The following three articles are taken from Volume 28 of North East Labour History, published in 1994.
- Archie Potts provides an overview of Smith’s background and subsequent career.
- Ray Challinor gives a detailed account of Smith’s youth and early political activities amongst Trotskyist circles on Tyneside.
- David Byrne has written a critical appraisal of Smith’s later controversial activities and their impact upon local Labour politics.
T Dan Smith, The Man and the Legend
To use a well worn cliché Dan Smith was a legend in his own lifetime or, to be more accurate, he was a man of legends, for more than one legend was woven round his life and political career. The danger is that, following his death, those legends will harden into facts and become accepted “truths”. No historian worth his salt should take a legend at its face value and no satisfactory interpretation of Dan Smith’s life can be written until some of the legends surrounding his name are probed.
The first fact to establish about T Dan Smith is his place of birth. He was born at 62 Holly Avenue, Wallsend, on 11 May 1915. It is interesting that the man who won fame as “Mr Newcastle” was not born in Newcastle and did not take up residence in the city until he was in his twenties. In the 1920s and 30s Wallsend was a distinct town with its own council, and even today it comes under North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council and not the City of Newcastle. Like Napoleon the Corsican and Hitler the Austrian, Dan Smith was born and spent his formative years outside the area he later came to dominate. In an article on Dan Smith, written after Smith’s conviction for corruption, Martin Linton wrote:
‘He also created a mythology of his own: he was the tough city boss who took the council bureaucracy by the scruffs of the neck and shook it until council houses fell out. He was born in the slums and he rebuilt them.’ (1)
The fact is that Dan Smith was not born in slums. Holly Avenue consists of Tyneside flats. It was – and still is – a street of Victorian working class houses but it was not a slum. Indeed it was superior to much other working class accommodation of its time. Many slum dwellers would have regarded Holly Avenue as paradise.
Although Wallsend was predominantly a shipbuilding town, Dan Smith’s father was a coalminer who worked at Wallsend G Pit and Dan records that in 1926 the Smith family moved to a rent free pit house in Portugal Place.(2) To be born the son of a miner was a lowly enough start in life, but coalminers were well paid by working class standards and for the first five years of Dan’s life, 1915-20, the mining industry enjoyed a boom. However, there is no reason to doubt Dan Smith’s account of the hardships his family suffered in the 1920s when wages in the coal industry were cut and his father suffered occasional layoffs. Behind the statistics which show rising real wages during the inter-war years there was a worsening of pay and conditions for many of those employed in the declining industries of the depressed areas, and, of course, there were many less fortunate people on the dole. It is not difficult to understand Dan Smith’s later interest in regional policy.
Dan Smith’s father was a Durham man who had worked in the Durham pits before he had moved to Wallsend, and Dan’s mother came from Cumbrian farming stock. Dan Smith’s father was an avid reader and a lover of music, and Dan remembered his father playing records of Caruso and Clara Butt on his wind-up gramophone. The family also had an upright piano. Dan’s sister took music lessons and became an accomplished pianist and Mr Smith spent hours tinkling the keys. Dan’s mother was also a lover of music and she was a stickler for good manners. Both of Dan Smith’s parents were keen Socialists and the whole family attended church on Sundays. (3) In later years Dan followed his parents’ politics but not their religion. Dan Smith’s family background, therefore, was that of the “respectable working class”. It was humble, but he did not suffer the grinding poverty of those whose fathers were unskilled labourers or long-term unemployed, and his mother was a woman who sacrificed for her family and demanded high standards of behaviour from them in return.
At the age of five Dan Smith started school. He passed through the Richardson Dees Infants’ School followed by the Central School. Although a bright lad he failed the eleven plus examination which would have taken him to the secondary school and instead he moved on to the Western Boys’ School. Dan blamed his failure to pass the ‘scholarship exam’ on nervousness on the day in question, plus a certain lack of motivation. Of his schooldays Smith wrote:
“I learned to read and write and do sums, but school was not really a dominant influence in my young life ……… The three Rs were still predominant, discipline was quite rigid, and personal development was not encouraged”. (4)
Dan Smith probably gained more than he realised by the schooling he received in the 1920s. To his credit, Dan Smith never attempted to speak ‘Geordie posh’ but neither did he speak in the thick dialect of Gazza. Dan spoke clear, grammatical English with a slight Geordie lilt, nor did he have any trouble in mastering complex reports when he became Leader of Newcastle City Council and later the Chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council. The education provided in the council schools of his boyhood was narrow but it was thorough in inculcating basic literacy: the foundations were well laid for later development. After leaving school Dan Smith attended evening classes in architecture at Rutherford College and courses in international relations organised by the WEA, and throughout his life he was a great reader with a particular interest in art. If his schooling was narrow he was never narrow-minded in his interests.
After leaving school he became an apprentice painter with firms in Wallsend and Newcastle, followed by years of being in and out of work with different employers. In his autobiography Dan Smith speaks well of those who employed him in the 1930s: his bosses treated him decently enough. He left his first job of his own accord and he lost the second when the firm went into liquidation during the depression. For the next three years Dan picked up whatever jobs he could and attended a “dole school” for the unemployed. (5).
In the 1930s Dan Smith joined the Peace Pledge Union and became a pacifist as well as a Socialist, yet his opposition to the Second World War was also influenced by a distrust of the country’s leaders. (6) He was a member of the ILP and took part in its war-time by-election campaigns as well as speaking against the war at meetings on Tyneside. Towards the end of the war he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party. He emerged from both organisations as an experienced public speaker and political organiser.
Dan Smith admits that by 1947 he had grown disillusioned with politics (7) and he switched his considerable energies to building up a private business. He set up as a painter and decorator and within a few years he was employing over 200 people. He bought a big house on the edge of Newcastle’s Town Moor, sent his children to private schools, and drove a Mark 10 Jaguar with a specially purchased DAN number plate. The war-time revolutionary had become a successful post-war capitalist.
It was not until 1950 that Dan Smith re-entered the political arena when he was invited back by Arthur Blenkinsop, then Labour MP for Newcastle East. Smith was asked to a Sunday morning social gathering at the MP’s home in Wingrove Road, Fenham. The current political situation was the main topic of conversation and Smith argued that the local Labour Party had achieved very little since it had gained control of Newcastle City Council in 1945. Whereupon Arthur Blenkinsop invited him to join the Labour Party and he promised that he would assist Smith to get on the council and then Smith could see if he himself could do any better. Smith, somewhat reluctantly he records, accepted the offer: he was selected for the Walker ward and duly elected a Labour councillor. (8)
So began the legend of Dan Smith the great Labour Party leader. However certain facts need to be focused upon here. First, Smith was 35 years old when he joined the Labour Party. By the standards of many Labour Party members he was a Johnny-come-lately to their ranks. Furthermore, he had to be persuaded to join by a local MP. When Labour regained control of the City Council in 1958, Smith was elected Chairman of the Housing Committee and he launched a vigorous slum clearance programme. Two years later he was elected leader of the City Council. He held this post until 1965 when he resigned on his appointment as Chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council.
Dan Smith, therefore, was Leader of Newcastle City Council for only five years. Most leaders of councils in the Tyne and Wear area had much longer spells in office. For example, the present Leader of the City Council, Jeremy Beecham, has held the post for seventeen years. Michael Campbell was Leader of the Tyne and Wear County Council throughout its entire existence from 1973 to 1986. Bill Collins (Gateshead), Vincent Fitzpatrick (South Tyneside), Charles Slater (Sunderland), and Jim Bamborough (North Tyneside) all enjoyed long spells in office as leaders of their respective councils. These council leaders were all men of ability but they never caught the attention of the media and hence they are not well known outside their own localities.
As Martin Linton observed of Smith:
“It was the press and colour supplements who made him a folk hero ………. He was part of the whole mythology of the ’60s – the man who came to sort out local government with a strong belief in business efficiency and a burning social purpose”. (9)
Dan Smith did a lot in his five years as Leader of Newcastle City Council. Above all, he shook Newcastle out of its post-war torpor and initiated policies of modernisation and renewal, but he had help from other people and it was left to others to carry his plans to completion. More attention should also be paid to the leading figures in other local authorities in the 1960s and 70s, in order to put Dan Smith’s achievements into some kind of realistic perspective. For example, the creation of the Tyne and Wear Metro system, undoubtedly one of the finest achievements of municipal enterprise in the region, owed nothing to Dan Smith. (10)
In 1965 Dan Smith resigned the leadership of the Newcastle City Council to become Chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council, a post he held until 1970. In Smith’s words:
“At that time I was riding high in the Labour Party. When I called down to see Mr George Brown, then deputy leader, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had offered me a Cabinet post. In fact I think I deserved one”. (11)
Smith was not offered a seat in the Cabinet but he served on the Peterlee and Aycliffe Development Corporation 1968-70, the National Sports Council 1965-69, and was a member of the Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69. In 1966 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Dan Smith was now at the height of his fame, enjoying a national reputation which went far beyond his Tyneside political base. However in 1962 he had moved into the public relations field and set up a number of companies to handle PR work, mainly on behalf of building firms. His public relations activities brought him into contact with the architect, John Poulson, who was interested in securing more contracts for his firm. Operating through his PR firms Smith put his political contacts at Poulson’s disposal and their activities landed them both in the courts. In January 1970 Smith and Sydney Sporle, Deputy Leader of Wandsworth Council, were arrested on bribery charges. Sporle was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison (reduced to four on appeal). Smith was acquitted but his reputation was severely damaged. Further charges were brought against Smith. In April 1974 he pleaded guilty to corruption at Leeds Crown Court and was sentenced to six years imprisonment. The evidence against Smith was conclusive: he pleaded guilty, he was neither “framed” nor the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Andrew Cunningham was tried and convicted alongside Smith.
In the words of Peter Taylor QC, the prosecuting attorney, a fellow Geordie and now Lord Chief Justice:
“At a time when ordinary folk were looking up to them and regarding them with trust and respect as leaders of the community, they were engaged in corruption and enjoying its fruits’. (12)
Mr Justice Waller, another Geordie, in his summing up remarked:
“To those of us born on Tyneside, both of you have disgraced that local government in the eyes of the community”. (13)
Dan Smith was reluctant to accept that he had done anything wrong. To quote his own words:
“I am by nature a wheeler-dealer. How else can you be a successful politician and get your ideas across? Now I was being asked to deal for someone else and at the time I could see nothing wrong with it. For all the work I have done for the community, for all the early promise of distinction and power, I am left with nothing ………. People like me are expected to work full-time without salaries, without staff or even postage stamps. I for one couldn’t afford such a situation. And that is where Poulson filled the gap …….. I came to the conclusion that I was missing out, that I could combine my real desire to give public service with what they called a piece of the action”. (14)
Smith served three years of his prison sentence and after his release he became active in the Howard League for Penal Reform and New Directions, an organisation he founded to assist ex-offenders. His big house was sold, as was his book collection, and he moved to a council flat in the Spital Tongues district of Newcastle. Four years before his death he applied to rejoin the Labour Party. Many of the younger members of his constituency party were vague about who he was and what he had done, but after some discussion there was a big majority in favour of restoring his party card.
Stripped of the legends, Dan Smith was a man of working class origins with leadership qualities, which included an understanding of power, how to acquire it and how to use it. In his political thinking he probably owed more to Machiavelli than he ever did to Marx. Beatrix Campbell, in a memorable phrase, described him as a “Faust in a trenchcoat”, a man interested in power and control. (15) But above all Smith had outstanding communication skills, which included a flair for publicity. He was often credited with possessing “vision”. However this boiled down to a desire to modernise Newcastle and to regenerate North East England. There was nothing very original in such ideas and nothing specifically “Socialist” in Dan Smith’s vision, except in the use of municipal power to initiate the changes he wished to bring about. For if Dan Smith has any achievement to his credit it is that he helped kick-start the massive redevelopment of Newcastle in the 1960s, and he went on to be a very able advocate for regional policy with special reference to the North East. Smith clearly saw the need for the economic regeneration of the region – to encourage new industries and skills – but he also recognised the importance of education and culture in the regenerative process. He was largely responsible for the development of the city centre educational precinct in Newcastle, now occupied by the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria. But for his personal intervention in securing the necessary land in the heart of the city, much of the development of higher education facilities would have been pushed out to green field sites. Smith was also a keen supporter of the “arts”, and local government support for music and drama in the 1970s and 80s owe much to Smith’s pioneering work in the 1960s.
Of Smith’s relationship with Poulson, let the poet Thomas Moore have the last word:
“Most base is he who, “neath the shade
Of Freedom’s ensign plies Corruption’s trade”.
1 Martin Linton, “Dan’s decline”, Labour Weekly 3 May 1974 p5
2 Dan Smith, An Autobiography (1970) p6
3 ibid., pp 2-4
4 ibid., p 7
5 ibid., pp 12-14
6 ibid., pp 18-20
7 ibid., p.23
8 ibid., pp 28-31
9 Linton op. cit.
10 For example, see entry on Rowland Scott-Batey (1913-80) in Dictionary of Labour Biography VIX (1993) pp. 247-8
11 Quoted in Edward Milne, No Shining Armour (1976) p.167
12 Quoted in Alan Doig, Corruption and Misconduct in Contemporary British Politics (1984) p.142
13 Milne op. cit. p.165
14 Quoted in Steven Chibnall and Peter Saunders, “Worlds Apart: Notes on the social reality of corruption”, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1977, pp.139-54.
15 Beatrix Campbell, “Faust Redeemed on Tyneside”, Independent 4 August1993.
T Dan Smith, The Youthful Revolutionary
Dan Smith emerged as a political figure of significance in the Second World War. Amid the struggles, he developed his organisational skills, his oratorical powers, his tactical ability. Though still only a young man, he was elected as the Northern region’s representative on the Independent Labour Party’s National Administrative Council.
The I.L.P. opposed the war on socialist grounds. It was a struggle of big business, fighting over markets. Workers had nothing to gain from slaying their fellow workers. They only had their lives to lose. A leaflet written by Dan declared that war was terrible – terribly profitable. It cited the ever-rising profits of arms manufacturers, “the merchants of death”, in both Britain and Germany. As soldiers fell at the front, their profits rose here at home.
Dan realised the war would be accompanied by longer hours, worsening conditions and, where the authorities could achieve it, lower real wages. To combat this, he therefore sought to build up throughout the region a network of resistance, rank-and-file movements that would seek to thwart the moves of the Churchill government, employers and the timid trade union leadership.
Many battles – now unfortunately largely forgotten by historians – were fought. One related to compulsory fire watching of factories. This was unpopular with workers. In the event of an air raid, they would much rather be at home, helping their families, than protecting the employer’s factory. This was particularly true since many bosses, living in remote rural areas which were unlikely to receive enemy attention, found plausible excuses for not doing fire watching duty themselves.
A situation arose that was akin to that which has more recently arisen over another unpopular measure – the poll tax. More than a million people claimed that they were medically unfit to comply with the order to fire watch – a number far too great for the already over-stretched medical services to examine. Others just bluntly refused to obey the order. Prisons were too crowded already to house more than a handful of the many objectors.
Ironically, the most vociferous opponent in the North East was not a worker but an employer. John Morley, an energetic socialist, ran a small engineering factory, the Byker Bodyworks. He proclaimed that defence and attack were different sides of the same coin; since he was against the war in principle, he would not lift a finger to protect his own property. If the Luftwaffe set his works ablaze, making it a beacon that guided incoming German aircraft to their targets on Tyneside, then so be it. He would do nothing to thwart them.
Acting promptly, the authorities flung John Morley into Durham prison. But this did not solve their problems. His two sons, Robert and Alan, replaced their father as works manager, and they were equally determined to defy. Around Tyneside, to the alarm of the Special Branch, walls started to be plastered with slogans, daubed by Dan Smith and others, demanding “Release John Morley”. By the time they had dealt with his two sons, the father was again at liberty. He celebrated his release by addressing a thousand people at an enthusiastic open-air meeting in Newcastle’s Bigg Market. The police pulled him off the rostrum, charging him with conduct liable to cause a breach of the peace. But this simply served to give John Morley a further platform for expressing his views: he told the court it was them, not him, who were breaching the peace – that was why he was speaking. Discreetly, the authorities then appear to have quietly forgotten about the whole issue.
Another example of many in those dispute-ridden times involved Harold Woods, a Sunderland shipyard welder. Daily he worked from 7.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then he was expected compulsorily to attend the Home Guard. The first session of guts drill was from 7.30 to 8.30, followed by another from 9.00 to 9.30. Ordered to do a third, Harold Woods, who suffered from tuberculosis and had been operated on four times, refused. As a consequence, he was court marshalled and sentenced to 28 days detention for “using insubordinate language to a superior officer”. Mass meetings were held throughout Wearside. Despite opposition from the owners, union officials, Communist Party and the Sunderland Echo, the entire workforce of the river downed tools. They only went back to work once Harold Woods was released four days later.
Similar victories happened on Tyneside. The employers attempt to gain some interest-free money by delaying pay-day caused a shut down of all the yards. The persuasive oratory of a Royal Navy admiral, Harry Pollitt and the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, addressing shipyard-gate meetings, was of no avail. The men only returned once the proposal had been withdrawn. Similarly, at the Neptune yards and elsewhere, attempts to introduce non-union labour and to worsen conditions were repulsed by industrial action.
While doubtless the pervasive working-class anger would have gained expression anyway, Dan Smith helped to give it focus and direction. Appointed full-time north east organiser in August 1942, he quickly increased sales of the New Leader, the I.L.P. paper, to 2,000 copies a week. Then there was help with the numerous strike bulletins and rank-and-file journals, such as Mining News, edited by Jack Frater, a talented pitman from Ashington, and Tom Stephenson, the Cumberland miners’ leader.
In fact, Dan Smith acted as the catalyst, bringing together many with exceptional ability, individuals who played an important role in many diverse aspects of life. There were men like Jack Johnson, Ken Sketheway and Roy Itadwin, destined to leave their mark on Newcastle City Council; Alec Auld, Jack Jolmson and Roy Tearse who were to lead workers in vital industrial conflicts; and even men like Len Edmondson, who became a leader of the engineers’ union, and Ted Fletcher, a member of the Newcastle I.L.P. contingent who fought in Spain, later to be M.P. for Darlington, were influenced by him. Dan himself held in special affection the Morley and Sadler families. Quite fearlessly, undeterred by repeated persecution and imprisonment, they continued with their War Registers’ campaign on Tyneside, holding regular outdoor meetings and weekly Newcastle branch meetings, usually attended by about 60 people. Out of respect for them, Dan prevailed upon Amber Films in the 1980s to make a film about Mark Sadler.
Dan Smith became the I.L.P. parliamentary candidate to fight Wallsend at the next general election. However, opposition to him surfaced within the I.L.P. ranks. Older members, accustomed to a more tranquil life, objected to his high-pressure activism. Barney Mackson brought the issue to a head. Working late, Barney could only attend meetings of the Newcastle Central branch at around 9 p.m. At a time when most were anxiously looking at the clock and hoping to snatch a pint in the local before closing time, Bamey would want to re-consider business upon which decisions had already been taken. When denied this right, he asserted Dan Smith and his clique were undemocratic. For good measure, “the Barneyites” accused Dan of creating bogus branches of the I.L.P. in mining villages to increase his voting strength, thus ensuring him his seat on the National Administrative Committee.
The I.L.P.’s national chairman, Bob Edwards, its treasurer Percy William and its general secretary, Tyneside-reared John McNair came to Newcastle to hold a full-scale investigation. They succeeded, at least temporarily, in calming the warring factions. Their almost verbatim report, which has been placed in Gateshead and Newcastle public libraries, throws a fascinating light on how the I.L.P. functioned in this region, one of its strongholds.
The report states, almost in passing, that George Brown introduced Trotskyism to Tyneside. Not the Labour deputy prime minister of the same name, the George Brown mentioned worked at Vickers’ and was the father of Audrey Wise, currently the MP for Preston South and leader of the shopworkers’ union. Dan Smith soon fell under the sway of Trotskyism. The Revolutionary Communist Party had just been formed. Dan accepted its belief that capitalism was in its death agony, would be unable to concede reforms, and that the end of the war would signal the return of mass unemployment. Only a tightly-knit, disciplined Bolshevik organisation – not one like the Labour Party, geared to the Westminster talking-shop – could guarantee that working class frustrations were directed towards the creation of a new society.
Much to the surprise of Dan and other revolutionaries, the post-war Labour government did not, unlike its 1929 predecessor, collapse in capitalist slump. Rather, the Attlee administration introduced the welfare state, providing security for all from the cradle to the grave. Its National Health Service was comprehensive and completely free. And it did not merely honour the pledge of the Beveridge report to establish full employment, there was over-full employment, with many vacancies chasing the few jobless.
The predictions of the revolutionaries, including Dan, had gone awry. The R.C.P. started to lose members in 1946 and within four years had ceased to exist. Like many Christian fundamentalists who forecast the end of the world and then discover they were wrong, most R.C.P. members just silently melted away into political nothingness. This did not happen to Dan Smith. After an agonising re-appraisal, he saw his duty was still to help better the lot of his fellow human beings. He used his extraordinary talent and energy to build housing estates, not barricades. Mind you, while he set about accomplishing the measures for small improvements in the here-and-now, he always liked to look back wistfully to the dreams of his younger years – play his part in a British October Revolution.
T Dan Smith, The Disastrous Impact Of A Liberal, Authoritarian Moderniser
Let me begin this ‘evaluative obituary’ on a personal note. I knew T Dan slightly in his old age and found him pleasant, outgoing and charming. In the last stage of his life he was on the whole a thoroughly good thing. He supported worthy and democratic causes like a Northern Regional Assembly and put his very real charisma to good use with working class audiences against racial and other prejudices in contexts where he had a considerable impact. Stripped of his power and functioning as a citizen, he made a good job of being an active and a decent one. His intelligence, wit and style remained, and he used them in a way which was entirely praiseworthy. What I saw of him, I liked.
It is also worth noting that Dan was most unmacho. Sure, he tended to use diminutives with younger women, although I did notice that he learnt the new style quite quickly. However, he worked by charm, and from what I have read and heard always did. He was never a crude, bullying thug in the Andy Cunningham mould whose only apparent redeeming feature was that when bribed he always delivered unlike Dan who often didn’t! In fact I always found Dan a bit fey, and you cannot be fey and macho – it just doesn’t work. In this important respect there is something personal and individual about Dan’s career. Cunningham stands as a deformed and objectionable caricature of Northern Labourism and of a style of masculinity associated with it (not the only style of masculinity, but an important one). He was a machine politician and he worked by shouting and bawling and bullying and manipulating. Dan was a magician – he imagined and he charmed (although he also manipulated). The pity of it is that his very imagination, his distinguishing and individual characteristic, was so deformed by the political mindset and personal interests that he embodied, that it did more harm to working class people in this region than all Cunningham’s crude corruption, bullying and selling out of trade union interests for organisational and personal advantage put together. Dan was a big person and he failed in a big way.
So to begin my analysis let me ask: what was T Dan Smith? Note the form of this question – not who but what. What was his social position? How did it influence what he did? The answer is quite simple. T Dan Smith was a businessman who had a real interest in being on Newcastle City Council because of the access it gave him to contracts allocated by the council. There was nothing new in this. If you read Jack Common’s The Ampersand you will find a full account of the way in which those who controlled the urban affairs of the city, profited from the performance of their public duties. During World War II the then local administration had been selling petrol and emergency food supplies, renting fire engines to the fire brigade and ‘borrowing’ police horses for riding holidays. The traditional urban bourgeoisie shaped civic affairs to their own financial advantage and the wartime shenanigans were small beer compared with earlier land deals in association with the development of tram routes (the story of Heaton). Land development was very big money indeed.
The only distinguishing feature about T Dan Smith in all of this was that he was a Labour Party politician. What distinguished him was not his working class origins – plenty of Tyneside’s self-made anti-socialist grandees over the years were just as much horny handed sons of toil, but that he pursued his political career wearing a working class political badge. Of course he was especially well positioned to do this He had been a ‘dangerous revolutionary’ of a chaotic and self directed kind for many years. His left-wing credentials were very strong indeed. It is of course worth noting that his apprenticeship had included a period as a Trotskyist, as a member of a political sect which drew its traditions exactly from the credibility of a charismatic individual with imagination and absolute personal certainty, who directed those who followed him because he knew what should be done. T Dan could have been a more charming and credible Gerry Healey or Tony Cliff. but he was not one to confuse status within sect with power in the real world. He had to become a reformist if he wanted the latter, and become a reformist he did (which is not a criticism, just a statement of fact).
This trajectory was not all that unusual. Quite a few working class originating entrepreneurs began on the ultra-left. Such workers usually have brains and organisational ability, and can do quite well in business to which they frequently tum as a way of establishing their independence from the capitalist bosses, in the process often (as with T Dan) becoming capitalist bosses themselves. I do not for one minute think that Dan’s opposition to the War, which kept him out of it, was a post adopted so that he could build up a good business during and immediately afterwards whilst others were fighting fascism, but that is in effect what he did and how his business interests developed.
So here we have an ex-Trotskyist small (becoming medium sized) businessman with progressive views, a reformist commitment and a belief in top down politics who wants in on the real political scene in 1950s Newcastle. Labour was his way to go, and Labour was the way he went. If we look at the immediate issue with which he began his administrative career it was a perfectly proper and appropriate one. He denounced the appallingly low standard of council dwellings being built in the mid 50s by the then Tory city administration at Noble Street and on parts of the Newcastle estate at Longbenton. These were dreadful buildings with no redeeming features whatsoever. They were described by Benwell CDP as ‘slums on the drawing board’ and that is exactly what they were. T Dan’s public denunciations of them were necessary and well directed. It is, however, indicative that the Tory Chairman of the Housing Committee under whose direction these schemes had been initiated, was William Kirkup, who was T Dan’s accountant, friend and future business partner. There was even here a disjunction between the public ‘Labour Leader’ and the private businessman and increasingly respectable bourgeois.
This move, not just to respectability, but to bourgeois status, is very well illustrated by the way in which T Dan’s children were educated – privately. According to T Dan ‘state education didn’t meet the needs of my children as individuals’ (see Fitzwalter and Taylor, 1981 p 34). So a man who supported the development of comprehensives for the children of the people who elected him, bought privilege for his own. You don’t get away with that in the labour Party these days, and even in the 50s and 60s it was distinctly iffy.
To comprehend what was to happen next, it is necessary to understand the nature of the North East in the early 1960s. The key expression is re-development, both industrial and urban. The 1950s had been years of full employment and some prosperity, but they had also been a continuation of the recovery from the strains and costs of the War, which had been the absolute characteristic of the 1940s. There were two important elements in this one. One was industrial in the form of the continuation of some very primitive mining production in marginal collieries during an era of fuel shortages and the absence of competing fuels. The other was social. Terrible postwar housing shortages persisted throughout the 40s and first half of the 50s and meant that it was not possible to continue the pre-war attention to slum clearance. At the end of the 50s both these things changed.
On the industrial front the availability of cheap oil meant that marginal colliery production was no longer necessary and the objectives of the National Coal Board, under the direction of the former north eastern MP Robens, shifted from maximising output to maximising returns on capital employed. This meant that there was a massive reduction in the requirement for mining labour in the north east. Many people went off to Nottingham “to Robens’ promised land”, but this migration was not going to be enough to prevent a frightening rise in unemployment. Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister was determined that this was not going to happen. A Conservative PM (who would probably be regarded as dangerously left-wing in today’s Labour Party) who had a genuine commitment to one nation politics, and to the people of the north east, initiated what turned out to be a highly successful programme of regional regeneration.
Quintin Hogg was appointed Minister for the north east and sent up with the message to all local authorities that they were to take out all the development and construction schemes they had shelved or hidden at the back of the drawer. These were to be put into operation immediately as a way of generating employment in the region. This was classic regional Keynesianism in action. When Labour came into office in 1964 with a commitment to a corporatist National Planning mechanism and a Department of Economic Affairs, much of the regional infra-structure for this was already in place in the north, as a consequence of co-ordination mechanisms developed in response to the Hailsham initiatives.
The renewal of social capital by local authorities, although particularly marked in the north east thanks to Hailsham’s bag of goodies, was a national phenomenon of the 1960s. Slum clearance began again, and there was a massive general programme of housing construction and of the redevelopment of other facilities, including schools, civic centres, sports facilities and other public provision. Labour controlled local authorities had very large amounts of money to spend on these things and were crucial customers of the construction industry and its professional associates in architecture.
So we have T Dan as an ambitious, socially progressive businessman with a senior Labour party position at this time and in this place. I am firmly convinced that Dan wanted to do good, but he also wanted to make money, on a bigger scale than was possible as first favourite painter and decorator to Newcastle City Council. How could he do both together? One avenue for making money was effectively barred to him as a Labour politician. He might get away with privately educating his children, but he wouldn’t have got away with going in for large scale development of private owner occupied housing at a time when Labour still had a very firm commitment to social housing provision, at least at the local level. He couldn’t imitate William Leech. Land development, the traditional big money maker for the urban bourgeoisie with municipal power, was ruled out. What did that leave? That left the games he played which are very well described in Fitzwalter and Taylor’s book (1981). I don’t propose to go over that material here. Dan was as bent as a corkscrew, he became rich on the skimmings of the municipal construction game. That matters.
In reality what matters more is not his thieving (because corruption involves thieving from the people) but the bad effects of his efforts to do good. Dan wanted to be judged not by his criminal career, but by his political effects. He said himself that the purpose of his relationship with Poulson was to provide him: “…. with a vehicle to be able to carry on the work that I wanted to do and on which I spent a major part of my time, and that was to try to build up the economy of the north east, to establish provincialism and regionalism.” (quoted in Fitzwalter and Taylor, 1981 p49).
In his valedictory speech at the time of Dan’s death the present Labour leader of Newcastle City Council (another liberally inclined businessman) Jeremy Beecham, exemplified a very commonly held view in the North East. Dan was a charming rogue who was dishonest and got caught, but he also did a great deal of good and we should be grateful to him. T Dan the Planner outweighs T Dan the thief. Enough of my original Catholicism remains to see some point in this, if what we are dealing with is intentions. If intentions are poured into the scales, then good can outweigh evil. When we put in consequences, then it is a very different matter. The burden of my assessment is that T Dan Smith did the greatest harm when he was trying to do good for others as well as for himself, and he did that harm both in terms of what he did and in the way in which he did it.
Dan’s major political positions were as Leader of Newcastle City Council, Chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council and Chairman of Peterlee New Town Development Corporation. Let us begin with Newcastle. Again specific context is important. Newcastle is really a kind of forced amalgamation of a commercial city with two industrial towns. The commercial city is Newcastle itself. The industrial towns were the previously independent urban districts of Walker and Benwell. T Dan was a Wallsend lad from the urban district which had the good fortune to retain its independence, and his direct political base was in Walker. He was to initiate the reconstruction of both east and west ends of Newcastle and to set the style for the form of that reconstruction. It was not a reconstruction which reflected the interests of the working class people of those places. Rather it prioritised the commercial needs of the city centre as regional capital. The east and west ends areas through which people would travel to shop and to work (in that order of importance, even then) and their populations were regarded as being as moveable as necessary, without much, if any, regard to their needs and wishes.
The implementor of all this was Wilfred Burns, appointed as Chief Planner on T Dan’s initiative, to arrange for the redevelopment of Newcastle as another Brasilia, Venice or Milan (why Milan?). Just as significant as Bums’ eugenicist proposals for the dispersal of the anti-social denizens of Elswick (see his book of 1967 – would that the balmy days of their anti-social behaviour would return – Elswick then was a safe and orderly place in comparison with Gosforth now), were the massive road schemes designed to bring car-borne suburbanites into the central area. Newcastle’s redevelopment process treated working class inner-city people as simply counters to be moved around the board, and moved out if necessary to overspill estates beyond the city boundaries in Longbenton and Castle Morpeth. The programme was one of modernist modernisation. Tower blocks were preferred for central area redevelopment by planners and the great visionary (T Dan), not just because of supposed (but not actual) land saving or because they attracted particularly high subsidies, but for their ‘striking visual impact’. Nobody consulted the people who were going to have to live in them, in whose eyes they were not acceptable substitutes for traditional housing. And thus it was we got Cruddas Park, Newbiggen Hall and a city much of which is so carved up by radial road schemes that in some major areas (e.g. Scotswood Road) the places where people live are fitted around the roads, rather than the other way on.
At the time the only real opposition to all this came from a Civic Trust style conservationism which, quite rightly, objected to the destruction of attractive Victorian and Georgian Squares to make way for motorways which cut off ordinary access from the east end to the city centre, but they were easily over-ruled. The masses got what T Dan and his ‘evangelistic’ bureaucrats thought they should have, and were deprived of any means of objecting given the co-option of the Labour Party to the whole project. Traditionally Labour’s role m municipal politics was to seek power in order to provide the best possible public services to working class people. T Dan and Co’s projects were in the service of a local development capital, not in the service of the local working class, and most of the costs were born by working class people. The whole thing looked exactly like, and was exactly like, the contemporaneous urban renewal programmes of the United States, but there the class interests were at least open and evident. In Newcastle working class people were told those developments were for their own good.
Newcastle did need massive slum clearance – although areas which were very far from slums like much of Shieldfield were unnecessarily demolished under the guise of slum clearance in order to facilitate road programmes. What it didn’t need was the construction of new expensive slums (at least the Tory schemes like Noble Street were new cheap slums) to replace the old ones. Good traditional council houses could have been built more cheaply. This isn’t wisdom after the event – these things were known and said at the time – but the authoritarian system in general and T Dan in particular disregarded all of that. T Dan didn’t see this whole process through, but he started it and set the tone for what followed.
And of course it still goes on – this style of obsequious adherence to the interests and needs of development capital has been taken up by T Dan’s successors, both through their own actions around the ‘regional capital programme’ and by their slavish endorsement of the general strategy of the unelected Tyne Wear Development Corporation and its anti-industrial yuppie-oriented programme for the areas it controls. The masses did revolt against this in the form of Moorside Labour Party deselecting the Deputy Leader of the City Council as a Labour candidate, in large part because he had accepted membership of TWDC, but he was brought back into a more acquiescent ward and got away with it. It is true that there is more dispute than there was between Labour Party and Labour as local government machine – witness the falling out over the Newcastle Unitary Development Plan, which is just as uncaring to the inner city working class as any of Dan’s schemes, but things remain pretty undemocratic even around elected local government.
This is an authoritarianism of the insiders against the outsiders, including the people who elected them. It isn’t just a matter of style, although style matters both with regard to the process and its products. It is also a matter of interests. The crucial question about any public policy is Cui Bono? – for whose good is it? – and the answer for a Labour Party and socialist politicians ought to be for the good of the working class people who elect them. It certainly’ shouldn’t harm them. My reading of the redevelopment process for Newcastle and Dan’s role in it, is that by the 1960s he had totally ceased to be a socialist politician of any kind. Instead he had become the representative of a coalition of professionals, development capital and authoritarian modernisers who wanted to reconstruct this place in a particular way which they presented as serving universal interests but which in fact served their own sectorial interests instead. We will live with the consequences of this for a very long time.
The more power – the more damage. T Dan had real power as boss of Newcastle and did the most damage there. His powers on NEPC were less. It would have been difficult for him to do much more damage to Peterlee after the idiocies of Victor Passmore and others in an earlier period. In these roles it is not direct (literally) concrete consequences which matter, but rather the long term effect on political processes. Labour had been involved in regional corporatism in the north east since the 1920s, but T Dan turned what had been a matter of necessary compromise into something resembling a religious principle, and the effects are with us to this day.
Tom Nairn has commented that it is necessary to understand the Labour Party as being something like a defensive minority social group. Its origins in working class solidarity mean that its members place an enormous value on loyalty, putting loyalty to the party and its leaders above the collective class interests the organisation is supposed to be serving. I would say that this is generally true, but that what we have in the north east is a situation where the incorporation of elected Labour politicians and trade union leaders in the corporatist and unelected bodies which include regional capitalist and land owning interests, had led them to extend this loyalty to class enemies against even their own party members. In fairness to Dan and his era, we can say that regional capitalists were generally pushing one nation objectives in the 60s, although that was often much more a matter of formal presentation rather than the real content of the schemes being developed. In the 80s and 90s the habits of loyalists collaboration persist even when Quangos are dominated by Thatcherite clones and civil service eunuchs.
What appals me is the style of the politics. It was secretive, exclusive, collaborationist and Dan played a large part in setting it up. He was sometimes described as a demagogue, but I think that is wrong. I have a good deal of time for demagogues, from Cleon the tanner onwards. They work by appealing to the masses, they have to deal with the people. There was more of Alcibiades in Dan – a man of genius who was not to be distracted by those less than him who lacked his particular, and in reality self-serving, vision. It is a truism of socialist analysis that right wing social democracy and all the derivatives of Leninism share an equal contempt for democratic process. Dan drew on both traditions and typified this bad element in them.
However, his life did not end with his gaoling. After he came out of prison Dan did a good deal to redeem at least his personal credibility. To reiterate the remarks in my introduction, in his last years he was on the side of the angels and was quite a useful old trooper too. What does this tell us about political forms and action in a place like this? The easy answer would be that power corrupts, and it can do if it is personal and not derived from the freely given and fully understood consent of others. When I think about T Dan Smith and his career I am absolutely confirmed in my commitment to the importance of democratic processes and forms as a way of managing our public affairs. We still don’t have them and we need them. It was good that this was what T Dan Smith himself came to say (and I believe think) at the end of his life.
Burns W Newcastle – A Study in Replanning at Newcastle upon Tyne Leonard Hill London 1967
Fitzwalter R and Taylor 1 Web of Corruption Granada London 1981