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Don’t let future be mean streets of my past

Harry Smith, 92, says why only Labour will end austerity grief
Harry Leslie Smith, Thursday, April 9th, 2015

harry bradford

Lonely Planet/Mirrorpix


It was in Bradford that I wounded my spirit in the Great Depression of almost 80 years ago.


For me it is a city that contains both wonder and unimaginable heartache. Yet I always return to it like a salmon to its spawning stream – because it is where my belief in the rights of the working class was born.


So, when I was asked to address the annual general meeting of the Yorkshire and Humber TUC at the Cedar Court Hotel, I was chuffed to come back to this city of my rough and ready boyhood and speak to union members.


I wanted to talk about how we must fight during this election to both preserve the social welfare network, and the gains unions have achieved for our society. This is the only way to ensure that my past doesn’t become Britain’s future.


The first time I came to Bradford was when my parents made a midnight flit from Barnsley in 1928 to escape both the bailiff and their many creditors.


My family came like so many others in the hope that they might find some economic security in the shadow of Bradford’s industry and commerce.


harry 2

Daily Mirror


But this city has always been a cruel task master to its economic migrants, and my family was dissolved like bone in an acid bath on its mean streets and in its rough slums.


Unadulterated austerity

That’s why, in my speech to the TUC, I wanted to remind them of what raw unadulterated austerity did to me along with so many others from the working class in Bradford and every other city, town and village in Britain during the Great Depression.


In many ways austerity turned my generation into a lost generation that only found its way again after the Second World War.


That’s when we demanded to live in a Britain that worked for everyone and not just the one per cent of our era. We did this by voting with our heads and our hearts for the Labour government that created the NHS, built affordable housing and made higher education accessible to all who had the merit.


I also wanted to remind these present day TUC members why it is so important for us all to fight to keep the NHS a public institution; why it is necessary to fight for fair wages for everyone, not just union members, and why we must put an end to austerity.


The answer is because Bradford, like so many other cities in Yorkshire and across our land, has a childhood poverty crisis despite our nation being the sixth richest in the world.


However, I find the only way I can explain how wrong and evil austerity has been for ordinary people is by re-living my past and talking about Britain before the NHS and the Welfare State.


So, in my speech, I took my listeners along cobblestone streets of anguish where lives like my elder sisters’ were cut short by disease and illness because their parents didn’t have the dosh to afford proper medicine or hospital care.


I talked about lives that were as grim as the shadows cast on whitewash walls from flickering gas lights because of insufficient poor relief that led to malnutrition, rickets and a lifetime of psychological trouble.


I talked about the neighbourhoods of my boyhood, where children like me were sent to work at the age of seven because their fathers couldn’t find work, with unscrupulous employers preferring cheap child labour.


In so many ways Bradford has changed since those hard times of long ago.


The slums of my boyhood where I begged for food or helped collect wood for bonfire night were all happily obliterated by the wrecking ball of progress long ago.



Yet, as a sad reminder to me of a terrible time I’d rather forget, one street from my early life remains and it hasn’t changed much in the eight decades since I first clapped eyes on it. It’s not far from Bradford’s university, but it is like a time capsule of poverty, despair, lost hopes and broken ­illusions.


The buildings on this street had once been rough doss houses for dispossessed itinerant workers, maimed soldiers from the First World War, impoverished pensioners and families like mine trying to survive on guile and luck in a time before benefits for the unemployed, the sick or the vulnerable.


My parents’ marriage collapsed on that street. My father could no longer care for his family so my mother abandoned him for another man who promised us food but not love.


Today, the inhabitants of that street look no different from the folk from my long-ago youth because they seemed to be overwhelmed by a similar type of financial despair caused by an unfeeling government.


After I finished my speech there were applause and tears in the eyes of the audience. But I didn’t feel proud.


I felt sad and angry that I, an old man of 92, has to take up arms against austerity again because the Tories would rather destroy the fabric of our nation than force their corporate party donors to pay their fair share of taxes.


But I won’t rest until we see an end to austerity and a return to a Britain that believes we all have a right to a decent life. And the first step towards that goal is by voting for a Labour government in May.


*This feature first appeared in the Daily Mirror, April 8



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