Harry Leslie Smith, a political activist who has worked with Unite and the wider Labour movement on various campaigns – most recently in getting out the vote at the last general election – celebrated his 93rd birthday today (February 25).
Harry knows more than anyone the value of our welfare state – that’s because he vividly recalls what life was like before it even existed.
Before the creation of the National Health Service, Smith, who was born in Barnsley to a destitute mining family, had to suffer the loss of his sister. She contracted tuberculosis and died in a workhouse infirmary at the age of 10 because their family could not afford medical treatment. She was buried in a pit because they could not afford a proper burial.
Poverty blighted Harry’s life and the lives of so many others before the Second World War. But once the war was over, after witnessing years of carnage and destitution both at home and abroad, Harry’s generation decided that they had had enough. And that’s when, in 1945, the welfare state was born.
Harry experienced a complete change in fortunes thanks to this very welfare state — the poverty he had known as a child would not follow him into adulthood. After serving as an RAF pilot during the Second World War, he returned to Yorkshire with his German wife. He worked various jobs, bought a home, and raised a family of four boys. He eventually emigrated to Canada, where he worked in the oriental carpet trade.
After retiring, Harry saw that the great state his generation had built was beginning to crumble as the financial crisis sent shock waves throughout the world, and — just as with the Great Depression of the 1930s — governments were doing little to help ordinary people.
Witnessing history repeating itself inspired Harry to begin writing his memoirs, Harry’s Last Stand, published in 2014. In the bestselling book, he uses his life experience as testimony to why we must stand up and fight for social institutions such as the NHS.
Harry has campaigned with Unite passionately as the Tory government seeks to destroy the all of these institutions we hold dear, and we wish him a very happy birthday as he continues his activism in support of our movement.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said, “Have a very happy birthday today Harry. Your work has inspired millions – warning us of the true cost of austerity and why we must all unite to defeat this threat to our jobs, our lives, our communities, our very futures. You have given us hope – and that’s the one thing that no-one, not even this Conservative government can take from our hearts. Thank you.”