Consider yourself history this general election – take a leaf out of Harry’s book

Cast off your political humility, count yourself as more than ‘just’ one vote: be a bit arrogant about yourself as a piece of history. This is what I heard (after some scoffing and discomfort) from Harry Leslie Smith’s book Harry’s Last Stand.

My oral history research is making history from living words – this activity is fraught with problems. At what point does event, action, change, convert from a now to a history? Looking for ideas I struck on ‘Harry’s Last Stand’. Writing as a 91 year old and published in 2014, Harry Leslie Smith unquestioningly presents himself as history. In doing so he sets himself apart from cold, blank, historical objectivity, by asserting truths that only appear possible from first hand perspective.

I am not a historian but at 91 I am history and I fear its repetition.

I found this unconvincing and difficult to process at first, wary of the arrogance involved in asserting such historical importance. His language veers from tear-inducing descriptions of Great Depression poverty; to flowery elegies on post-war comradery and the construction of the welfare state.

I was aware that in claiming history, Harry’s purpose is dramatically rooted in present day politics. His is a manifesto of social justice, a recommitment to democracy that pivots on the story of the post-war welfare state. This is not to say I disagree with his politics, but I was uncomfortable with how his life history was being used to convey a well-researched, yet emotional, polemical contemporary argument.

Now I feel that the glint of hope has gone from so many people’s eyes because today’s governments don’t offer big ideas or new solutions to the horrendous economic inequalities that grow like moss over the face of the great structures of the welfare state. [1]

What changed?

I realised that the most important part of Harry’s history is his voice. Whether it is slanted or nostalgic doesn’t matter. His voice alone is evidence that his emotional and spiritual experience of post-war social democracy was real and deeply felt. He came through undeniably hellish times to discover the power that his electoral participation could have to the benefit of the nation.

Ultimately, his aim is to ignite a return to representative democracy. As the national election draws closer we are bombarded by depressing statistics that indicate a decline in voting rooted not in apathy, but in Russell Brand’s emphatic words ‘a sense of what’s the point?’. Harry’s manifesto wants to remind every person of the eternal optimism resulting from a personal power to effect change.

In Harry’s view the impoverished, survivalist landscape of his youth was scrubbed clean by the national experience of world war two. That deadly, toilsome war taught British people to depend on one another as a community, and taught the government to listen to its citizens. Yes, this story is contested and critiqued in the historiography. But that seems of secondary importance when I realise the question Harry is really asking: what kind of national catastrophe, what kind of apocalyptic war would it take to cut adrift from this current ‘broken’ system?

Harnessing an awareness in the present of our individual potential for power is thrilling and the reason why Smith’s story is so effective. He wants us to consider ourselves history in exactly the way that he has: … my book isn’t a memoir… it is my rallying call to a younger generation to tell them that our societies must include a social safety network that allows every citizen the right to decent housing, advanced education, proper healthcare, a living wage and dignified old age free of want…

Living testimonies speak of history as emotional, political, cognisant acts of an ever-evolving present.

[1] Harry Leslie Smith, Harry’s last stand, Icon Books Ltd. 2014, p. 156

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