Standing up for social democracy: Harry Leslie Smith’s odyssey

Laurel Collins Listens to Harry Leslie Smith

Laurel Collins Listens to Harry Leslie Smith

Last Thursday, I attended a lecture, sponsored by the Broadbent Institute, featuring 92-year-old social justice champion Harry Leslie Smith.

Smith was born and raised in Yorkshire, England, where the privations of the Great Depression and discrimination of the British class system reduced his family to penury. His father, a coal miner, suffered the indignity of unemployment and inability to support his family — a shame that contributed to his death.

In his book, Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down, and What We Can Do to Save It, Smith gives a very personal account of those childhood days, when his walk to school was beset by hunger pains. Poverty and tuberculosis left his his older sister Marion to die at 10 in a pauper’s workhouse, while his mother struggled to raise her surviving children. He recounts the horrors of war against Hitler, both the sacrifice of those like himself who left home to join the fight, and civilians, British and German, who suffered the brutal results of fascism.

I was honoured to meet Harry after the lecture and make his portrait. He reminded me of my kind paternal grandfather who died a couple of decades ago, at 93. He too had suffered privation, ill health and unemployment. His immaculately-tended garden filled the stew pot well into his dotage. My father, recently deceased at 84, had many stories of hardship: bread and “drippin” (rendered fat) for supper, and inadequate clothing. My mother tells similar tales of food rationing. Memories of dragging sacks of coal through winter snowdrifts are frozen in time. Her father was no stranger to the humiliation of joblessness.

Those times of want were perhaps the foundation of a disposition shared by my parent’s extended family: a fierce pride in their work.

The development in post-war England of the social welfare state was the remedy to these miseries. Despite the burden of war debt and infrastructure devastated by Nazi bombing, the English people united against inequality.

Growing up on one of the English council estates built during post-war reconstruction, I certainly benefitted from the social welfare project: through a public school system at once tyrannical by today’s measures and irreproachable in terms of its academic standards. The universal National Health Service, established in 1948 under the Labour government of Clement Attlee — whom Harry Smith voted for in his first election — tended my childhood injuries and illnesses.

At the same time, reminders of the recent calamity were as close by as the corrugated steel Anderson air-raid shelters — some converted to tool sheds, others still half-buried — in grandparent’s gardens. Dark, half-flooded concrete bunkers on the grounds of derelict factories were the scene of childhood dares and scares. Some of my less-fortunate friends still lived in ancient mould-infested tenements. Were it not for the hearty school lunch program, they would have been as hungry as young Harry Smith.

We were comfortable, but not wealthy. My father’s “second career” as an entertainer, often at working men’s clubs, supplemented his modest wage from a dangerous boiler factory job. My mother often worked long hours at everything from canteen waitressing to forklift driver. Still, working class families like mine often did without luxuries like telephones and refrigerators. I remember running to the corner pay phone to call the midwife when my mother went into labour with my brother. Shopping at the local butcher or greengrocer was a daily event, so a fridge was not an absolute necessity.

Like Smith, who emigrated with his late wife, Friede, in 1953, my family was attracted to Canada, the “land of opportunity,” where a vibrant mixed economy also provided a publicly funded health care system (likewise championed by Canada’s social democrats) and accessible, well-paid labour enabled a humble factory-worker to put a down-payment on a house and enjoy a relatively secure middle-class life. We could afford a phone and fridge.

All this, Smith laments, is under attack, and the erosion of the social welfare state, built by his generation, is hard to miss by anyone who grew up in its shelter. Inequality is on the rise, along with homelessness and food banks, while wealthy corporations, abetted by their government courtiers, shirk their social responsibilities while preaching austerity for the rest of society.

Hence, the lad from Yorkshire has forsaken retirement to campaign in support of an idea as old as civilization: A society flourishes to the degree that its benefits are equitably distributed.

His cross-Canada tour continues, with stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Halifax. I have added his portrait to my Faces of Resistance gallery.

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