Bi-Focal Wales

John Osmond listens as Rhodri Morgan reflects on why he decided he was a perfect fit as First Minister

Speaking to a glittering gathering at Cardiff  City Hall last night, brought together by the Muslim Council of Wales, First Minister Rhodri Morgan reminisced why he had so badly wanted to lead the National Assembly ten years ago. It wasn’t ambition, he said. It was just that he felt perfectly equipped to do the job.

This was due to the duality of Wales, which made it such a unique, indeed peculiar country. In fact Rhodri Morgan referred to the place as if viewed through a bi-focal lense. It was actually two places in one. There was the old Wales, the Wales that went back more than 1,500 years and had endured through the centuries born aloft into the 21st Century by a still living Celtic language.

“It may be a language that these days is only spoken by some 20 per cent of the population,” he said. “But it is a language, heritage and tradition that all the people of Wales are intensely proud of, something that marks us put and makes us different.”

And then there was the new Wales, the one created in the furnace of the first industrial revolution that had occurred across the south Wales coalfield. This was a modernising, disruptive experience that had cut right across the older Wales and creating a completely different tradition in its wake.

But Rhodri Morgan said he had felt comfortable and at home with both dimensions of Wales. Indeed, both were embedded in his own upbringing, political career and personality. His family background rooted him in the old linguistic tradition of Wales. His father T. J. Morgan was a Professor of Welsh and one of the  finest essayists in the Welsh language. His brother Prys remains the leading authority on every aspect of Welsh cultural history.

Meanwhile, Rhodri himself rooted himself in the traditions of the Welsh Labour Movement, from the time that he frequented Cardiff pubs in the 1960s with the likes of Jack Brooks, Paddy Kitson and Neil Kinnock, to becoming Labour MP for Cardiff West in 1987.  In an elegant essay on Rhodri Morgan’s achievements as First Minister in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, the cultural historian Peter Stead remarks:

“What marks Rhodri out from most people active in public life in Wales is that he does not have any attitude or affectation at all about being Welsh or Welsh speaking. His Welshness is not rooted in any anger. Moreover, it is nit something that has to be continuously worked out in any sense of antagonism with Englishness, Britshness, or indeed any region or sub culture within Wales itself. He was born into a natural state of Welshness that allowed him to study at oxford and Harvard and to be a Westminster MP without ever having to concern himself with questions of identity or loyalty.”

In fact, as Rhodri Morgan observed about himself at last night’s dinner to celebrate him and ten years of devolution, he embraces within his own personality the bi-focal Wales he described. This is why he will be such a hard, perhaps impossible, act to follow.

John Osmond is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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