Many may recognise the late Harry Leslie Smith as a kind-hearted, humorous and passionate advocate against austerity, from either seeing him speak publicly or reading one of his books.
His son John, who knew him better than anyone, confirms that what you saw with Harry is what you got.
“What people knew of Harry in public is exactly who he was at home,” John tells UniteLive after a memorial event held last week. “Gregarious, funny and committed to treating everyone equally, no matter who you were.”
While Harry’s fans may have learned from his books and speeches about the gut-wrenching poverty that he grew up with in Barnsley, where he started working to support his family from the age of seven, John says “he didn’t make much of it when I was growing up”.
“I was conscious that he had had a rough childhood but he kept it to himself. He wasn’t bitter about it – he just knew that no one, neither his children nor anyone in society, should have to live through what he did.”
Harry, a close friend and ally of Unite who passed in November, first came to prominence in the UK when he delivered an electrifying speech in 2014 to the Labour Party Conference, where he warned a packed hall of the need to protect the NHS and wider welfare state.
“I was very nervous for him before the speech because it was the biggest audience he’d ever had,” John recalls. “But then again, he was waiting his entire life to give that speech – it was basically composed in 1930. He was able to talk to the nation – to say with deep conviction after a childhood spent in abject poverty that the welfare state was worth fighting for. Maybe I’m biased, but I personally consider it one of the greatest political speeches from an ordinary person ever written.”
Harry’s propulsion to fame is an unlikely story – and one that may never have happened had it not been for great personal tragedy.
In 2009, Harry’s son Peter, John’s older brother, died at only fifty years old – just a decade before, Harry’s lifelong companion and wife Friede had also passed.
“No parent should ever have to bury their children,” John says.
“I was really worried about my dad after Peter’s death – he became pained and withdrawn. It was an especially great blow to him since my father was his carer. Even though of course he had nothing to do with Peter’s death, part of him wrongly blamed himself, as any parent might when their children die before them.”
That’s when John pushed Harry to write – to document the remarkable life he had lived. And the rest, as they say, is history. His first book, Love Among the Ruins, told of how he first met his wife Friede when he was stationed in occupied Hamburg.
From that book came one after another, as the pain of Peter’s death and the increasing injustices he witnessed around him spurred him on.
Harry’s Last Stand
The indomitable nonagenarian’s fury coalesced into the bestseller Harry’s Last Stand, which inspired readers to defend a welfare state that Harry’s generation, whose experiences were forged in the fire of poverty and war, fought so hard to create.
“Harry’s Last Stand was born of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath,” John explained. “My dad became increasingly angry and frustrated that ordinary people were paying, through austerity, for the mistakes of the rich. He was infuriated that we were basically living the 1930s all over again.”
After the publication of Harry’s Last Stand, Harry travelled throughout the UK giving speeches during the long campaign prior to the 2015 general election.
“This was when I realised that my dad had unlimited reserves of energy,” John says, laughing. “It reinforced for me that he was in a way immortal. I was exhausted after the hours of time we spent travelling and it didn’t seem to faze him one bit.”
What also surprised John about Harry, he said, was his uncanny ability to connect with and inspire people of all backgrounds.
“He really could talk to just about anybody – even total strangers would be drawn to him as he gave them this semblance of hope, convincing them to carry on their political and personal battles.”
‘Trade unionism was everything’
For Harry, trade unions were more than simply a collection of working people fighting for better pay terms and conditions.
“Trade unionism was everything to Harry. It was ingrained in him from a very young age,” John explains. “I think it speaks volumes that two of his first memories – ones that he could remember with absolute clarity – are the death of his sister from tuberculosis, and joining his father on a picket line during the 1926 general strike.
“For Harry, there were two things he believed that everyone should do as part of a democracy – vote and be part of a trade union. For him, trade unions were the one great bulwark that protected social democracy. Without them, we are forced to compete in an unfair world.”
So what can trade unionists learn from Harry’s legacy? For John, it’s about reaching out to people the way Harry did.
“Harry’s ability to connect with people is what I think trade unions can most learn from – to convince people about the massive benefits of trade unionism and to rally people around our common goals.”
This innate talent of Harry’s to connect with anyone served him well in his final years through his work with refugees that his son John is now carrying on. John is now aiming to complete Harry’s latest unfinished book about the refugee crisis and is spending time at refugee camps in Calais.
John has also begun his own memoir about the last ten years he spent with the man several decades his senior whose unwavering spirit always kept him on his toes.
“As much as I miss my dad, it brings me great comfort to know that through the work he did, he’s got a chance at an afterlife – through his message that’s resonated with so many people, he will live on.”
Find out more about Harry and the work John is now doing on Twitter @HarrysLastStand