Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Harry's Last Stand

Harry Leslie Smith and the organisers of the Bradford Literature Festival, Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi

Inspirational speaker

At Bradford Literature Festival on Monday 23rd May I was privileged to see, hear and shake the hand of Harry Leslie Smith, born in 1923, RAF veteran of World War II, carpet designer and importer and, in modern times, a campaigner for social justice. Harry attracted international attention following a speech at the 2014 Labour Conference which you can see and hear by clicking on the youtube link here.
Harry signs books after reminiscing about the UK before World War II

 Worried about The Divide
Like many, Harry is worried about the division between the top few % and the massive majority in terms of access to opportunities and a 21st century standard of living. He has an authoritative and historical perspective on what life in Britain was like in the 1920s and 1930s. Harry sees the Clement Atlee government’s achievements (1945 – 51) as too important to sacrifice to Thatcherite/Blairite politics that he describes, memorably, as “capitalism metastasised by greed.”

Harry stays positive because he believes that true democracy will find a way forward. I learned that he thought the UK would be better off staying inside Europe in the longer term (for global humanitarian-historical reasons) and that he thought Jeremy Corbyn’s presence on the scene could signal a new style of politics, if only the media and Blairite-disciples would listen and contemplate history’s darkest corners to see there is another way of organising society. Cameron and co are, Harry worries, leading us back to the society of the 1920s and 1930s – maybe our nostalgic obsession with Downton Abbey feeds into this narrative and why the series had to stop before we witnessed the Crawley family diversifying into the financial industry and the house being sold to the National Trust.


Harry is furious with people who boast that they don’t vote (or adults who shockingly have never voted.) The ruling elite (whether left or right, Labour or Conservative) who enjoy lining their own pockets rely on a low turnout and want the majority of adults to remain passive, which they do, largely through being (mistakenly) convinced it makes no difference. Harry believes that we get the politics we vote for but unfortunately he thinks that many post-Thatcher politicians are feathering their own nests before fighting for what’s best for the country. So his message is simple: vote. Vote every time. Try to understand the issues before you vote. Think through the consequence of the decision for which you opt. Don’t believe everything you read. Read the other side. Beware of spin. Beware of vested interests. But vote. Whatever you do, vote! I agree, Harry.

“I am history and I fear its repetition.”

Few, if any, modern politicians can boast direct memories of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s and a decreasingly small number of people have memories of being adults who participated in the post-war reconstruction of Europe 1945 – 1955. Harry is one of those men. He spoke:
  • vividly about the gnawing poverty his family experienced (scavenging in the bins of the Midland Hotel in Bradford for food)
  • movingly about how his father had to move to a doss house after losing his job so Harry’s mother could enlist an employed pig farmer to be her new partner (to feed her children)
  • poignantly about his astonishment (during his WWII tour of duty) when he realised the governments on the continent (for example, in Belgium and the Netherlands) had prioritised affordable and civilised accommodation for poorer people prior to war breaking out
  • powerfully about his current fears for the welfare and education systems in Britain and the NHS in particular, worrying that they are being subjected to a market force philosophy which does not fit with their original concept
Were we kinder and more welcoming to refugees when the country was poorer?

Barbed with the thorns of a refugee crisis

The above subheading is not about today’s refugee crisis – it’s from an essay Harry wrote in The New Statesman about his memories of post-war Europe and how he was being reminded of it on a visit to the refugee camp in Calais:
The armistice was barbed with the thorns of a refugee crisis, with more than 20 million people swept away from their homelands because of the fighting, the threat of reprisals from foreign armies and the prospect of starvation. Seventy years on, I can recall with vivid clarity how the crisis flowed across Europe like a tidal surge of despair. I caught my first sight of the refugees from the back of an army truck: hundreds of civilians with cardboard suitcases, walking wearily beside the road. Some had fled the Soviet or German armies. Others were former slave labourers – desperately thin and wearing tattered prison uniforms and workers’ clogs – traipsing back towards the land of their birth or to a displaced persons’ camp. All were homeless, many were stateless, and each face I glimpsed seemed to carry an expression of terror.
It's easy to forget camps like Calais have happened before....
Moral, political and human responsibility
…..Exploring the (modern-day “Jungle” in Calais) camp, I eventually met a young South Sudanese man who told me about his journey to Europe. With dignity, he explained that he had left his country not for money, education or better clothes, but to escape death in civil war. In so many ways, he reminded me of my best friend, who had fled Poland to avoid being enslaved by the Nazis in 1939. Like the South Sudanese young man, my friend walked through many countries before he reached Britain in 1940.
….Before I left, I watched a young boy aged around 11, an orphan, kicking a football and laughing. Will he have the opportunity to live long enough to talk about his turbulent youth and the greatest refugee crisis to strike Europe since the Second World War?
     The world has changed since I was young. It has not grown harder: just more foolish and selfish. I have seen camps like the Jungle before – at the end of the war. But back then, there was a desire among ordinary citizens and their leaders to alleviate the plight of refugees. Today, it is different. The common will to do good, or at least maintain a decent society for all, has vanished. Our politicians – and we, the ordinary people – are ignoring our moral, political and human responsibility to be our brothers’ keepers. In the end, the only thing that separates us from those who live in the Jungle is luck – and any gambler will tell you that this can change at the turn of a card.