Harry’s Last Stand

A REVIEW OF HARRY’S LAST STAND

Harry’s Last Stand: How The World My Generation Built Is Falling Down And What We Can Do To Save It (2014) was written by Harry Leslie Smith (1923 – ).

Harry Leslie Smith was born in Barnsley in 1923, growing up in Barnsley and Bradford. His father had been a miner, but when Smith senior lost his job, his family was plunged into abject poverty, being forced to live in a doss-house. Harry “became an adult at seven”, becoming a beggar boy with a rag-and-bone man and then finding employment as a beer barrow boy. Smith saw his family as one that was perched on the lowest rung of the social ladder – the slum-living working poor of a nation that was “stratified and defined by an exacting social class caste system.”

Smith witnessed poverty and tragedy, his sister Marion perishing from tuberculosis in 1926 and spending her final days in a workhouse infirmary, “the last stop for many people who were too poor to pay for a doctor or proper hospital care.” She was buried in an unmarked grave.

Smith senior’s work in mining is discussed, “a cruel, profit-driven industry that had no compassion for its workers,” and the dangers and diseases associated with the job. The miners’ morale-sapping defeat in the General Strike, the elder Smith’s enforced retirement through a hernia – and the family’s consequent near-starvation – are also highlighted. His wife’s rebukes – borne of frustration and their social situation, but nevertheless cruel – offered little comfort. Smith senior died, penniless and heartbroken, in 1929, his wife already having begun to look around for a replacement bread-winner, and taking up with a pig man named Bill.

The author joined the RAF at 22, witnessing the horrors of Nazism and observing the hunger and poverty of ordinary Germans as his unit moved from Holland to Germany. He stayed on with the RAF, following the War, in order to help with reconstruction in Germany.

He rejoices in recalling the 1945 General Election and the arrival of a Labour government that adhered to socialist principles, creating a welfare state and a much-needed house-building plan. We are also reminded of life before corporate greed spawned irresponsible capitalism: “In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, governments co-operated with business to enhance the prosperity of the nation. However, unlike today, it was under the premise that everyone must share in our country’s success.”

In 1947, Smith married Friede, a German woman from Hamburg. They were together until her death in 1999. Smith secured a good job with a UK carpet manufacturer, allowing him to travel the world and achieve middle-class social status. He continued to educate himself through extensive reading.

Harry triggered a furore in November, 2013 by announcing in an article for the Guardian newspaper that he would wear a poppy for the last time, sparking a robust debate on Facebook and elsewhere. The reason? “I am no longer certain that the sacrifice my generation paid with their blood was worth the cost.” Smith paints a picture of a country that has surrendered its liberal values to “corporatism without conscience” and rampant consumerism; a society that is content to embrace an “every man for himself” philosophy.

Smith excoriates governments that “are in lock-step with big business”, thereby betraying the post World War II Labour government’s vision of an equitable society supported by the pillars of the welfare state. He rails against the evils of corporate tax avoidance by such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks and Apple, payday loan sharks, greedy banks, zero hours contracts and a UK government minister (Iain Duncan Smith) who claims he could live on a welfare handout of £53 a week when “300,000 citizens need to use food banks.”

Commendably, Smith does not offer a jaundiced, Old Labour view, and he is not afraid to castigate the “ill-advised” Left for its failures of the 1970s: the weak Labour governments who couldn’t stabilise the nation’s finances or control the chaos of industrial action. He also criticises the Left’s refusal to accept that capitalism “does produce benefits to the individual and society at large if properly controlled and cultivated.” Trade unions come in for a degree of criticism – notwithstanding Smith’s support of co-operation – so that no-one can assert that this is a one-eyed rant blaming capitalism as the root of all evil. The author’s stance on the divisive issue of Europe is also open-minded and balanced, being driven by our need to ask the right questions about Europe rather than react as xenophobes, UKIP and mainstream parties have done.

The parlous state of the nation is blamed on a wide range of other factors, notably the baneful impact of the Thatcher government, Margaret’s insistence that “there is no society” and the consumerism-worship of modern Britain that has impaired our ability to care about anyone else’s economic fortunes beyond our own. Smith palpably sees Tony Blair’s New Labour as an agency that continued Thatcher’s work in creating a canyon-wide gap between the rich and the poor.

Smith is not above using colloquialisms to reinforce his opinions. “Ministers,” he spits, “speak as if the entire working and middle class have been on the piss for the past twenty years.”

Like other left-wing writers, such as Robert Tressell and Owen Jones, Smith is not above emotionalism, and in his introduction, he admits that some of his arguments may not be watertight. However, at his age, he has the right to interpret history as he has seen it and to evince passion and even a little wrong-headedness borne of frustration. Smith is a self-educated bloke of working class stock who conveys much humanity in disparaging governments, banks and tax-dodging capitalists.

The title of the book suggests that Smith has answers to society’s present-day ills. These include the replacement of the present first-past-the-post voting system with a more representative system that guarantees that seats in government are determined by votes cast. He also advocates that the cronyism that exists between government and business be addressed, in the interest of promoting environmental protection – he is evidently anti-fracking – human rights and democracy. He adds, “We must remember the City is not the nation.”

Mervyn Edwards

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