John Osmond on a man who wielded great policy influence across the parties
Gareth Jones was a Welshman of unbounded optimism in a country which specialises in pessimism, especially in the years leading up to the creation of the National Assembly. His ideas, often promoted by the IWA of which he was a trustee, radiated into the wider community in ways that were rarely traced back to their source but will reverberate for decades to come. Gareth, who has died in Cyprus aged 76, was a major influence on the early years of the National Assembly, and in particular the first coalition government between Welsh Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
It was his chairmanship of the Welsh Liberal Democrat policy committee in the late 1990s that ensured the party’s manifesto for the first Assembly elections was widely hailed as being the most imaginative of all the parties. Many of its proposals found their way into the coalition agreement that was negotiated between Labour’s Rhodri Morgan and Mike German, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, across the summer months of 2000. As Mike German recalled, “His contribution was inestimable. We would sit around his vast dining table with everyone bringing their policy proposals forward on a single sheet of A4. Following discussion, the proposals fell into one of three categories – acceptable, required further work and crap. Avoiding ‘crap’ and being dumped in the waste bin became the challenge for us all. Meanwhile his wife Helen would prepare vast meals to feed the thoughtful Lib Dems. The end result was a manifesto with hundreds of tightly drawn clear proposals, which became the backbone of the Welsh government between 2000 and 2003.”
Gareth was most proud of the inclusion of a scheme to pilot a Welsh Baccalaureate to replace the A Levels in Wales. This had been first proposed in his influential report Wales 2010: Creating our Future that he produced for the IWA in 1993. Typically for Gareth this was a panoramic survey of all aspects of Welsh life that addressed the question he himself posed: “What should we, the people of Wales, do to enable Wales to be one of the most prosperous regions in Europe by the year 2010?” With that year almost upon us he was recommending that the question should be asked anew, but perhaps with the year 2030 being substituted. By then he hoped, and it is likely, that his treasured Baccalaureate, based on the International Baccalaureate qualification that was pioneered in Wales in the 1970s, will have become the Welsh ‘gold standard’.
Gareth Jones was born and brought up in the Valleys town of Blaina. His mother was a teacher and his father a mine surveyor who died when he was four. As a child Gareth played the piano and cello to a high standard, winning many awards in Eisteddfoddau, and becoming a cellist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales at 17. He was an Exhibitioner at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he read Chemistry and Anthropology and also continued to pursue his interest in music.
Following two years National Service with the RAF he became a chemistry teacher, first at Stationers School and later in Dulwich College, London. In the early sixties he worked for Shell and rose rapidly through its management at the same time as studying for his PhD in Psychology at the London Business School. Later he joined the American consulting group, Booz Allen Hamilton, where he became head of the London office and the first European to be appointed to the New York Board of Directors. In the 1980s he joined the UK accounting firm then known as Ernst & Whinney as head of their consulting group which he expanded and developed.
Returning to Wales at the end of the 1980s Gareth became Chairman of the Neville Hall Hospital Trust, responsible for the main hospital at Abergavenny and numerous small hospitals in the surrounding mining valleys, including his home town of Blaina. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the NHS he wrote The Aneurin Bevan Inheritance, the story of the growth of the health services in the mining valleys from 1700s onwards. On his return to Wales he also immediately learned Welsh and later wrote Welsh Roots & Branches, a study of the derivation of Welsh words to assist learners.
He became involved in an extraordinary range of organisations involved in Welsh life and culture, including as a member of the Board of Welsh National Opera, a Governor of the University of Glamorgan, and chairman of the Welsh composer Mansel Thomas Trust. He also founded and chaired the Beacons Trust which he established to develop the commercial potential of small businesses in Powys. This is where he settled on his return to Wales, in a magnificent hill-side home at Bwlch near Brecon with historic links to the nearby medieval Tretower Court.
However, it was in his role as chairman of the IWA’s Research Panel that Gareth Jones wielded most influence in these years. He brought to it not only his acute acumen and depth of experience, but also a boundless energy and optimism that infected all around him. Over two decades the Panel’s work fed into the manifestos of all the parties in Wales, but especially the Liberal Democrats in whose interest he was a Powys county councillor and on the Board of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Latterly Gareth had settled in Cyprus, where he had forged links over 25 years, and worked tirelessly on a book on the French language which he had just completed at the time of his death in December last year.