The warmth of the tributes to Rhodri Morgan in the wake of his sudden death this week have been remarkable in a period when politicians are generally unloved. In large part this has been a reflection of the warmth that he himself brought to his political tasks and relationships. His personality was such as to enable him, especially in the final decade of his career, to engender affection right across the nation he led. And that affection had positive, perhaps historic, political consequences.
There is little doubt that his most singular achievement was, as the President of the National Assembly, Elin Jones, said yesterday, “anchoring the institution firmly in the national psyche”. After all, Wales’s first ever national democratic institution had had a very nervous start: a referendum won by a hair’s breadth, the unexpected sad end to the career of its architect, the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, the engineered election of its first leader, Davies’s successor, Alun Michael, at the behest of Tony Blair, and an early collapse of confidence.
Rhodri Morgan’s eventual election to the leadership of his party in Wales and to what was then termed the post of First Secretary, a mere eight months after the inauguration of the Assembly, seemed a matter of justice delayed. It also calmed the waters. There was no doubt that he was the popular choice of party members, but also a leader who could create a relationship with the public.
‘A man of the people’ is, in this instance, no empty cliche. He was seen by the Welsh public as authentic – ‘one of us’ not ‘one of them’ – an invaluable asset: a character who was certainly colourful, but who, arguably, managed to stop short of eccentricity.
Yet to some extent this might be seen as at odds with his upbringing. His was a quintessentially middle class background, the son of a leading Welsh academic, younger brother of a distinguished historian, Prys Morgan, and educated at Whitchurch High School, Oxford and Harvard. Apart from growing up in a Welsh speaking household, deeply imbued with Welsh cultural values, he was also a child of the sixties, the few years between him and his brother perhaps, in that decade, marking out a distinct cultural shift.
I recall the late Lord Brooks who, as Jack Brooks, had been leader of South Glamorgan County Council, telling me of interviewing Rhodri for the post of Industrial Development Officer – a tale of its time. “Rhodri walked in with this big afro haircut, not really a cut at all. I could see that all the councillors were nervous. But when he started to talk we were all blown away”.
In that interview, as in so many circumstances, Rhodri would no doubt have drawn on his other gift, a near photographic memory, an asset that once was of great help to me.
As a young journalist on the Western Mail I had met Rhodri, and many other Labour stalwarts in the back bar of The Old Arcade, a place where, were it not for the Brains beer, you could have done a post-graduate diploma in politics. One day, in the mid 1970s, I managed to get advance warning of Ford’s plan to build a factory at Bridgend and rang Rhodri at the council to pick his brains. Instantly, he connected it with a story he had read in the Financial Times three months previously. Without pausing he recalled the headline, the date, the page and the number of the column. And he was right.
That gift of memory must have been an asset in every role he took on, whether running the European Economic Community’s office in Wales in the 1980s or in his Parliamentary career, after his election as MP for Cardiff West in 1987. It was certainly a gift he deployed in his forensic examination of wrongdoing, especially in his time as opposition spokesman on Welsh Affairs and, after Labour took power in 1997, as Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration. Not least, it was evident in his campaigns against quangos, especially the WDA, and the Cardiff Bay Barrage.
Like several others, in 1999 he put years of experience of Westminster at the disposal of the National Assembly, but it must have been a big shift not only to move into governing mode, but also to become the First Minister of a wholly new democratic institution. Importantly, in Rhodri the new National Assembly had the advantage of being led by someone who, by upbringing and conviction, believed in devolution as, in Ron Davies’s words, ‘a process not an event’. On the devolution issue he had always been on the more radical wing of the Labour Party, in the 1990s supporting a pressure group, Welsh Labour Action, that advocated a system of proportional representation for the Assembly.
As First Minister, therefore, it was not surprising that he encouraged and facilitated the constitutional debate and the development of the institution, out of conviction rather than the self-interested logic of office. Also grounded in deep knowledge of his own community and rooted in his family life, with his wife Julie and three children, he never basked in the benefits of office.
On the policy side he resisted some of the initiatives of New Labour, preferring, in his own words “clear red water’. He was not afraid to plough a distinctive Welsh furrow. For instance, he resisted privatisation in a way that did not lumber Wales with the financial burden of PFI schemes. In combination these approaches meant that Labour averted the party’s fate in Scotland.
That said, it would be easy to pick holes in the performance of the National Assembly and the Welsh Government in that first decade, flaws not always excused by the youth of the institution. Labour’s long period of opposition during the Thatcher and Major years, had meant that many MPs had developed the ingrained habits of opposition, Rhodri not least among them. The transition to governing mode would not have come easily. Moreover, he was not a ruthless man.
All the more remarkable, therefore, that even with the limited media that we have, Rhodri Morgan managed to stitch the National Assembly and the Welsh Government into the narrative of Welsh life as effectively as he did. It was a personal achievement and an historic one.