Harry Leslie Smith is just about to turn 95, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. But he has also given a tremendous gift to the world: his new book Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.
His publishers were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book. Ironically, the print copy they sent by post appears to have been lost by the Royal Mail – a organization that was publicly owned for almost 500 years before it was privatized, in the belief that the private sector is inherently more efficient than the public sector. That’s exactly the kind of flawed economic reasoning that Smith condemns – the “free market” logic that says competitive markets will result in superior products and services, and that says better government is less government.
The spread of that ideology has led to decreases in the amount and availability of state-supported services, such as publicly-funded health care and social assistance. By recounting his own history, Smith shows the very real improvements that those services can bring to individual lives and to the overall well-being of society. He also strongly makes the point that governments should work for the betterment of all, not just to help the rich become richer.
Smith grew up in a poor working-class family in northern England. The best-known images in popular culture of British urban poverty are likely those in Charles Dickens’ novels: large families crammed into small derelict houses, and exploited workers at the mercy of greedy uncaring bosses. You might assume that, since Dickens was writing in the 19th century, things had improved since then. Smith’s own story shows that they hadn’t. One of his sisters died young because his parents could not afford to take her to the doctor; his family moved frequently in search of something better; and his father, who was injured in a workplace accident, eventually abandoned the family when he could not find a job to support them.
This all happened not in some distant Dickensian past, but in the 20th century. And Smith provides plenty of statistics and documentary evidence to prove that similar conditions could likely be found in many places today, in the 21st century. It’s distressing to read Smith’s descriptions of the impact of poverty on his family – I found I could only read one chapter at a time because each one upset me so much – but that’s the point. If we don’t understand what it’s like to live that kind of life, we don’t understand the very real misery of economic inequality.
Another belief associated with free market logic is the belief that poor people can better themselves if they just work hard enough – and that giving them government support only encourages them to be lazy. One of the most stunning things about Smith’s story is that the people around him were anything but lazy. They had no choice but to work as much and as hard as they could and to continually seek ways to survive. But class structures and economic systems were so onerously stacked against them that even the hardest or most clever workers could not improve their lives.
Smith movingly describes seeing his reflection in a shop window and realizing that his worn, second-hand clothes made him invisible to the world – that people looked past him or looked down on him because his appearance marked him as unimportant and marginalized. What made him feel a sense of value and belonging were publicly-funded services accessible to all, such as libraries. Although Smith left school at age 14, as did most of his peers, reading at the library gave him the chance to educate himself further and to experience beauty and imagination. He also experienced life before and after the implementation of the National Health Service in the UK, so he’s well qualified to describe the huge improvements that accessible health care brought to people of his generation.
Smith doesn’t hold back in condemning right-wing politicians (both small-c and capital-C conservatives), but he also doesn’t hesitate to criticize supposedly progressive politicians who do nothing substantive to address social and economic disparities. His discussion primarily focuses on UK politics and policies – but in case you think that the problems that he’s describing are only in the UK:
- “Forty-two of the richest people in the world now hold as much wealth as 3.7 billion of the poorest people in the world“
- In times of alleged ‘austerity’, governments rarely cut back on corporate tax exemptions such as the costs of entertaining clients; the claims under this exemption in Canada last year totalled $200 million
- The US government wants to end all federal funding for libraries
- The collapse of the construction company Carillion, which was heavily involved in public-private partnership (P3) projects – projects where governments and the private sector allegedly share the risk of building infrastructure – will likely cost the UK government several billion pounds and put thousands of subcontractors out of work
- “Low-income people can go an entire day without talking to someone who has a college degree or a job in a downtown office. And for the affluent, handing a credit card to the gas station attendant or grocery clerk may be their only weekend brush with blue-collar America.”
- Poverty in the United States is no longer primarily in rural areas; it’s growing rapidly in suburbs and in cities
I could post many, many more examples, but these few points demonstrate that the social problems Smith describes are not just in the UK. They’re everywhere.
The book ends with Smith’s stirring declarations of what we, the 99%, can do. Get out and vote, he says; get involved in communities, unions, and other opportunities for collective action; and speak out when anything that contributes to an equitable society is under threat. But, he emphasizes, it’s an ongoing task. Only continuous vigilance and continual activism can effectively counteract inequality around the world. Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future is an excellent source of inspiration and motivation to keep that activity going – and Smith himself is a grand example of the importance of never stopping trying to make a difference.
Rather than kicking back and relaxing “before my time dwindles down to a few precious moments”, Smith is planning a tour of refugee camps to bring attention to the worldwide refugee crisis. You can donate to this effort here; you can also follow his activities on Twitter. Happy birthday, sir!