A Welsh European who found us new horizons
Gwyn Morgan, who has died in London aged 76, was an important figure in Wales during the 1970s in setting new horizons for the way we could imagine our country. For Gwyn, a Labour man to his fingertips, was also a Welsh European. With his close friends Hywel Ceri Jones and Aneurin Rhys Hughes, he was one of a Welsh triumvirate in influential positions in the European Commission in Brussels. Together they formed a kind of unofficial embassy for Wales.
During the long debate over Britain’s membership of what was then called the Common Market that culminated in the 1975 referendum, many delegations from Wales to Brussels invariably encountered them. In doing so they were exposed to what in those days was a rather novel idea, that the future of Wales and Europe were inextricably linked.
Following the referendum, when Wales rejected the advice of most of the political establishment in Wales, including most of the leadership of the Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, Gwyn returned to open the European Commission’s office in Cardiff. As Geraint Talfan Davies has put it, in his memoirs At Arms Length:
“For a period Gwyn brought a certain élan to political life in Cardiff that cemented in many minds a natural affinity between two causes – Europe and devolution.”
Gwyn was at the centre of one of the great ‘might have beens’ of Labour party history. Born in Cwmdare in the Cynon Valley, the son if a coalminer, he attended Aberdare Boys School and Aberystwyth University. He went on to take an MA in Classics and trained as a teacher before becoming president of the National Union of Students. In 1965 he became head of the Labour Party’s overseas department before taking over as deputy general secretary in 1969. In that capacity he gave evidence to the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in January 1970. It was an indication of the sensitive nature of the exercise, plus a reflection of the essential centralism of Labour’s political machinery in those days, that Gwyn was parachuted in to sit alongside Emrys Jones, secretary to the Welsh Council of Labour.
Two years later Gwyn narrowly missed becoming general secretary of the Labour Party. He lost to Ron Hayward on the casting vote of Tony Benn, at the time chairman of Labour’s National Executive Committee. In those days being general secretary of the Labour Party was a powerful and influential role. If Gwyn had succeeded in getting the post his European affinities and natural political skills might have prevented the party splitting over the Europe in the way that it did in the 1970s. In turn this might have led Labour to becoming a more modern social democratic party in European terms, headed off the formation of the SDP, and internalised the realignment of the left in British politics that nearly happened in the 1980s and may, finally, be happening now. This is why Gwyn Morgan will forever be associated with one of the ‘what ifs’ of British political life.
As it turned out, in 1973 he headed off to Brussels to become chef de cabinet to the first Commissioner for regional policy, George Thomson. From then on it was to European integration that he devoted his life. Following his interlude opening the Wales European office in the late 1970s, he spent the next few decades representing the European Commission in far-flung corners of the word, from Israel to Canada, Turkey, Israel, Thailand and Indonesia.
But when I think of Gwyn my thoughts invariably return to 1976 and No 4 Cathedral Road in Cardiff where the IWA now occupies the top floor office. In those days the floor below us housed the European Commission’s Wales office and it was there that Gwyn Morgan was at the centre of some early devolution maneouvres. In anticipation of a forthcoming referendum in 1976 Gwyn called together a group of activists to be the core of the Yes campaign. The ‘action committee’ comprised at the outset George Wright, general secretary of the Wales TUC, Jack Brooks, then Labour’s leader of South Glamorgan County Council, Sir Alun Talfan Davies, who had been a member of the Kilbrandon Commission, Geraint Talfan Davies, and myself.
Our first concern, however, was not the referendum, but the fate of the Scotland and Wales Devolution Bill then going through the House of Commons. There was the distinct possibility of a Conservative wrecking amendment to delete Wales from the Bill. The Bill itself was a hotchpotch affair and had attracted more than 700 amendments, which was why eventually there had to be a guillotine motion in an attempt to get it through. There was a lot to be said for separating Wales and Scotland into two Bills, as eventually happened, but at the time we were fearful that the Commons voted simply to delete Wales a Welsh Bill might never surface.
So, to the consternation of our families, as Geraint puts it in his book, he and I took two weeks off work, encamped in Gwyn’s office in Cathedral Road, and set about collecting 700 signatures for full page advertisements to be placed in the Western Mail and Daily Post. Other members of the ‘action committee’ twisted arms to cover the costs. Copies of both newspapers and a letter to every MP in the Commons were driven to Westminster on the eve of the debate, and Wales survived in the Bill by 24 votes.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. For, as Geraint puts it in At Arms Length, “In crafting the declaration John and I had placed it under the rash heading –‘Parliament must let Wales decide’. That’s just what Parliament did, and two years later Wales rejected an Assembly by four to one. That was not how it was meant to be.”