A while back I saw a film by Amber Films called ‘A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’ about T Dan Smith – the Newcastle City Council leader in the Sixties who was later jailed for corruption. The film itself was in some ways a rather clumsy Eighties Channel Four effort that blended a dialogue between film makers about a documentary they were making about T Dan Smith (with interviews with the man himself) and a drama about a character based on T Dan Smith. At the same time the format was a strangely effective way of examining a complex tale and a complex man, from a number of differing angles and viewpoints.
T Dan Smith himself was a mesmeric interviewee. Although the evidence against him on corruption was hard to refute he could have convinced you of just about anything. If you want to see him in action the Amber Film is not too easy to find (I can’t find any extracts on the web) – however there is some good archive footage on real player on this BBC site.
When he set out his wider political analysis and strategy it was striking and compelling. In essence his view was that if you have a small number of driven, intelligent and like-minded people who have a clear strategy and understanding – but who are flexible on tactics – you can capture institutions and you can change the world.
However, having said that – forget about changing the UK from the centre. The London and national establishment is too entrenched. They will absorb you and you will fail – every time. By comparison establishing a strong powerbase in the regions is child’s play. You can then change the country by building up strong regions which creates pressure on the centre to devolve. If you achieve that you can bypass the national establishment and create a new Britain made up of powerful and confident regions.
He nearly succeeded as well.
He first put some brio and ambition into North East politics and governance by setting his sights on turning Newcastle into the Milan of the North. In his mind there was no reason why the North East couldn’t emulate Milan – a European industrial power house that embraced modernism, industry, the future and an appetite for life. A city that was quasi-independent from the deadening and opaque institutions, the establishment webs, of the nation-state.
The motorways, tower blocks and concrete plazas followed as Newcastle tried to bulldoze and system-build its way into the future.
Having become Mr Newcastle – the mouth of the Tyne – in 1966 T Dan Smith got himself onto a national commission for local Government re-organisation (the Redcliffe-Maud report) and pushed the case for regional government. He was making good progress too. If the report had been fully implemented the country would have been divided up into eight provincial councils (what we would probably now call regional councils). Below the regional councils there would be 58 large, single-tier councils. The exception being the largest urban areas where there would be three super Metropolitan authorities (West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Merseyside). The super Metropolitan authorities would have had lower tier councils below them. This was exactly the kind of structure that T Dan Smith would have taken full advantage of to create powerful regional Government.
But at the same time Smith had also set up his own public relations company. Among his clients was a boorish, bullying and all round identikit Yorkshire Bore by the name of John Poulson. Poulson was a talentless architect who bribed his way through nationalised industries and local authorities to get commissions for various grim and ugly concrete eyesores some of which still disfigure British cities today. T Dan Smith’s PR work included extending Poulson’s largesse to councillors and officials who were happy to sell out their city’s futures for relatively pathetic amounts of cash (you can read a workmanlike journalistic account of the story in ‘Nothing to Declare’ if you can pick it up second hand).
But such was Poulson’s greed and vanity that in his dash for expansion his company became a pyramid sales operation – he was so over-exposed that he could only keep the company afloat by winning more and more commissions which cost him more and more in bribes. Eventually the failure to land some big contracts in Malta caused the company to go under.
The crash brought into the spotlight that T Dan Smith wasn’t the only one on Poulson’s payroll. Conservative Home Secretary Reggie Maudling was also pitching for business for Poulson (all part of Britain’s export drive don’t you know). In fact Maudling was partly selling the Poulson brand because he needed cash to pour into the money pit that was his wife’s vanity project – a ballet theatre in East Grinstead.
However when the Poulson empire fell apart it was T Dan Smith who was among the prosecuted – not Reginald Maudling.
What the film (or T Dan Smith) never made clear was why – when he had such determination, allied to a clear politically strategy (a strategy that might have paid off) – he got involved in greasing the wheels for the Poulson machine. Maybe he liked the high life, maybe he saw the Poulson operation as a small part of a bigger strategy for the modernisation of the North – and the ends justified the means. I don’t know.
One of the fascinations of the T Dan Smith story is why such a disciplined and idealistic plan for the re-making of the North as self-confident, creative, dynamic and prosperous cities descended into shoddy deals over shoddy buildings. And why working class councillors brought up in the neighbourhoods they represented sold out their neighbours’ futures in return for petty bribes to approve trashy housing schemes.
Indeed in many ways this is the original sin that propels the decades long narrative of the TV series Our Friends in the North – a disillusionment that leads to the dissolution of communities and relationships, the loss of ideals and the rise of Thatcherism.
But then of course T Dan Smith would say its not as straight forward as that. At the time tenants weren’t complaining about the new high rises – they wanted to know why they weren’t going up faster. When they would get their flat? And he argues in the film that whatever the faults in the new housing projects they were a massive improvement on the slums they replaced.
What is clear though is that there’s no-one much around in the city regions that is providing anywhere near the strategic leadership that T Dan Smith showed. The last of that was perhaps in the Eighties before Thatcher finally rolled over the left wing leadership in South Yorkshire and Merseyside. Now England outside London (perhaps with the exception of Manchester City Council) is a sleeping giant. There’s few MPs or Councillors that city residents would identify as the voice of their cities. These days political heavyweights seem to prefer the empty glamour of Westminster and London. When they finally get some ‘power’ as Ministers they invariably tow the line and when they are eventually turfed out of their Whitehall Deparment – and if they are heavyweights – then they seem to prefer wasting their time with inconsequential nonsense in the London media industry than doing something of consequence for the cities of the North.
Meanwhile in London and in Edinburgh people like Ken Livingstone and Alex Salmond have showed that like T Dan Smith you can have far more impact and have far more influence if you grab the opportunities that come from regional leadership than you can from being an MP or a Minister in Westminster.
And one day the North will rise again…