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Thomas Daniel Smith (11 May 1915 – 27 July 1993) was a British politician who was Leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council from 1960 to 1965. He was a prominent figure in the Labour Party in the north east of England, such that he was nicknamed 'Mr Newcastle' (although his opponents called him "The Mouth of the Tyne").[1][2] While leading the redevelopment of his city, Smith formed business links with architect John Poulson which led to his trial for accepting bribes in April 1974, at which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years imprisonment. He starred in a film of his life released in 1987.

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Early life

Smith was born in Wallsend, the son of a miner. Both his parents were communists and Smith adopted left-wing opinions himself. He was unemployed during the 1930s but founded his own painting and decorating business in 1937 which was known for being somewhat economical (its local nickname was 'One-Coat Smith'). During World War II, Smith registered as a conscientious objector and was initially active in opposing the war and organising strikes against it; he supported the war after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

During the war, Smith joined several left-wing organisations. He was a regional representative for the Independent Labour Party in 1943, and later joined the Revolutionary Communist Party where he led a shipyard strike. By 1945, he was a member of the Labour Party. In 1950 he was elected to Newcastle City Council as a Labour member, and became Chairman of the Labour Group in 1953. It was at this stage that he took to using his first initial in his name, after an embarrassing incident at Newcastle Airport when he was confused with another Dan Smith.

Takes charge of Newcastle

When the Labour Party won the 1958 local elections and took control of Newcastle, Smith was appointed Chairman of the Housing Committee. His success in launching new housing schemes led to his promotion to be the Leader of the Council in 1960. As Leader he instituted a personality-based leadership, creating an 'inner Cabinet' of his own supporters.

Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans, such that the city was nicknamed (at his suggestion) "The Brasilia of the North". He also pumped money into local arts institutions. Smith's council authorised the demolition of a large section of Newcastle city centre for a shopping centre. So influential did Smith become that Lord Hailsham was sent up to Newcastle by the Conservative cabinet to try to counter him.

However, Smith's personal desire to make money began to get linked with his political desires. Already it had been spotted that Smith's painting and decorating firm received more than half of the contracts for council housing. In 1962 he established a public relations firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the north-east, and later nationwide. This company formed links with John Poulson, an architect keen for the business and known for paying those who could supply it. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson's prepackaged redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.

Smith was a political contemporary and ally of North East Labour stalwart Andy Cunningham, who was also brought down by the Poulson scandal and served a jail sentence.

Political advancement

On the day after the 1964 general election, Smith waited for what he thought a certain phone call to invite him to become a Minister in Harold Wilson's government. However, Wilson had a vague suspicion of Smith, and Smith's alliance with the more moderate side of the Labour Party meant that no such invitation was made. In early 1965, George Brown appointed Smith as Chairman of the Northern Economic Planning Council.

Smith was also to serve on the Buchanan Committee on traffic management and the Redcliffe-Maud Commission on local government. On the latter he promoted a scheme whereby England would be divided into five provinces with wide devolution, making Manchester the capital of the North province with 17,000,000 people.[3]

Corruption trials

Smith's PR firm was involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme, where its contact was Alderman Sidney Sporle. Sporle fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s and an inquiry led to Smith being charged with bribery in January 1970. Although acquitted at trial in July 1971, Smith was forced to resign all his political offices. Subsequently, Poulson's 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery and in October 1973 Smith was again arrested on corruption charges. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years' imprisonment; despite his plea he continued to assert his innocence.

Post prison

While in prison, Smith was involved in amateur dramatics and encouraged Leslie Grantham to pursue this career as a professional; Grantham was later to star in the BBC soap opera EastEnders. On release from Leyhill Open Prison in 1977 Smith attempted to rebuild a political career, but was refused readmission to the Labour Party. He worked for the Howard League for Penal Reform and campaigned for the rights of released prisoners, and occasionally commented on municipal housing issues. In 1985 he wrote that "Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain."[1]

In 1987 (the year he was readmitted to the Labour Party), Smith starred in a drama-documentary[4] about his story and the regeneration of Newcastle. This was based on his autobiography, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utopia (Amber Films, Newcastle. 1987)

By 1990 he was on the executive of the Newcastle Tenants Association, and living on the 14th floor of a tower block in the Spital Tongues area of the City.

In popular culture

Smith's story was also the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery's play, Our Friends in the North. Ther part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong in the 1996 BBC television drama version.

He was also the subject of 'Dan the Plan', a song written by Lindisfarne's Alan Hull which appeared on 1975's Squire LP.

References

  1. ^ a b Robert Waterhouse, "T. Dan Smith" (Obituary), The Guardian, 28 July 1993.
  2. ^ "Southern Discomfort" (leading article), The Times, 3 August 1993.
  3. ^ Robert Waterhouse, "Obituary: T Dan Smith: Fallen hero of the North", The Guardian, 28 July 1993.
  4. ^ http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/t-dan-smith-1987
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