Rage, rage - Harry Smith's light burns with the heat of indignation

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 28th October 2014

Those seeking social justice have a new hero - Harry Smith, 91 and the star of the Labour Party conference. Now a best-selling author, he's determined to make some changes.

It's a long time since the party conference season resulted in anything memorable. Indeed, you probably have to go back to October 1984 and the Brighton bombing. This year was different, for a 91-year-old, white-haired Yorkshireman brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet when he recalled a Depression-era childhood of privation and ill-health, concluding with a rallying cry: "Mr Cameron, Keep your mitts off my NHS".

In a year remembered only for Freudian slips - Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit, David Cameron spoke of "resenting" the poor - Harry Smith was the real deal: authenticity in an age of artifice, a man who knew his history because he'd lived it. "Your future will be my past," he warned, urging everyone to action - at the ballot box - to prevent history from repeating itself.

Smith is a phenomenon. A diminutive man who keeps his body supple by practising tai chi and his brain active by a life of passionate engagement, he's offering what any half-decent professional politician should be offering: a prescription to restore Britain to health as well as a searing commentary on the failure of democracy. It all began about this time last year with a piece in the Guardian: "This year I will wear a poppy for the last time", because "the most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts". More than 60,000 have now read it on Facebook, enabling Smith - a British citizen who has lived in Canada since the 1940s - to launch a debate about our society that few politicians would have dared. It also led to a book, Harry's Last Stand (he's not so sure about the title), which has so far sold 19,000 copies across all formats. It's keeping him busy.

We meet in a Premier Inn a stone's throw from King's Cross, an area that would have been deeply battled-scarred when Smith, who served in the RAF, returned home after the War. It's what now passes for a typical day for him: following his 90 minutes with BookBrunch, he hoped to squeeze in 40 winks before meeting a journalist from the Guardian and then heading off for tea with Miliband. In between, he was writing the speech that he would deliver to some 100,000 souls at the Britain Needs a Pay Rise rally in Hyde Park two days later.

"I can write better than I can speak," he says, though he's no slouch on the podium, even mastering the TPT. Smith has been active in politics all his life - his father held him aloft at a rally in support of the 1926 General Strike - though it's been town hall meetings of a hundred or so up to now. Widowed since 1999 and bursting with energy and indignation, he's devoting his remaining years to the task of persuading everyone to vote and urging the powers that be that the system must change: schools must educate youngsters about democracy; 17-year-olds must get the vote; voting must be compulsory, spoiled ballot papers recorded; the revolving door between the House of Commons and City boardrooms must be closed and bolted; the creaking first-past-the-post system must be replaced by "a representative democracy" with "more voices" at the table...

Harry's Last Stand is an eloquent cri de coeur that started life as a 40-page pamphlet and just got longer. Not surprisingly, for there is much to say, and Smith - who had already chronicled his long and full life in three self-published memoirs - is very angry. "It's disgusting what they're doing now - selling off student loans, for God's sake. Students are coming out of university with a degree and £29,000 debt and all they can get is a job serving coffee. It's ridiculous. But if the young come out and revolt and cause mayhem, they'll bring the police out, and the army, and they will shoot them to death."

He clearly believes we are heading for a police state, a far cry from the freedoms his generation fought for. He talks of "the politics of fear" - so different from 1939 when Britons were told to stand tall, or indeed 1932, when FDR, in the midst of the Depression, reminded the world in his first inaugural that there was nothing to fear but "fear itself". Smith continues, reflecting on what he sees as the "co-opting" of the poppy and Remembrance Day: "What distresses me is that our leaders and men of business stand up there for the two minutes' silence and then spout about the heroism of the men who died. But these are the same bloody men who cut welfare - the very things these people died for." He objects, also, to the use of the poppy to justify recent "follies", for the Western leaders are "interested in oil and resources. They're business people and couldn't give a damn about ordinary people having a good life. It's about what money they can make out of being there."

It's not easy for the Establishment to dismiss such views when they're voiced by a man born into real poverty who gave his youth in a struggle for democracy before building a successful career and family life. A Barnsley boy, the son of a miner, Smith knew early what it's like to lose a loved one because there's no affordable healthcare: his elder sister died aged 10 of TB and was buried in a pauper's grave. He remembers too the compassion of a teacher who, on learning that young Harry had been off school for two days because he had no serviceable wet weather footwear, gave him a pair of his own shoes. "Maybe my childhood made me compassionate for the young."

Like pretty much everyone of his generation, Smith left school at 14, but he had been working since he was seven. "I guess I worked right up to going into the Air Force and, although we were at war and I knew I could be killed, I felt safer because I also knew I'd have three meals a day and I'd get paid at the end of the week." As a young serviceman he saw horrors - but also another life. "We were the lucky generation… we fought for it and we had two or three years when life was wonderful. There was no poverty. You could buy a home and raise a family." He remembers voting for the good life, casting his 1945 ballot in Hamburg for Clement Atlee, whose Labour government made real the promises of the War-time Beveridge Report, so building the post-War consensus that prevailed until Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979, at which point "a fence came down".

Harold Wilson's Labour administrations, Smith agrees, brought the nation a great deal but are now undervalued. As to Tony Blair, those years were "all squandered. That was the time when they started hiring people to do things for government that had previously been done by government. It's reached such a stage now we have nothing left to sell... Everyone seemed to be involved in corruption. No one was satisfied any more - someone could have a billion dollars and they wanted two. That crept through all society."  As for the current regime: "I get the feeling they'd like to see us back to the time of my boyhood, when people were struggling to exist but the Government was doing nothing to help them out. 'Those people down there are cattle - we just have to feed them and they'll work hard… We'll humour them.'"

Though he maintains a small cottage near Huddersfield, Smith has lived in Canada since the late 1940s, when he and his German wife emigrated, settling in Toronto, there to pursue his career as a buyer of Oriental carpets, a job that gave him the chance to travel. The couple had met in Hamburg just after the War had finished. She was selling a few possessions in order to buy food to supplement the meagre rations. "I thought: She looks fantastic - I've got to know her. So I followed her and asked if I could carry her bag. The usual thing… We started going out but you couldn't actually consort, so she had to walk in front and I behind. One thing led to another and we fell in love. I wanted to marry her there and then but it wasn't allowed." Eventually the House of Lords passed a ruling that servicemen could marry German nationals, but the process required determination. "She had to go through all sorts of embarrassing examinations by doctors and the police. It was just horrendous… I was sent to the Bishop of Hamburg… He said, 'I'm not going to say you can marry because all German women are prostitutes.' I lost my temper and walked out."

They would enjoy "50 years of wonderful life together", but the new Mrs Smith determined early on that she couldn't live in England. Her home in Hamburg had an inside loo and hot running water. In Barnsley, it was a 10-house walk to the toilets. "It amazed me that the houses in Europe were so superior to anything we had in England."

Clearly, Smith believes that Germany got it right, in so many ways - losing the War but winning the peace, to borrow a phrase. "There was an insistence that the unions were represented on boards - that way you get more fairness. And the German government made sure there was decent housing at a decent price. That's why their economy flourished, because there was no inflation…. Even before the Second World War, people were taught after they left school for a year, two years, about the business they were going to go into… So they were never short of workers because their own people were thoroughly versed in every aspect of the business. Before the War in England, we had apprenticeships from 14 onwards…It's shocking, what's been allowed to go on."

The fact that so few politicians today have led real lives, that they are "too rich and middle class", makes them, Smith believes, part of the problem not the solution. "I think it's reached the stage where governments are not for the people by the people any more. It's my personal view that the so-called government leaders are merely puppets to industrialists behind the scenes - whichever party." They are all "timid, unwilling to risk their comfortable lives. You have to be willing to sacrifice something for what you believe and I don't think they have a belief - they're just interested in the status quo." Which is why so many young people feel all is hopeless. "I want to stir up young people to get out and vote," he says, decrying Russell Brand as "irresponsible… if you have £20 million in the bank you can afford to be complacent". Someone standing up now for what they believe in could become "the finest Prime Minister, one who would go down in history". Smith allows that a challenging task lies ahead. "It's going to be difficult for anyone because the country is in such a tangle and the public won't want to wait to feel a change, yet it may take some time. Everything has been sold off. Things that previous governments ran themselves and made profits from have been sold off. All the people who have put money offshore will go offshore themselves."

And that, of course, is the crux of the matter: if everyone paid the tax they owed, no one need be scrabbling around counting the pennies from low-wage jobs and in fear of becoming ill or unemployed.

Harry Smith, at 91, is on a mission - one that now seems absurdly ambitious in our distorted world but which, half a century or ago, was a no-brainer. His goal is to create what used to be called society. As the world remembers a certain Welsh poet, it's wonderful to find a man who will not go gentle and who will rage until his last breath - which is, one hopes, many years hence.

Harry's Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built Is Falling Down and What We Can Do To Save It is published by Icon Books. Tonight, Tuesday 28 October, Harry Smith is in conversation with Owen Jones and Melissa Benn at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, at 7pm. Book here.