Unite paid tribute to the late Harry Leslie Smith, RAF veteran, author and anti-austerity activist, at a memorial event called Remembering a Rebel, held at Conway Hall in central London last night (February 12).
Harry, who passed last November at the age of 95, first took Britain by storm when he delivered an electrifying speech to the Labour Party conference in 2014 in which he told his story of growing up in poverty in Barnsley before the NHS was created.
Through his experiences at home and later as an RAF pilot where he witnessed the carnage of the Second World War, he became a staunch defender of the welfare state in an age of austerity.
Speaking at the memorial event last night, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said that when he first heard Harry speak at the Labour Party conference five years ago, he “felt a surge of energy”.
“Here was a man in his tenth decade, sent from the past to warn us about our future,” Len recalled. “Here was a man with something to say. His voice was frail but his message was mighty.
“He reminded us never, ever to stop being in awe of what Labour’s post-war government had put in place – the NHS, the education act, homes fit for heroes, legal aid, public ownership of our common resources. And that we, the people, had had a revolution.”
Len noted that Harry’s warning that “the political elite would once again conspire to make us pay for their catastrophic errors” was in the end prophetically right.
“In every shop doorway and at every foodbank we see the consequences of mindless austerity, every one of our struggling fellow humans stands testimony to the failings of a rancid political elite,” he said.
“Those who have a hand in today’s manufactured tide of human misery are no different to those who sent children to the workhouse in the Great Depression but still slept soundly in their feathered beds at night.”
Len called Harry “a man of honour”, one who “backed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 and rallied in defence of him as the right-wing malcontents endeavoured to unseat him in 2016.
“But I like to think that it wasn’t just honour that motivated Harry’s enduring support for Jeremy’s Labour party,” he added.
“I think that Harry saw in Jeremy’s programme a determination to deliver a better country, the determination he saw in Labour in 1945 when they had to rebuild a ruined nation.
“He knew we needed another revolution.”
Len quoted Harry who once said ‘I am not a historian but I am history and I fear its repetition.’
But Unite’s leader agreed with Harry when he said that it doesn’t have to be this way – “We can do better than be destined to repeat our history as tragedy,” Len said. “We have choices.”
“We can choose to seek a better future,” he added. “We can choose to break with the failures of past politics. We can choose not to look the other way when our fellow humans are suffering, be they refugees or children going hungry to school.
“We can choose to speak out against injustice,” Len told a packed hall. “We can today, each and every one of us in this room, choose to stand with Harry.”
He urged the audience to, like Harry once said, “keep buggering on”.
“With him gone, we must commit to continuing to do the same, celebrating the relentless spirit of this incredible man by committing to carrying on his work,” Len concluded to thundering applause. “Harry was a giant.”
- Pic by Mark Thomas