Interview with T Dan Smith – Spital Tongues – 16mm Film

Project: ‘T Dan Smith: A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’

Brief Description: Uncut interview with Smith, 1984

Notes: venue – T Dan Smith’s lounge, interviewer Murray Martin

00:00 – Interviewer asks how TDS got involved in politics. TDS was born in Wallsend, 1915. Early experiences of weary returning soldiers, parents were anti-war

03:30 – Father a union miner, involved in 1921 strike, so no money at home. Survived 1927 mining disaster. Pay poor, home conditions poor, no running water

05:30 – Talks about first Labour government, 1924. Seen by father as detached from working class. Undermined by 1926 general strike

10.30 – Talks about experience of general strike, being taken to first mass meeting, wanting to address such a meeting

13.50 – Mother had job cleaning telephone exchange. Parents religious, methodist, believed in equality but also deference. Had come from Durham pit village to industrial Wallsend. Family read a lot, bought record player, listened to Caruso etc. Mother’s second job allowed purchase of piano which sister learned

21:00 – Father drank, smoked and gambled. Sister rejected family, got job at Holystone Hospital then in midlands, married boy from Rugby school

24:40 – When TDS aged 10 family moved into colliery house. Was opposite Corporation Yard where horses and carts collected human waste from the ash closets. Men’s urinal, abbatoir and blacksmiths at end of road. Saw brutality of meat rade, later worked at abbatoir

31:00 – As a lad had to be able to fight and play football. But also sang in church – had good voice

35:30 – Didn’t do particularly well at school but was able to make first public speech at his headmaster’s retirement (1929)

38:40 – Left school for office job at 13 ½ but sacked on first day for not saying sir. Then got job as painter’s apprentice. Went to night school 3 nights a week, became expert in painting techniques. Drinking and gambling also part of painter’s life

46:00 – Through 1930s he became political. Rejected Communist Party for its reponse to fascism in Germany and Spain, was more allied with POUM and the anarchists in the latter.

49:00 – Many left movements before WWII but when ‘bugles sounded’ most socialists became patriots, went off to war.

51:00 – TDS was member of ILP, was on national committee, but was expelled 1942. Then joined Revolutionary Communist Party but was expelled from that too.

54:00 – Dropped out of politics for 5 years until 1950. Moved, started family, started a painting business

57:00 – Then went into local politics, had formed view that provinces would become locus of political action, centre less important. Had 8 years in opposition – Newcastle a Tory council then, spent this time forming policies – public enterprise  to replace private enterprise

60:00 – Tories and Labour conspired to keep him away from power, put on committees he didn’t want. Got Housing Committee in 1958, had mixed feelings  because hated stuff then being built – which continued to be built while he was in charge because of time lag. It was two years after he’d finished as chair of housing committee that first buildings he’d influenced came on stream (Scotswood Road split levels)

63:00 – He had successes on housing – stopped evictions, got every family on waiting list a date for rehousing. These successes got him elected Council Leader. He was the first political leader to head a council outside the Greater London Council

66:00 – He promoted the NE region via the regional development agency, Northern Arts etc. The existing council structure got in the way – there were 18 councils along the Tyne eg. But his regional vision fitted with views of Hailsham, Macmillan, Heath – he persuaded Macmillan it made sense to shift power down

71:00 He wanted public sector to control development, not private contractors, and went to the best European architects, also to relevant departments at University and Poly

72:00 But he was tipped off (by a senior policeman with MI5 connections) of a lobby seeking to depose him – a ‘pack of hounds’ pursued him until 1964. However, he still got his projects moving – campaigns for an independent (from Durham) University, Newcastle Poly, Northern Arts etc were part of his ‘regional renaissance’. He was getting invites to London meetings with Tory ministers (and Labour shadow ministers)

76:45 By the time Labour came to power nationally in 1964 he had created a European regional network – Newcastle, Frankfurt, Milan etc.

80:00 Sought to create new cadres of regional technocrats to bypass conservative elites at top of Whitehall, thus achieving decisive shift in power. Harold Wilson now prime minister, Smith was close to centre – he knew far more about workings of Whitehall than inexperienced new Labour ministers.. Was used by George Brown to set up DEA (Department of Economic Affairs) – designed to remove power from Treasury

84:00 Back in Newcastle he had reformed local government, replacing traditional Town Clerk with experts with business skills. Region was starting to work as a region – airport, road network, Arts etc. He demonstrated commercial value of public sector

89:00 Stepped down from Newcastle post to take on regional role – to avoid risk of Newcastle being seen as dominant. Had series of behind scenes successes but, nationally George Brown was removed from DEA and provincial planning was being pushed back

93:00 Then he was arrested. He resigned his positions despite knowing he was innocent as he believed politicians had to have integrity

95:00 He didn’t understand process that led to him being charged. In his first trial he persuaded the judge that he should be tried separately from those he’d been charged with and won that. His second trial cleared him and awarded him costs. But by the Poulson had been ‘made home secretary’ [via his links with Maudling] and was thus in charge of the police who were investigating him

97:00 When Poulson went bankrupt, Maudling had to resign. ‘Everyone knew’ there had been a cover-up of Maudling and Smith was the fall guy. Leaks to the press etc fueled the situation. He hoped to be tried with Poulson but was charged and tried separately

101:00 Third trial meant legal proceeding against him were into a fifth year. He pleaded guilty having seen the evidence against him despite knowing it to be a set-up, judges notes full of falsehoods

102:00 Prison experience was illuminating; he saw people driven to cutting their throats, saved the life of a man who’d cut his wrists. He interviewed 150 lifers, including the last two who’d been on death row. He set up a range of reform machinery in prison. Was sad Labour Party remained committed to a pointless prison system

105:00 Coming out of prison, he’d lost nine years of his life, was massively in debt, was hounded by media, but had a generally friendly reception from ordinary folk.

110:00 Maintains there was no evidence against him – pleaded guilty to corruption in Peterlee because he knew he could later expose conspiracy against him

111:00 Works with ex-offenders, sees the arts as a means of communication, believes he has learned a great deal about human feeling

116:00 Labour Party has shown lack of compassion in rejecting his application to rejoin

ends at 116:21

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