Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and at 90 an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the second world war and postwar austerity. The following is a transcript of an article he wrote that appeared in The Guardian.
I hope you will read it.
Above all I hope that Cameron, Osborne, Milliband, Clegg and the entire Nation read it and finally say – enough of this. We are not short of money, we just choose to spend it on the wrong things. Listen to the likes of Harry Leslie Smith, whilst their voices are still here to listen to.
“Every year, the spring rains fall hard and heavy to a parched and hungry earth. Life is reborn from the long slumber of winter. For me the beauty in this annual transformation stings as if I caught my finger on a thorn from a rose. These lengthening days remind me of another time, when I was a young man. Back then the sun’s rays were just as warm and sensuous but the splendour of nature being reborn was tainted with death. It was 1945, and Europe was still caught in the dying grasps of a cruel and unforgiving world war.
It was a conflict that consumed tens of millions of lives through military battles, air bombardment and pure and simple mass murder. For five years of war, through defeat and bitter struggle, the calendar changed from humid summers to crisp fall days, to the bitterness of winter and then back to the optimism of spring. As clocks in every household and in every town square moved forward, day by day, marking our mortal time through this struggle between good and evil, soldiers were maimed or killed on all our military fronts, convoys sunk in the cold North Atlantic, cities reduced to rubble and children left hungry orphans.
Across the world death moved, for too many years in lock step with both the season for sowing and for reaping. We were a world at war, and for those of us in Britain the cost was enormous in lost and ruined lives. But it didn’t matter because we believed that the cause was just and that, whether we came from humble or refined stock, we were all in this war together. It was that common and shared faith in ourselves and in the notion that everyone’s contribution, large or small, was important to the war effort that saw us through those dark hours. It was what kept us buggering on until our fortunes turned and the war against Nazi Germany reached its bloody end in the spring of 1945.
In those heady days leading to peace, I was just twenty-two and as green as the grass that had started to shoot up across the silenced killing fields. As I travelled from liberated Holland to the crumbling remnants of Nazi Germany, I was sure of one thing: I was a lucky man. I had what was called back then a good war and I was not disappointed by my survival. I had done my bit and I never shirked my paymaster’s orders, but I was one of the fortunate few; death had eluded me while I served in the RAF.
I felt blessed by luck because so many others – friends, neighbours, acquaintances and complete strangers – had not been so lucky. They were never going to see twenty-five or be able to put down roots and raise a family and enjoy the fruits of peace. I knew like the rest of my compatriots knew, the dead had reluctantly sacrificed their existence to preserve civilisation for the living.
Perhaps that is why even though I am now 90, I still go every spring to my local cenotaph and commune with unfamiliar names etched in stone. I read out their simple epitaphs, their age and wonder, what if these young men had lived? What would their lives have been like? Would they have found true love, happiness, a rewarding profession and had healthy children? Would they have felt content with the democracy they had fought so selflessly to preserve? It has been almost 70 years since the guns of the second world war fell silent and I am no longer sure if the dead would agree that their lives were worth the price of today’s society.
To me, this brave new world feels all wrong, out of tune with what the men and women of World War Two accomplished with our “blood, sweat and tears”. It just seems too flippant, too easy, too profane in this present world; for our politicians, our media pundits, and our industrial military complex to intone the beaches of D-Day, Sword, Juno, Gold and Omaha as if it were the catechism for freedom, when our individual and collective liberty is more at risk now than it has ever been since the end of Nazism.
We have somehow broken our solemn bond with those warriors of yesterday and forgotten that when the survivors of the Second World War returned to their homes, they were like a tide that raised all boats. My generation’s shared experience of suffering, of witnessing genocide, ethnic cleansing, and enduring unspeakable privations as both soldiers and civilians made us vigilant when it came to demanding our peace dividend. We knew what we deserved and that was a future that didn’t resemble our hard-scrabble past. The Green and Pleasant land was for everyone after the war because we had bled for it and died for it. We demanded a truly democratic society where merit was rewarded and no one would be left behind because of poverty, poor health or an inadequate education.
After the war we revolutionized the western world and introduced the notion that all human beings deserved dignity, freedom of movement, due process before the law, and social safety nets to protect those affected by economic uncertainties. We knew the cost of not creating a just society was the end for democracy, and a life sentence of misery for too many people in our country. We knew the price of failing to create and maintain universal health care was a return to a two-tier society where the few held dominion over the many.
Today, however, in a world where our reservoirs of wealth are as deep and enormous as all the mighty rivers of the world combined, our politicians, financial institutions and megalithic industries tell us we can no longer afford these human rights that men sacrificed their lives for: the freedom to live with dignity in a compassionate society. We are told by those in charge that we can no longer live with luxuries like healthcare, proper state funded pensions, decent wages, trade unions and most aspects of our social safety network.
At 90, I am too old to take up the fight, too old to stand in demonstrations with a placard denouncing this madness. All I can do is bear witness to my times and our heroic struggle fought so long ago against Hitler and against men who would wreck the foundations that made civilisation tolerable and decent for its inhabitants.
The problem with society, today, is not lack of money or debt but lack of ideas, lack of commitment by our government to realise that its constituents are the people, not city bankers and hedge fund managers whose loyalty is to their ledger books rather than to the community. I don’t know if we will come out of this present darkness. Perhaps humanity will simply retreat into the caves whence our ancestors came because we were cowed by self-serving political parties and dubious leaders of business. I hope not, for the sake of the generations to come, but there is one thing I am certain of: had the politicians and business mandarins of today been in power in 1939, they wouldn’t have had the bottle to fight Nazism. There would have been no Dunkirk, no Battle of Britain, no Finest Hour. Our leaders today on either side of the house would have allowed the lights across Europe to grow dim, because after all that would have been the cheapest and most prudent solution to Hitler’s tyranny.”