Which Way to Utopia? Assessing Our Current Understanding T. Dan Smith Part 2: Historiography

If you are unfamiliar with the history of T Dan Smith, I recommend that you read part 1 (‘Local Hero or Corrupt Councillor?’) before reading this.

For this article I have chosen eight pieces of historiography surrounding the life of T. Dan Smith to review. Due to the relatively small amount of published material on T. Dan Smith I believe these to be sufficient to fully cover the historiography.  Primarily, I will be assessing how attitudes towards Smith’s legacy have evolved over the years, relating to his charges of corruption and his personal vision for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I highlight a clear transition in the historiography, which progresses from the notably negative appraisals of the early 1980s towards the far more positive revisions of later years; all culminating in Chris Foote-Wood’s 2010 text which boldly proclaims Smith as ‘NOT GUILTY AS CHARGED’. I will finally evaluate whether the historiography overall has provided a conclusive narrative on the figure of T. Dan Smith, and decide that there are still many unanswered questions surrounding his character to be explored.

The earliest major text to be released about T. Dan Smith is his own: “An Autobiography”, which was released in 1970 before any corruption charges were brought against him. In contrast to later sources Smith’s own text carries a far more nonchalant tone, not cast in the harsh light of criminality. Indeed, Smith gives the impression of a man stepping back from ‘my public life’; by its very nature an autobiography indicates a conclusion, a summary of one’s achievements in the assumption of the best being behind you. One consistency with later sources is the emphasis placed on Smith’s working-class youth and the impact of the Second World War (WW2) on Smith’s life (perhaps because the later sources had no other source material to work with apart from Smith’s recollections). What Smith emphasises is his love of the radical politics of the post-WW2 era which gave birth to the national health service, and his disappointment in how quickly after the fact politicians turned instead to ‘petty things’. Certainly Smith casts himself as somewhat of a visionary, someone who had brought us back to ‘those radical days of 1945’. He regards the brutalist architecture executed under his stewardship, a factor so often used against him in later evaluations, as a prime example of this future-facing attitude, describing the buildings as being of ‘the highest standard and best design’.

In 1975 a small article was released from an Australian university interested in local government studies which discussed Smith’s political career. However, it makes no reference to the corruption trial that had taken place only one year hence. Furthermore, the article is particularly positive, saying that Smith ‘engendered an optimistic and dynamic attitude’ in the city council. If nothing else, this article shows the unusual impact Smith had on the political sphere in his time; few leaders of local councils are written extensively about at all, never mind from across the globe.

After this point no major evaluations of T. Dan Smith are released until, in typical form, two come very close together in the early 1980s. These are by far the most condemnatory texts on Smith to be released. The first of these, “Nothing to Declare”, primarily focusses on John Poulson, but the text devotes an entire section to Smith. It casts him as a young visionary socialist with good intentions who lets himself get corrupted by Poulson and the system at large. It proclaims that ‘by the end the vision was gone, replaced with tawdry self-interest’. In the context of itself the text builds a strong case against Smith, using extracts from letters sent between Smith and various other figures as evidence. In the most damning of these correspondences Smith writes that a potential employee must ‘be unaware of any tie between J. G. L Poulson and me’. However, the provenance of these extracts is often unclear and always appears mixed in with passages of hearsay and speculation which somewhat degrades the argument. Smith is quoted as having said ‘I support the building of council houses, but that does not mean I want to live in one’ but no source is provided. Indeed, later in life Smith did live in a council house. There is a distinct sense that the main desire here is to neatly slot Smith in to the overall narrative on Poulson presented, describing Smith as Poulson’s ‘chief lieutenant’, Poulson of course being the ‘arch corruptor’.

The second of these texts, “Web of Corruption”, places Poulson and Smith in the exact same relationship, even using the term ‘lieutenant’ in just the same context. However, the differences between these two texts are more pronounced than may initially appear, because although they hold similar sentiments towards Smith, they are marketed towards different audiences. Web of Corruption is a text aimed toward a far wider audience than Nothing to Declare, the large red font over the bright yellow cover immediately catching the eye. Its attacks on Smith are a viscious spectacle, describing him as a ‘con’ who was nothing more than a ‘moderately gifted amateur’. It paints a vivid image of a ‘socialist hero’ who has fallen from grace to become ‘unemployed but almost friendless, isolated but not ignored’. This text more than any other demonstrates the public appeal of Smith’s character and case, a man who had lived such a public life now finding his fame turned against him. Rather hypocritically the text goes on to criticise Nothing to Declare for sensationalism, describing it as looking for ‘another Watergate conspiracy’. Contrarily I believe Web of Corruption to be a far more sensationalist piece, looking to attack anyone associated with the Poulson scandal. No references are provided and in all the text is more interested in human tragedy over hard evidence.

In contrast to these highly critical texts, the later 1980s saw a selection of material which did not cast Smith in as much of a devilish tone. Two documentaries produced at similar times both seek to somewhat revaluate his character. They do not claim that he was innocent of corruption but do begin to frame this affair as a case not so firmly closed. The first of these, a 1986 British broadcasting corporation (BBC) production entitled “T. Dan Smith”, describes him as a good man manipulated by private business into doing bad things. The key difference here is that it does not describe him as being “corrupted”, he himself has not turned onto a dark path; instead others have manipulated him. The film also gives more time to his achievements, casting him as the ‘pioneer and prophet’ of local government and giving him the title of ‘a modern crusader’. This together with the second of these documentaries from Amber Films gives the impression that, after enough time had passed, the public were willing to reassess Smith’s character.

The 1987 Amber Films production, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utopia”, takes a similar position to the BBC film; although where the BBC film takes a more neutral stance, A Funny Thing is quite sympathetic towards Smith. The style of the production as half documentary half drama points, in the same fashion as Web of Corruption, to the popular appeal of T. Dan Smith. His story is exciting and his personal involvement as both a character and an interviewee highlights his own desire to be fictionalised. A Funny Thing takes great interest in the conspiracy surrounding the idea that Smith was made a scapegoat for higher powers, such as Reginald Maudling and the privy council, an idea that Smith is happy to engage with in proclaiming that he had been ‘fitted out’ because he ‘wasn’t one of them’. There is talk of a ‘power above parliament’, a dark underworld which still remains uncovered. What strongly comes across in the interviews with Smith is how incredulous he feels in how he has been treated by the media, angry at an injustice done against him. Overall the film does not acquit Smith of guilt but makes no compromise in eulogising his vision for the city as a ‘new Brasilia’, although concluding that the result of his work did not match his ambition.

In 1993 a thesis entitled “The New Brasilia?” takes a further step toward favouring Smith. The thesis does not tackle the allegations of corruption but does seek to assess whether Smith’s vision for the city was ‘harmful or beneficial’, and then to conclude if he did ‘realise [his] goals’. It also goes somewhat into the state of Tyneside before Smith took over in 1965, noting that unemployment at that time was twice the national average, a statistic which Smith helped reverse. In its conclusion the thesis is surprisingly positive, describing Smith’s assessment of the issues that Newcastle faced as ‘basically correct’ and his solution as a ‘relative success’. The New Brasilia decides that, in the context in which it was carried out, Smith’s redevelopment was good for the city in its ability to stimulate the local economy and deal with traffic problems, and that his vision was sound.

Ultimately, we are brought to the 2010 text “Voice of the North”, which inverts all assessments of Smith thus far. The text frames itself as a “myth buster”, carefully going through all the allegations made against Smith and rebuffing them. It seeks to reinstate Smith as the proud figure of north-eastern regionalism he once was before the 1970s. The text goes through many of Smith’s achievements which are not discussed in any of the previous sources, such as his opposition to modern developments on the picturesque Grey street and to the bulldozing of the holy Jesus hospital which was shockingly described by the northern architectural association (NAA) as ‘not of the first importance’. It also goes to lengths to disassociate Smith from many of the concrete edifices so often linked to his name, pointing out how many of these were built after his tenure. Most strikingly of course, the text absolves Smith of his crimes entirely, favouring the view that he was ‘ground down’ into confessing his guilt by the press, the public, and other politicians. In regards to the specific case for which Smith was charged I find the argument convincing that he was indeed not guilty but overall I do not find myself persuaded as to his innocence in other matters, and indeed upon the book’s release there was resistance to this notion. Although I would regard this as the most historiographically sound of the sources I have reviewed I do believe it’s take on T. Dan Smith to be slightly too reverential. It is understandable why this may happen as a reaction to the previously overly-negative material, but a more balanced view would be appropriate.

Across these eight pieces of historiography a clear progression is visible surrounding our appraisals of T. Dan Smith. In entirety this has been a trend towards the positive, both in terms of his vision and his charge of corruption. In all it is clear however that no conclusive narrative has been produced on the figure of T. Dan Smith, and questions over his innocence and his intentions still remain.

Part 3 will look at the primary source material we have available about Smith and will ask whether it is substantial enough to come to some judgements about his case and character.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 21st of May 2018

Last Modified: 1st of June 2018 (Grammar Corrections)

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