Wednesday, 8 June 2016

An Audience with Harry Leslie Smith: A Report

Organised by Reading Trades Union Council
A Report of the Evening, by John S. Partington
Harry Leslie Smith

Date & Time: 8 June 2016, 7pm-9pm
Venue: The Reading International Solidarity Centre, London St, Reading
Chair: Jan Bastable, President, Reading Trades Union Council
Jan Bastable, President of Reading Trades Union Council, with Harry Leslie Smith
As chair of the event, Jan Bastable made a few opening remarks by way of introduction. She noted that she first saw Harry Leslie Smith at a Labour Party conference fringe event two years ago and was moved to tears by Harry’s story, as were many others present. Having visited Reading a year ago, Harry was welcomed back by Jan and the floor was given over to him.
Harry thanked the audience and the Reading Trades Union Council for the invitation to speak to them. He urged all to vote in the forthcoming European Union Referendum. He asserted that austerity must be fought. During the Second World War, despite hardship and war, the nation was united – but now we are divided by a Tory-induced austerity more extreme than any time since the 1930s. From a Britain which shone like a beacon of liberty, austerity and Tory anti-trade unionism is provoking intolerance and division.
Harry declared that healthcare is the right of every citizen regardless of economic means. His sister died of tuberculosis in Barnsley in the 1930s and his father lost his job through a workplace accident. His family moved to Bradford as economic migrants. He remembers foraging through dustbins for food in the 1930s when his father could find no work. At age 7 he found work as a beer seller from a barrel in working-class areas. In 1941, aged 18, he took up the fight against the Nazis.
Following the war Harry engaged in the fight for a more equal Britain and a more liberal world through the Labour Party. But today we are returning to the blackness of the 1930s – with such things as homelessness and zero-hours contracts. David Cameron is using fear of immigration, foreigners and the poor to dismantle the welfare state. Harry ended his talk by beseeching his listeners to ‘Go out and fight for social and economic justice!’
At this stage, Jan invited questions and discussion from the floor.
One attendee asked if Harry had any tips for disabled rights campaigners, given his experience of the war and human destruction.
Harry observed that, over the last 20 years, ‘creature comforts’ have been prioritised over compassionate policies. Wealth needs taxing and loopholes closing. Houses, schools and hospitals are being neglected in favour of tax breaks.
A second questioner pointed out that we do not want another world war and asked Harry what might be the catalyst for change today.
Harry observed that the government has taken hopes for change away but it is within our power to achieve change. We need to organise big demonstrations and vote for change.
A third questioner asked Harry how we can reinstil a collective consciousness in the younger generation.
Harry urged all present to lead by example, demonstrate and support Jeremy Corbyn who he described as a ‘good man’.
A fourth questioner asked if Harry felt there was a win-win situation which would keep Britain in the EU. (I.e., a result which would oppose austerity, protect workers’ rights and keep Britain in the EU).
Harry countered critics of the EU’s anti-democratic structure by declaring the Britain is not democratic. He pointed out that citizens across the EU are people too and they must rise too. Europe-wide efforts are needed to achieve our aims. The ‘Out’ campaign needs to explain where Britain will stand in the event of ‘Brexit’. Food security is essential, but they are not clear on the subject.
A fifth questioner noted Harry’s active Twitter presence and asked if he is ever bothered by what people write to him and about him.
‘People like to talk to me; I don’t always say what I think...’, Harry replied.
A sixth questioner, while reflecting on ‘scandals around “Panamagate”, coke-snorting and anti-democratic tendencies in government’ asked: ‘should we stage a general strike?’
‘Yes’, Harry replied, we need to show the government how we feel. He also pointed out that he was in the first general strike!
A seventh questioner asked whether social media can fill the gap of print media given its fragmented nature.
Harry declared that social media is a great invention but too many people use it for ‘chit chat’. We need to utilise it, but Harry suggested we should also continue to take a printed newspaper.
The final question of the evening asked, ‘How do we overcome apathy and cynicism?’
Harry answered by stating that he does what he does because he witnessed the 2008 economic and banking crisis. We need to change laws and have a just taxation system.
Jan wrapped up the evening by thanking Harry for a delightful discussion and thanking the audience for their attendance and interaction. After events closed, many of the audience took ‘selfies’ with Harry and conversation continued for a further hour.
The audience at the Reading International Solidarity Centre
This report is merely a synopsis of issues raised and Harry’s thoughts about them. The evening was as much a discussion among the audience as it was a question-and-answer session with Harry – one representing a variety of views, but which proceeded and ended on a note of good-natured enquiry.

Reading Chronicle, 30 June 2016, p. 16