Harry Leslie Smith

The proud NHS and anti-austerity campaigner dies at the age of 95

28th November 2018

Harry Leslie Smith, who died this morning aged 95, was a writer and political activist. As a survivor of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran, he actively campaigned in support of accessible public healthcare, social democracy, poverty awareness and refugee welcoming.

Born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Smith grew up in absolute poverty and saw the tragedy of not being able to afford medical care through his own eyes, losing his sister to tuberculosis. He became largely well known after giving a speech at the 2014 Labour Party Conference, in which he vividly described his memories of the people he knew dying because they couldn’t afford care or medicines. In this speech, Smith said he clearly remembered the first time he ever cast a vote. Aged 22, in 1945, right after the war had ended, he believed he could finally make a difference by voting for Labour and the creation of the NHS.

In 1941, Smith joined the RAF and served for several years in Hamburg, Germany, where he met the woman who later became his wife, Friede. They grew their relationship in the most complicated of environments, as he described in his book Love Among the Ruins: A Memoir of Life and Love in Hamburg, 1945. He was a British soldier, she was “the enemy”. They had to keep their love secret and live under the constant fear of losing each other to the bombs.

Love Among the Ruins is one of Smith’s best-known works, named most important non-fiction international book of 2015 by Newsweek. It paints a picture of middle-of-war Europe, while describing the reality of a human relationship through personal memories.

Smith fought to raise awareness on the issues he witnessed his whole life: as a child, as a war veteran, as a citizen of modern society. He began writing after his wife passed away in 1999, turning his life memories into a lesson for today’s world. In his five published books, he described the reality of Britain during the Great Depression, the second world war and the following post-war austerity. His focus was always on trying to shed a light on what people went through during such times, in an effort to warn new generations on the dangers of certain ideologies.

Smith left Europe in the Fifties, moving to Canada with his wife and their three sons, but never forgot where he came from. He then became a regular columnist and political commentator for the Guardian, and wrote for several other publications. In his pieces, he often questioned the current state of democracy, asking himself if all of the people that had died for it during the war would be proud of its state today.

In his own words: “It has been almost 70 years since the guns of the second world war fell silent, and I am no longer sure if the dead would agree that their lives were worth the price of today’s society.”

In his work, Smith was extremely vocal about the British government’s position on weapons and conflict, as well as his ideas about the isolation Brexit would bring about.

In 2013, in an opinion piece he wrote for the Guardian, Smith said he refused to keep wearing the Remembrance poppy because it was being used as a justification to support current armed conflicts. He said he would no longer allow his “obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy”.

He often questioned whether our society was doing enough to preserve those values men who fought in wars sacrificed their lives for. Most of the time, the answer was no. They probably wouldn’t think Nazism would still be a thing in 2018. And rightfully so. That’s why in his activism, Smith often held harsh positions towards whoever was not doing enough to maintain a democratic society striving to guarantee equal rights for everyone, a good education, healthcare and housing.

As an author and a columnist, Smith tried to show that the horrors he witnessed as a young soldier in Germany are not at all distant from what’s going on in the world today. The generation that lived through the war thought we would have lived in a society in which everyone can be treated as a human deserving of dignity by now. It’s not only that we’re not quite there yet, but what has been built so far is threatened to be torn down.

He stressed that there can’t be a democratic society if there isn’t a stable welfare state, if the government can’t guarantee a decent life to its citizens and provide care for those who need it.

In his activism, Smith always clearly stated he stood with refugees of any war, and strongly spoke out about those who didn’t. He was also staunch critic of Donald Trump, who he believed personifies the careless, self-absorbed and ruthless ideology he fought against his whole life, justifying a system that only cares about its citizens if they fit in certain boxes.

His later years were devoted to sharing the message from his 2014 speech at the Labour Party conference: “Today we must be vigilant, we must be vocal. We must demand that the NHS will always remain an institution for the people and by the people. We must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do, your future will be my past. I am not a politician, a member of the elite or a financial guru, but my life is your history and we should keep it that way.”

His wife Friede died in 1999 and his middle son, Peter, died in 2009. Smith is survived by his son John.

Harry Leslie Smith, writer and campaigner, born 25 February 1923, died 28 November 2018.

28th November 2018