In Depth

Harry Leslie Smith: left-wing activist dies aged 95

Admirers of tireless anti-austerity campaigner flood Twitter with #IStandWithHarry hashtag

Veteran left-wing firebrand Harry Leslie Smith has died at the age of 95, a week after he was taken seriously ill in Canada.

The anti-austerity campaigner was admitted to hospital in Ontario last week “not in a good way”, according to his son John, who took control of Smith’s active Twitter account to keep his father’s admirers updated.

John returned to the platform today to share the sad news that Smith had passed away:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was among those tweeting their condolences, as fans flooded Twitter with the hashtag #IStandWithHarry.

The nonagenarian had become something of a social media sensation in recent years for his outspoken defence of refugees, the NHS and the welfare state, often drawing upon his childhood during the Great Depression for inspiration.

Born in Barnsley in 1923, Smith grew up in poverty, which he documented in a series of vivid columns for The Guardian.

“Considering the hunger, the turmoil and the squalor in Britain during the early years of the 20th century, it was miraculous that I lived to see my third birthday,” he wrote in one.

The family had no money to pay for medical care, and Smith’s older sister Marion died of tuberculosis in a workhouse infirmary, an event that underpinned his fierce devotion to the NHS.

During the Second World War, Smith served as a radio operator in the RAF, and met his wife Friede while posted in occupied Germany. The couple later emigrated to Canada, where they had three sons.

Smith spent his working life in the oriental carpet business; but after his retirement and the death of his wife in 1999, he began writing memoirs and social history.

A lifelong socialist, he said the 2008 financial crisis prompted him to take a “last stand” to push back against the excesses of capitalism and defend a welfare state he saw as coming under threat from post-crash austerity.

Smith’s evocative writing and eyewitness perspective on nine decades of British social history made him a sought-after commentator and speaker.

In 2014, his recollections of the fragility of life before the NHS “brought an audience of 7,000 at a Labour Party conference to tears... and received two standing ovations”, The Toronto Star reported.

Still energetic in his tenth decade, Smith also turned his attention to the plight of migrants, visiting the Calais Jungle refugee camp last year. His lively Twitter account also has 237,000 followers.

“As long as there is breath in my body, I will protest through writing, social media and speaking about the cruelty of austerity as I saw what it did to my generation in the Great Depression,” he told the Daily Record.

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