Harry Leslie Smith - 'Don't let the mean streets of my past be our future'

From Saturday Morning, 10:34 am on 25 March 2017
Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith Photo: Supplied

As a 92-year-old, Harry Leslie Smith's moving speech at a British Labour Party conference about his own impoverished childhood and lack of healthcare became a viral sensation.

Smith is a writer, campaigner and WWII RAF veteran and at 94, he is still producing books and pushing for the preservation of Britain's National Health Service, better care for the poor and for the preservation of democracy.

His Guardian articles have been shared over 60,000 times on Facebook and his books include Harry's Last Stand (2014) and Love Among the Ruins (2015).

Smith tells RNZ's Kim Hill he has been writing for much of his life, but his work in politics didn't start until much later, in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

The fact that no-one was punished for the crimes surrounding the crash made him incredibly angry, he says.

"I began to write and to check and investigate governments as far back as I could see and I realised that somehow or other we were going downhill."

Smith says his wife of 54 years had died and the softness had gone out of his life. He felt he had to at least try and change things.

"I felt we were being taken advantage of."

Smith spent his childhood in England, travelling often as his father struggled to find work after being injured in a mining accident.

During that time, there was no such thing as healthcare for most people, he says, with hospitals and doctors only available for those who could afford them. He lost a sister to tuberculosis.

"I remember as a child… when I was playing out in the street, I would hear the screams of people screaming because they couldn't afford the medication to ease pain that they were suffering."

Those experiences shaped his campaign later in life to make sure healthcare services are not privatised, he says.

"They've already started selling sections off.

"You go to hospital with a certain disease. If part of the treatment has to be done by that bought [privatised] section, then you have to pay for it or you don't get it, so we're getting back to that system… which we had as children."

While Smith says things these days are not as bad as they were then, he believes every country in the Western world is now in turmoil.

"People are unhappy, they're not making decent money and consequently they're having difficulty finding and paying for accommodations, they are finding it difficult to feed themselves properly.

"You won't believe it, but you could walk around any big city street in England and you will find thousands of people lying at the side of the pavement because they can't afford to pay the rent on a place to live.

"I keep going to the government and saying 'Why don't you get up off your arses and walk around and see what is happening to this country?"

The UK government is run by people who were educated in similar circles and they never get out of that section to see what's happening, he says.

"They're all of the same breed, the same education, they have no time to look down."

He says people voting for the UK Independence Party today believe that it will magically produce a better life for them.

"And there's no such thing."

Smith has been accused of being a pawn in the political landscape, with some claiming he didn't write the book Harry's Last Stand and that others maintain his Twitter account.

"I say fiddlesticks.

"They think because you're an old man and you came up in a time when a lot of things were not available for news.

"But when I joined the air force I had to learn all about transmitters, receivers… You never stop learning as you go along."

Smith wants other people of a similar age to start agitating, and says adult children are often partly to blame for the fact that they're not raising their voices.

"They have to feel that they're wanted, they have to feel that their children appreciate them as individuals and that they're not just dummies sitting there and waiting for the end.

"Don't push them off into some home, try to get to know them."