s wisdom is something we can all benefit from, no matter where you stand politically.
The Tab spoke to Harry to hear about his fascinating past, our present political situation and his concerns for the future.
“I will to my last dying breath remember my early days, they were such a brutal and unbelievably difficult time for everyone, and today, people will never imagine what it was like. But, my greatest fear is that today we are slipping back into a time when many lives were lost unnecessarily because they could not get the proper healthcare. I have a dreadful feeling that we are sliding back into that same place again”
You’ve led such a full life – how have your experiences shaped you and made you so committed to politics today?
“I started my first job when I was seven years-old to supplement my family’s income, to keep us alive. Later on, I managed to finish school, I pushed through until 14. Because of the conditions in England at that time – no one received medical attention – if you didn’t have money you didn’t have healthcare. You simply used old methods or old recipes, or you died. In Barnsley at the time, every family in the whole town lost a father, mother, brother or sister from tuberculosis. I would go out on the streets sometimes and I would hear people screaming in agony from windows because they couldn’t get morphine to ease the pain they were enduring. It was an unbelievable time – well you can imagine – if you were in desperate pain and you couldn’t get relief – what it was like.”
That’s really hard to imagine, especially since we’re so lucky to have the NHS today, what changed?
“Really it never changed until 1945 – it was my generation who demanded from the government – a new government formed in 1945 – that we would only vote to get them into power if they promised that they would build healthcare for everyone, no matter what their circumstances were. And that is what happened. Consequently – when I was in the air force the only time I saw a doctor was when I got back from Germany in 1948. My generation knew that the cost of not creating a just society would be the end for democracy and a lifetime of misery for most people in our country. Without building national security, it would have been unbelievably cruel, and we were not going to let them do that to us again.”
Our generation should be very grateful to yours for standing up for the future of Britain
“The problem is with education too, you see. The people who changed our society know that each generation of children that are born, they look at the world around them, and they feel that this is how it always was, and it wasn’t necessarily so. And so they accept it instead of complaining about it.”
Our generation today seems very divided…with the obvious support for Donald Trump and Brexit – it’s quite hard to relate to some of our peers nowadays
“It is just madness today. Not just the young people who are confused, the old people are confused too about what is happening in the world! There seems no rhyme nor reason to it.
Have you got any suggestions of how to respond to this kind of open racism that we get so often these days? How do you reason with people who believe in that?
“I know one thing for fact: I don’t see that we are going to avoid another massive war. It makes me cry to think that billions of young people again would have to sacrifice their lives for the people who created it – the top 1% – who’ve taken every penny they can get and squirrelled it away to avoid paying taxes. There are too many people avoiding taxes. The government can use the money to build new schools and roadways and that sort of thing. Without it – our infrastructure is falling apart.”
You’ve said the 1930s, when you were a young man, and today’s generation have many similarities. The depression of your era resulted in the war – how do you think young people can engage and take action to stop that happening again?
“I think politics should be part of the curriculum for young people in schools and universities. They should know how a country runs and how to think for themselves about creating a just society. On top of that of course they have to realise that the government is for the people and by the people, and they won’t get the government they want unless they get out there and they vote. Not only vote for an MP – but also investigate them, find out what their feelings are about the rights and the wrongs in society, find out if they’re more interested in getting a big salary or fighting to create a better world. I think the main thing right now is for the young people to get together and say “we’re not going to allow this to happen anymore” and the only way we can stop it is to let the government know loud and clear, even if we have to march on parliament and say “you’d better smarten up because we’ve had this bullshit as long as we can take it”. Unless you put your penneth worth in there, we will all end up fighting each other, and civil war is not what we want: it’s unity amongst all people.”
The news is quite unbelievable these days. How would you encourage and persuade young people today who are really jaded with the world, to get more involved and take a stand like you were saying is so important?
“I would say to them: go out, join a union, join clubs, join gatherings who are similarly minded who want to create better worlds – there are a lot of them out there who just need an influx of people to join and build up a strength like the old unions used to have who fought for better wages and succeeded very well actually. But they have to join together and if they join in small units and march on their local government and say “look we are not satisfied with this, if you want to be running this country you’d better start listening to us. You’d better start changing your ideas. You are not there to fill your pockets and try to become one of the 1% – you are there to help all of us create a better world.”
So, you’re saying that we need to realise the power we have as the majority.
“That’s it, you see! Yes. You young people now have to take the baton and you have to get out there and show the government that you’re not going to take any of this crap austerity that they’re pushing. Austerity is going to be the death of us. Take the 2009 banking crisis – no one got punished for that, they were bailed out by the citizens who had suffered by the banks collapsing. That was when austerity was formed, and ordinary people were paying taxes to the government to make up for those careless bankers who thought that they had the world by the tail.”
Where do you think we’re headed in the future?
“I think if we avoid a war, which I’m very dubious about, the way things are going in the USA today, almost collapsing as to how it was run originally, the whole world, we will wind up a different world entirely, you’ll find we’ll be split down the middle – in Ireland, North and South divided, and Wales – I wouldn’t be surprised if they chopped themselves off. And it would be a terrible thing for it to happen. Scotland already is on the cusp of separating.”
I imagine that you don’t agree with Scottish independence then?
“They’re only seeking it because they feel they’re not getting a fair share of what is happening in England. I mean, it seems somehow or other that if you’re not in London then you get minor thought from the government. This is what happens. They have to feel that they benefit from belonging to a society that protects them, that helps them. They pay taxes; they’re entitled to the same privileges as London or any other big city in the south. Of course, I really don’t see Theresa May making it as a leader.”
“My objection to the Tory government is that there are too many people in power who were educated at Eton and Harrow, and they don’t know – and they don’t want to know – what the rest of the country is like. Because, when they’re not on duty, they cohort with each other because of course they’re from the same schooling, the same standards, the same society, and they are ignorant of the difficulties the majority of society faces. In England I’ve walked around some of the streets many times and I’ve seen so many people sleeping on the side of the street that I could have cried, it was terrible.”
Well, congratulations on writing another book, could you tell us what we can expect from ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’?
“Well, it’s not about my history; it’s the history of my generation, and also an analysis of the current political crisis that has engulfed every western government. It’s a very interesting book to read. And I’m proud to say it’s in keeping with my other book Harry’s Last Stand and Love Among the Ruins. That’s a marvellous love story actually, my love story when I met my wife, and the suffering we had to go through trying to get married.”
Yes you mentioned in Harry’s Last Stand the prejudice you both faced and how until 1946 it was illegal for you as an English person to live with your German wife Friede, because at the time she was a so-called “enemy national”?
“Yes, or to walk in public with her! Because we suffered so badly in our early lives, it made us aware of the fact when the war ended and we had won, we had power and we sure used it. Because on election day I was in Hamburg and most of the services were spread out around the world and we communicated at that time in Morse and I remember us saying “we’re not going to let anyone do us out of a good government where we’ve got healthcare and wages that were in keeping with a good steady hardworking job” – that was the only reason why we got the health service. I’m really sad right now to think that it’s being chiselled away bit by bit.”
You fought so hard to build it in the first place, it must be really hard
“But to think that we could return to a two-tiered society where a few hold dominion over the many – if you had money you got help and if you didn’t you just died, you know.”
It must have been so frightening. Do you feel that the current Tory government would be glad if we returned to that sort of society?
“Yes, because it seems to have turned into a big money-grabbing. “Let’s see how much money we can get, legally or illegally”, you know? I mean, taxation is avoided constantly and being shipped off shore where it accumulates even more money, and even that’s not enough, so they continually pillage in the UK.”
Yeah and that’s somehow legal as well, which is quite incredible
“Well, this is it. I’m glad that you young people are getting yourselves together and seeing all these difficulties and I wish you great success with it. I hope that the University of Manchester and other universities get together, and see if you can all build a better society and put the fear of hell into governments which are running us today.”
It’s really important that we listen to people like you who remember what it was like before the welfare state and the NHS. Do you have any final words of wisdom for our country’s students?
“Well, it may be hard for some to understand, but at 94 I feel more in common with the youth of Britain than their parents. I guess it’s because the raw deal the young are getting today reminds me of my own over 60 years ago. I know Britain’s young don’t deserve to have their futures mortgaged to out-of-control university tuition debt. I know they don’t deserve to be stuck in zero hour contract jobs that can hardly pay for the groceries let alone the rent. And all I can say is: I know your struggles well. As a young man I lived in a Britain that didn’t give a toss for their young unless they came from the 1% and it made me angry to think my life would be short-changed because of austerity and a society that benefited the few over the many. Like many today, I really wasn’t political, I just wanted to get the life I deserved. But in 1945, I realised the only way a working class lad like myself was ever going to get a fair shake in Britain was if Labour became the government. So like millions of others, I voted for the Labour party in 1945 and because they beat the conservatives, the NHS was created, housing built and university tuition made free. My generation held our politicians feet to the fire by registering to vote and demanding that they look out for our interests not the fat cats. You can do the same today. The 2017 election will decide whether you live under the oppressive shadow of Tory austerity or whether you live in a Britain that respects your right to have a happy and prosperous life. If you don’t register to vote, all you have done is told people like Lynton Crosby that you don’t care what happens to this country and to your future prospects. Voting against austerity is the only way you can save this country from tumbling down the rabbit hole of right wing populism. It was nice talking to you, and good luck with what you’re doing!”