The Socialism of T. Dan Smith

Often derided as a symbol of corruption, T. Dan Smith's vision of a modern, socialist 'Brasilia of the North' transformed Newcastle and deserves to be remembered.

At the AGM of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1970, Newcastle politician T. Dan Smith delivered a powerful speech about a utopian, technology-filled future he claimed was just around the corner. This gangly, hectoring man dressed in an expensive suit predicted ‘briefcase computers’ by 1975, synthetic protein foods by 1980, a huge expansion of electronic film and music production, full automation of major industries, and the installation of personal computers in every home by the year 2000.

Smith’s predictions to the BAAS in 1970 were mostly very shrewd. They combined canny foresight with a conjuring of the sorts of lost social-democratic futures that we have come to lament — and have begun to revive — in recent years. However, his high-tech prognosis also showed signs of the hubris and waywardness that would prove to be his downfall. 

As idealistic Labour leader of Newcastle City Council in the early 1960s, and then head of the Northern Economic Planning Council until his imprisonment for corruption in 1974, ‘T. Dan’ became a shining example of what can be achieved when socialist vision and governance are fused together. But his narrative also underlines how quickly and easily radical schemes can be jettisoned in a country where power, greed, and reaction are abiding features of the political landscape.

Voice of the North

Smith was born in 1915 in Wallsend, a major shipbuilding centre on the edge of Newcastle upon Tyne (a city then beginning its long downslide from Victorian prosperity). His parents were working-class radicals and autodidacts: his father a communist coalminer fond of quoting Plato and Marx to his son; his mother, also a communist, a cleaner who worked double shifts to keep the family solvent.

T. Dan Smith at a Labour Party rally against the invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, 1956. (Credit: Amber Archive)

With this blend of hardship and literacy as his bedrock, the adult Smith fell into political agitation after working as a painter and decorator at the tail end of the Great Depression. He was a conscientious objector during World War Two, and briefly a member of the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party in the early forties. Later in the decade, he wandered into the mainstream, defecting from the ILP to the Labour Party proper to become a driving force in Newcastle’s post-war council. By 1960 he had become its charismatic leader — variously dubbed ‘Mr Newcastle’, ‘Mouth of the Tyne’, and the ‘Voice of the North’.

In the wider context of social-democratic Britain, forces were aligning to empower figures like Smith. The radical, rationalist mood of the time encouraged a multitude of ambitious proposals for restructuring the UK’s antiquated, London-centric political scaffolding. These movements would culminate in the (mostly unimplemented) Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1966–69, which called for a two-tier system of government based on devolution of power to eight regional ‘provinces’.

Smith was eventually one of the architects of Redcliffe-Maud, but even prior to its publication he benefitted from a climate of regional boosterism enabled by the hefty increases in government spending of the fifties and sixties. When control of finance is taken away from the black hole of the City of London — as part of even moderately redistributionist programmes like those of the Keynesian post-war years — the British regions have a habit of suddenly and emphatically discovering their latent economic potential.

As the buoyant sixties dawned, Smith began to put this principle into action. He was named Architects’ Journal Man of the Year in 1960, and with good reason. At the start of his tenure as council leader, he made sure that Newcastle was the first city in the country to have its own planning department — another shot in the arm for regional autonomy. From this point on, his administration was responsible for surely the most imaginative modernisation of any British city since the Industrial Revolution.

Florence on Tyne

At the heart of Smith’s programme was a fierce determination to rid Newcastle of its slums — the row-upon-row of crowded terraces that curved down to the polluted River Tyne in areas like Byker, Elswick, and Scotswood. He spearheaded council projects which demolished these unpopular buildings and replaced them with modern public housing, most of which is still standing over half a century later. Smith’s plans for rehousing Newcastle’s working-class populace would lead ultimately to the monumental achievement of the Byker Wall — arguably the greatest public housing estate of all.

A photograph taken by T. Dan Smith of Scotswood Road, Newcastle, before regeneration efforts in the early 1960s. (Credit: Amber Archive)

Smith also ordered construction of a motorway road system to alleviate the city’s traffic congestion problems (at the time, the main shopping thoroughfare formed part of the busy main road between London and Edinburgh). The murky, coal-blackened Tyne was cleaned and purified with the aid of new sewage pipelines, and plans were laid for creation of a European-style metro train network. Finally opened in 1980, the Tyne and Wear Metro was (and remains) the only system of its kind in England outside of London.

Many people in Newcastle and elsewhere are unaware that the vast majority of the city’s modern infrastructure was created or reimagined under Smith’s aegis. As well as the unparalleled Metro and seminal housing projects like the Byker Wall, Smith’s council was partly or wholly responsible for developing Newcastle Airport, the shopping centre Eldon Square, the Civic Centre, Northumbria University, the independence of Newcastle University from Durham, the Northern Stage theatre, the arts organisation Northern Arts, the City Library, the preservation of the medieval town walls, and the expansion of Tyne Tees Television.

This was truly urbanism as a fine art. Smith’s vision of a regional metropolis was inspired by the cities of the Renaissance and the ancient world, as well as more contemporary models like Manhattan and the post-war modernist showpiece Brasilia. He was driven by a rare sense of metaphysical urgency that could be breath-taking in its intellectual daring and determination to turn his home city into a modernist paragon. 

Smith’s ambitious Byker Wall, designed by architect Ralph Erskine, is a block of over 600 homes built to replace Victorian slums deemed unfit for human habitation. (Credit: Getty)

Indeed, at times Smith seems to have envisaged Newcastle as something like a culmination of Western civilisation as a whole. A passage from his 1970 Autobiography shows this audacious rhetorical instinct in full flight:

‘Why do you like water or mountains? … Think about it, talk about it. Why is it that when buildings are put on the landscape they appear to offend. Yet cows don’t, sheep don’t, dogs don’t, trees don’t, and flowers don’t, no matter what their colours or what their shapes, whether it’s calm, whether the wind’s blowing, whether the trees are blowing about, whether it’s autumn, spring, summer or winter; Nature has a way of integrating its own objects into the landscape. Can we do this consciously as human beings? Of course we can. We can give just as much attention to a street lamp, or a litter bin, or a bus station, or a bus shelter, or a house, or the colour of a house, or the colour of a brick … These details are essentially in the mind of the artist and this is why I need to try to direct the discussion towards the creation of a city in the image of Athens and Florence and Rome.’

This was apparently the sort of thing Smith would say while chairing council planning meetings. There is a glimpse here of how bureaucratic structures can be brought to lyrical life in the right circumstances, and with the right political impetus to guide them.

Labour’s Profumo

So, what went wrong? Why did Newcastle not, as Smith dreamed, become the capital of a thriving cosmopolitan ‘city state’? The received narrative, enthusiastically promoted in national newspaper accounts from the seventies onward, is that Smith was a crooked, Chicago-style city boss whose personal failings embody the sinister totalitarian impulses of post-war planning and socialism in general. In this reading, Smith’s fall from grace was the Profumo Affair of the seventies—and he eventually brought Newcastle and the Labour Party down with him, just as John Profumo did for Harold Macmillan’s Tories ten years earlier.

T. Dan Smith as chairman of the chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council at the launch of ‘Challenge of a Changing North’ in 1966. (Credit: Amber Archive)

The fact of Smith’s sentencing for a six-year prison term in 1974 is inescapable, though the actual charge brought against him (gifting the contract for a £1,000 model of Peterlee New Town to corrupt property developer John Poulson) has been disputed. Smith’s biographer Chris Foote Wood argues that he pleaded guilty to the charge, after having won two similar previous cases, because he ‘was told by his legal team that if he didn’t plead guilty, the powers-that-be would come back again and again until they got a conviction’. 

Going by the available evidence, and at the distance of several decades, it seems probable that Smith was guilty of at least some of the corruption charges levelled against him. More recent cases of prominent politicians and their pacts with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Saudi government help to put Smith’s relatively minor misdemeanours in perspective. But arguing that he was not quite as bad as the racketeer democrats of the neoliberal era does not pose much of a defence.

T. Dan Smith walks among the Cruddas Park flats, built by his administration in the 1960s to turn the slums of Newcastle’s West End into a “modern city in the sky.” (Credit: Amber Archive)

What is certain is that Smith’s intellectual legacy is worth celebrating. It is one thing to criticise an individual for personal shortcomings, quite another to use them as a means of repudiating an entire chapter in the history of socialist-driven regional government. It was surely more than paranoia on Smith’s part that he repeatedly claimed he had been the victim of an establishment stitch-up. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Smith’s trials, when it came to the subsequent PR war, the parable of a semi-autonomous northern city empowered by modernism and socialism was probably never going to avoid censure and smear.

People of a Region

Since his downfall in the 1970s, the rusty, brutalist moniker ‘T. Dan’ has been used as shorthand for the failure of post-war modernist dreams. In the North East, Smith is still privately esteemed by many as a folk hero, but others have swallowed late-twentieth-century propaganda, blaming him for the demolition of an imagined lost city of quaint Victorian buildings, and their subsequent replacement with the ‘concrete monstrosities’ of anti-modernist cliché. 

In reality, the Smith-led council of the sixties enriched the landscape of Newcastle in a way that is scarcely believable, especially in our modern context of crumbling public infrastructure and plastic-clad student flats. The centre of Newcastle is now virtually derelict in many places, with weeds growing out of the cornices of John Dobson’s Georgian terraces, and private housing and stag-do hotels sprouting from the ruins of Brutalist cadavers. Nevertheless, the civic frameworks laid down by Smith’s administration are still just about surviving, in the face of neoliberal neglect and the hostility worked up by conservative tendencies in the last few decades.

The Tyne and Wear Metro was the UK’s first modern light rail system, and is the only system of its kind in England outside of London. (Credit: Getty)

As in so many walks of British political and cultural life, the vestiges of Smith’s socialist civic dream are still eminently revivable. All that is needed is a determined reformist government in Westminster with the sense and the wherewithal to truly empower northern cities, giving them the means to renew and extend public treasures like the Tyne and Wear Metro, and ensure that modernist masterpieces like Newcastle Civic Centre are not auctioned off to private companies to stop the council from going bankrupt.

In the twenty-first century, ‘briefcase computers’ are real, and automation is at least a plausible ambition for radicals seeking to dream an egalitarian future. As we move towards that prospect, we need to recover T. Dan Smith’s vision of a city full of art, architecture, and radiant public amenities. We also need to grasp the essential truth at the heart of his life and writings: that the city of the future can only be built when regions at far remove from London realise their hidden power and identity. Smith described an epiphany he had while flying high in a plane above Newcastle Airport in the late sixties, which affirmed this requisite with characteristic eloquence:

‘And then, as we brushed the low-lying cumulus, the whole of the North-country offered itself to us. Towns and moors, rivers and forests, coasts and lakes. Counties cut down to size and parochial jealousies ironed out. If ever there was a revelation of togetherness, this was it. We of the North were not just town or country or city dwellers. We were people of a region.’

Despite what they say, about this and so many other things: T. Dan was right.

A number of the images in this article are sourced from the Amber Archive’s T. Dan Smith Collection, which can be viewed in full here.

About the Author

Alex Niven is a writer, editor, and lecturer in English at Newcastle University. His books include Folk Opposition, Definitely Maybe 33 1/3, and the forthcoming New Model Island.