Readers will probably remember Harry Leslie Smith, who died in the early hours of 28 November aged 95: his moving speech to the 2014 Labour conference made a lasting impression on all who heard it.
He’d first attracted attention in 2013 when he wrote an article for the Guardian declaring that he’d no longer wear a Remembrance Day poppy. He was a World War Two veteran who described voting Labour in 1945 and the subsequent creation of the NHS, as the proudest and most exciting time of his life. Until the day he died, he remained a passionate defender of the NHS (his passion derived, in part, from some tragedies in his own family – his sister had died of tuberculosis aged four and was buried in a pauper’s grave), a staunch advocate of what he saw as democratic socialism (i.e. left reformism), and an outspoken advocate for the poor, the homeless and for migrants (aged 92, he visited the Calais ‘Jungle’).
The Morning Star carried an editorial (November 29) that attempted to contrast the courage and honesty of Harry with an (alleged) Treasury-inspired plot to undermine Brexit. It’s a strange and incoherent piece that attempts to link Harry with the anti-EU cause without ever quite going so far as to state that he supported that cause; instead we get convoluted statements like this:“Smith looked to the past with a view to improving the future. Hammond, on the other hand, confects a tendentious Treasury-divined future with a view to subverting the votes of the biggest-ever majority posted in Britain”.
From then on the editorial turns into a typical Morning Star little-England pro-Brexit rant, closing with the suggestion that as Hammond and May are trying to bully the rest of us into accepting their EU deal, Harry would have responded “So as we used to say in the services, Fuck off Hitler”.
Sadly, we shall never know for sure what Harry would have said about May’s deal (as a Corbyn supporter, I presume he’d have opposed it), but we do know, from his own writings, exactly what he thought about Brexit: he opposed it and repeatedly defended the ideals that he saw as lying behind the EU. This was not just a peripheral or secondary question for Harry: he wrote about it with the same passion that he wrote and spoke about the NHS, fighting poverty and the rights of migrants.
In 2017, he wrote a lengthy article for the New European (“Please Don’t Forget My Generation’s Lessons”), which contained with the following unequivocal statement:“The Second World War ended over seven decades ago and, like the Great Depression, it is as fresh in my memory as the morning rain. But the lessons my generation taught to the generations born in the bosom of peace and cooperation are quickly being forgotten. Lasting peace can only be achieved and maintained when we strive to be united with other nations through prosperity and social justice. The EU, no matter how imperfect, is still the best vehicle to achieve that for Britain and the rest of Europe”.
No room for any misunderstanding there, I’d say: so why did the Morning Star editorial team (i. e. for all practical purposes, the leadership of the Communist Party of Britain) attempt to link Harry’s memory with their own obsessive anti-EU, proBrexit (and ‘hard’-Brexit at that) posturing? Did they not know what Harry’s view on the EU was – or did they not care?
Linking Harry’s name to their anti-EU obsession wasn’t quite a downright lie by the Morning Star, because the editorial didn’t actually claim that he was anti-EU: but a casual reader could be excused for assuming that was the case. If the Morning Star didn’t openly lie about Harry’s views on the EU, they certainly dishonoured him on the day after his death, by linking his name to a cause he profoundly disagreed with. That strikes me as a pretty contemptible way to treat the memory of a fine comrade.