‘World’s oldest rebel’ championed the NHS
HARRY Leslie Smith wrote in 2014 that old age was a “lonely race towards death” but that he hoped to have “time for a few more laps around the track”.
And in the four years between those words and the death of “the world’s oldest rebel”, he visited the Jungle camp in Calais as part of a tour of refugee hotspots around the world, and fervently campaigned for migrant rights and the welfare state in person and online.
Mr Smith, a survivor of the Great Depression and Second World War, rose to prominence in 2013 after penning an article for the Guardian declaring that he would no longer wear a poppy, saying “the solemnity of remembrance” has been twisted into a justification for conflict.
From there, he spent the “eventide” of his life championing human rights and the welfare state, appearing at the Labour Party Conference in 2014 to speak about life in Britain before the NHS. The coal miner’s son spoke of the “barbarous” and “bleak” time of growing up in 1920s Barnsley, saying “it was an uncivilised time because public healthcare didn’t exist”, before warning that “we must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past”.
Yorkshire-born Smith suffered the loss of his sister Marion at the age of three from tuberculosis and would go on to support his family aged seven when he took up work as a barrow boy in Bradford.
Following a sporadic education, he worked for a grocer until the outbreak of the war, when he signed up to the Royal Air Force in 1941 and spent time in Germany, where he met his future wife, Friede, with the couple later emigrating to Canada, where he worked in the oriental carpet trade.
Past experiences shaped Mr Smith’s world view, with recollections of seeing thousands of “absolutely pitiful, hungry, starving” men, women and children following the cessation of hostilities in the Second World War leading to a sympathetic view of refugees.
It was the death of his wife in 1999 which led Mr Smith to console himself with writing, and the financial crisis of 2008 prompted him to take a “last stand” against what he saw as excesses of capitalism and erosion of public services.
He became a sought-after commentator, writing for national newspapers from his left-wing perspective and his book, Harry’s Last Stand, was released to critical acclaim in 2014.
His later years saw him move to more modern methods of conveying his message, as he became an avid user of Twitter and would regularly share his views on social justice to more than 200,000 followers.
Writing in 2014, he said: “It shouldn’t be considered odd that someone from my era is using Twitter, because it was my generation that invented radar and rocket science.”
Mr Smith wrote in a Guardian column in 2017 of feeling as if he had been living on “borrowed time” since birth, but said there was “wisdom and beauty that could be mined from the memories of those in the sunset of life”.
Writing that old age should not be “derided, disrespected or feared”, he said: “I survived both the Depression and the Second World War. Even in advanced old age, because I walked free of those two events, I feel like a man who beat all the odds in a high-stakes casino. It’s why I’ve embraced each season of my life with both joy and wonderment because I know our time on Earth is a brief interlude between non-existence.”
Harry Leslie Smith leaves the stage at the LabourParty conference to a standing ovation in 2014