Book Review: Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that I don’t always read books that are particularly new or up-to-date. It’s rare indeed for me to ever pick something off a shelf above which hangs a sign called “New Releases”. Yet I went out and bought this in the week it was released (even if it has taken a few months to get round to it). Why was this so?

Like so many, I had not heard of Harry Leslie Smith this time last year. Though he has written a few previous books, I think it’s fair to say that he was not a household name. That changed with an article he wrote for The Guardian just prior to Remembrance Sunday. The quality of the opinion articles in that particular newspaper are of a variable quality, but that one stood out above the others as erudite, informed and highly emotive. Harry has followed this up with subsequent articles. It was the hope of finding more of the same that motivated me to get a closer look at Harry, his life and his take on the modern world.

One cannot escape from a theme in the book that Harry is in his twilight years. Yet age has not withered him, nor has time robbed him of his senses. Harry presents us with two books in one, but two that are intertwined. He gives us his autobiography, taking us from his working class upbringing in Yorkshire during the Great Depression, the death of his sister from tuberculosis in a workhouse, the divorce of his parents, life during the Second World War and the hopes that came after as the country was rebuilt following that devastation. The other book he gives us is an extended opinion piece on recent and current political and social affairs. This latter aspect makes it very much a book of “now”. I don’t know what the outcome of the 2015 general election will be, but it seems likely that there will be some change from the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. As such, the searing invective against the coalition may become dated fairly quickly. In fact, I hope it will. I think Harry would hope that it will too.

The back cover states “I am not a historian, but at 91 I am history, and I fear its repetition.”  Harry’s Last Stand is then very much a work of prophecy. That is not to say it predicts the future, but rather Harry has learned from the past, observes the present and warns of the future.

One of the ideas that jumped to my mind as I was reading this was related to a talk that Dr Naomi Millner gave at the Greenbelt festival, where she said that testimony fills in the gaps left by more academic study. Near the start of the book, Harry states that it is quite possible that some right-wingers may choose to dismantle his arguments. As I read, I could see that if one wanted to by critical, where the gaps in Harry’s writing were. Yet this shouldn’t be read primarily alone. Harry’s is a voice of testimony that supplements the evidence which damns the coalition. There are times at which Harry’s rhetoric is a little loose and he doesn’t give careful citation to his sources, but this should not detract from the overall thrust of the argument.

At the time the welfare state was established, the country was not in good shape. We were rebuilding after the devastation of the 2nd World War, but this meant that good men and women were able to look afresh and build a society where the ravages of the depression need not be repeated. A country where people could be given the opportunity to live dignified, comfortable lives, knowing that the state would support those in need when they needed it, rather than condemning them to the poor house. It the hope of this better world was what Harry fought for. Yet our modern leaders have not heeded the lessons of the past, kowtowing to the interests of big business (in whose pies many of the cabinet have their fingers dipped), what we are witnessing is the demolition of the best of British society by Conservative ideology, the greed that it lives for and which fuels it.

Written with both great eloquence and some plain-speaking forthrightness, there is much to learn here. Yet as someone with just a third of the life experience of Harry, I cannot say I fully grasp the depths of misery that his family endured during the 1930s. I hope I never understand them. As today’s political elite become tomorrow’s has-beens it will be someone from my generation that take the helm. Whatever their political leanings, it would be my hope that they are not ignorant of history. While this is not a comprehensive study, it fills in with humanity what is left out of the academic tomes.

The book ends with some very practical policy ideas. I may engage with some of these in a later blog post, as I couldn’t do them justice in this short review. These include the introduction of e-voting, lowering the voting age, recording spoiled ballots and advocating a change away from the first past the post system.

As you’ve probably worked out, this is a very UK-centric book. While it may be of some interest to those from elsewhere in the world, this is very much for a British audience. But other than that, I cannot think of anyone within that subgroup of humanity to whom I wouldn’t recommend it. As a political polemic, it is probably the most important piece of prose produced in recent years.

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