Harry Leslie Smith, ‘world’s oldest rebel’, dies aged 95

Fierce vocal critic of austerity and defender of social democracy did not start writing till later in life

Harry Leslie Smith: vocal critic of austerity, has died aged 95. Photograph: Icon Books

Harry Leslie Smith: vocal critic of austerity, has died aged 95. Photograph: Icon Books

 

Harry Leslie Smith, the political commentator and second World War veteran who survived the Great Depression, has died in Canada aged 95, his family said.

Smith became an outspoken activist for the poor in his latter years, fighting for the preservation of social democracy.

He who rose to fame in 2014 after giving a powerful speech at the UK Labour Party’s convention and documented his fight for social justice in a podcast called Harry’s Last Stand. He had been hospitalised in Belleville, Ontario, after a fall last week.

He was the author of several books about Britain during the depression, the war and postwar austerity, including Harry’s Last Stand, Love Among the Ruins and Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.

He was prolific on Twitter, using the handle @harryslaststand to get his message out via his 221,000 followers.

His son Johnannounced his father’s death on the account. “At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan. #istandwithharry,” the post read.

Already in his 90s, he devoted his last years to highlighting the plight of refugees, visiting refugee camps in Europe. He wanted, he explained, to “document this preventable tragedy”. A video essay he made on the refugee crisis has been viewed more than two million times.

Smith, from Barnsley, Yorkshire, was the son of a coal miner. He grew up in poverty after his father became unemployed. His sister Marion died of tuberculosis. Aged just seven and with a job as a barrow-boy for a beer bottler in Bradford, Smith was supporting his entire family. His family moved frequently, and he spent time sleeping in workhouses.

He joined the RAF, subsequently spending several years in Germany as part of the allied occupation force. While there, he met his future wife, Friede.

After he was demobilised, he worked at several jobs in Yorkshire, before the couple emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, living first in Toronto and later in Belleville, Ontario. The couple had three sons. There, Smith established a career in the oriental carpet trade.

After the death of his wife, he started to write.

He attracted attention when he wrote in 2013 how he would not wear a Remembrance poppy in future because he felt that the symbol was being used to promote present-day conflicts.

Smith contributed to several publications, and made a number of public appearances, including at the 2014 Labour party conference in Manchester, where he spoke in support of the NHS. In 2015 he launched a “Stand up for Progress” national tour.

Explaining his mission to write, he once said: “In 2008, the world’s economies crashed. And the following year, my middle son, Peter, died at the age of 50. By 2010 my grief was uncontrollable and I knew that only way I could expiate it was through writing about my early life – in a book and also on social media. I needed to let people know that the economic and political storms coming our way, I’d seen them before.”

Describing his motivation, he wrote: “I am one of the last few remaining voices left from a generation of men and women who built a better society for our children and grandchildren out of the horrors of the second World War, as well as the hunger of the Great Depression.

“Sadly, that world my generation helped build on a foundation of decency and fair play is being swept away by neoliberalism and the greed of the 1%, which has brought discord around the globe. Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.”

He divided his time between his Yorkshire and Canada. – Guardian