Politicians with hinterland

Mark Drakeford looks back at the lives of two Welsh socialist leaders who offer lessons in humanity for our own era

The final stretch of 2011 was a cruel one for those involved in Labour politics in Cardiff. Within a few weeks, we witnessed the deaths of both Caerwyn Roderick and Bob Morgan, deputy leader and leader, respectively, of South Glamorgan County Council exactly thirty years ago. Their period in Cardiff politics stands midway between the formation of the welfare state in the post 1945 period, and the times we live in today.

In this brief note, I want to say something about both men and to join in a wider debate which has been running amongst those interested in politics over recent times, about the changing nature of British political leadership.

In some ways it is hard to think of two more strongly contrasted individuals. Caerwyn Roderick was an outsider to Cardiff politics. He came from winning three General Election victories during the 1970s, in the rural Brecon and Radnor constituency. As Michael Foot’s parliamentary private secretary during the minority Labour governments of the 1974-79 period, he was pivotal in securing the support of Wales’ three Plaid Cymru MPs in staving off defeat during the precarious period of the Lib-Lab pact between Cardiff’s James Callaghan and David Steel, the newly elected Liberal leader.

The fact that Caerwyn was Welsh speaking, chapel-going and from the left of the Labour Party meant that he was ideally placed to carry out this work. It meant, quite certainly, that when he became a member of the Labour Group in South Glamorgan, he saw local politics in a much wider frame of socialist thinking and public service which had been tested in the flashpoints of some of the most dramatic House of Commons scenes of the post-war period.

In practical terms, Caerwyn’s contribution to the council could be seen most directly in the field of education – unsurprisingly for someone who had been a teacher before entering Parliament, and was now a full time official of the National Union of Teachers. It is hard to recall, now, that until Labour took control of the council in 1981, the beating of children with sticks was still allowed in all South Glamorgan schools. Quite certainly, the remarkable history of the development of Welsh medium education, which has continued in Cardiff to the present day, dates from that administration, and Caerwyn’s contribution to it was fundamental.

Bob Morgan – or Father Morgan, as he was universally known in Ely – was an instinctive socialist. When I came to live in Cardiff in 1979, my first job was to work as a probation officer in Ely. I therefore knew Bob as the Vicar of the Church of the Resurrection, before I knew him in politics. I concentrated on working with juveniles, as they were then known, and was quickly impressed by the number of them (not all natural candidates for dancing), who spent their evenings at the Res Disco, over which the Reverend, in an early example of Ely entrepreneurship, presided.

Now, if Caerwyn had had to deal with Welsh nationalism, the only sort, which Bob recognised, was a nationalism for Ely. For 35 years he cared for, argued for and stood up for the people of that area. To go visiting houses with Bob was to see the difference which a simple gesture of common humanity could make, even in circumstances where, otherwise, that quality was noticeably absent. And, with Elaine and their four children, he lived out the life he recommended to others. As Leader of South Glamorgan County Council, he brought the same qualities to the wider task of political leadership. He was most radical where it was most right to be so. The first half of the 1980s were uncannily like the period in which we now live – rocketing unemployment, deliberately created, cuts in public expenditure, an assault on the whole notion of government as a vehicle for solving common problems. Yet, even in that bleak context, the Council took action to outlaw the beating of children in schools, to shift services for looked after children emphatically in the direction of foster care, to create the first Women’s Committee in Wales, to kick start the development of Welsh medium education in Cardiff which continues to the present day.

Bob also told the single best original political joke I’ve ever heard. Recalling the fact that he had taken on the leadership of the Labour Group during the 1970s, when the Party was at a very low ebb in the County, he went on to trace the amazing return to power in 1981, with a majority of only one, over all other Parties and the triumphant expansion in that majority to well into double figures in the elections of 1985. Then, a year later, came deposition in an internal palace coup. It was, he said, the only example in history where the crucifixion had taken place after the resurrection.

What, then, might we learn from these two lives, when thinking about today’s debates about the nature of political leadership?

Let me begin by some common heritage. Both Bob and Caerwyn were born within a single year of one another, at the end of the 1920s. By the time they were in their most formative political years, the Beveridge report had already been published, and the 1945 Labour Government was underway. The welfare state put in place was underpinned by a fundamentally socialist belief in collective solutions to collective problems which was rooted in the collective sacrifice of wartime. Unsurprisingly, it shaped the outlook of a whole generation.

It is hard to recall it now, but when Caerwyn first entered parliament in June 1970, the giants of both main political parties were still those with direct wartime experience, whether as Major Denis Healey, or Captain Edward Heath or the senior wartime economist, Harold Wilson. In a few cases, such as the then-independent MP for Merthyr, S.O. Davies, Caerwyn shared membership with people whose political outlook had been shaped even before the First World War.

The same would be true in Cardiff politics for Bob Morgan. He lived on Grand Avenue, surrounded by homes built for heroes in the immediate aftermath of 1918. Moreover, the leaders of the Council were figures who had been part of the municipal socialism which distinguished Cardiff in the interwar period, and whose lives are, today, mostly commemorated on fading plaques and street names.

It is fashionable today to compare contemporary political leaders with the era of Bob Morgan and Caerwyn Roderick and to conclude that, in Denis Healey’s phrase, they lack ‘hinterland’. The argument goes that, from the Blair era onwards, political leaders have become people for whom politics is all they know. They move seamlessly from jobs as special advisers, to Members of Parliament, to Cabinet membership and party leadership – as is the case with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Life lived so comprehensively inside the Westminster bubble must mean, the argument goes, that little can be known, or understood of the world of the Brecon hill farmer, or the Ely family and all which that wider experience represents.

No doubt, there is an important truth in all this. Politics is enriched by a wider range of perspectives and experiences than politics itself can provide. Yet, we ought to be wary of the argument that today’s generation of political leaders fail to measure up to the quality of their predecessors. The same regret has been in circulation since the days of the Roman republic, if not earlier.

Take, for example, that greatest of all Victorian political novelists, Anthony Trollope reflecting that belief, but for exactly the opposite set of reasons. In the Palliser novels, Mr Monk is a Cabinet member of a radical Liberal persuasion. He laments his late entry into a political career, arguing that, “from Walpole down those who have been most efficient as Ministers sucked in their efficiency with their mother’s milk”. The finest examples of political success, he says, are those of an earlier generation who “seated themselves in their office chairs the moment they left college”.

As this year ends, let us remember, and celebrate, the lives of Caerwyn Roderick and Bob Morgan on their own terms, and for their own achievements. Both were remarkable examples of applied socialist virtues. They shared a deep and passionate commitment to the necessity of improving the lives of those where improvement is most needed, and in the practical possibility of bringing that about through collective political action. Times move on, and styles of political leadership alter. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of that socialist creed remain as relevant as ever.

Mark Drakeford is Labour AM for Cardiff West.

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