Martin Shipton reflects on Carl Sargeant’s death, and the impact on Welsh politics
This article first appeared in the journalist, the magazine of the national union of journalists
I can pinpoint with some accuracy the moment that covering Welsh politics changed irrevocably for me.
It was around 11am on November 7 2017.
My phone rang and a distraught friend said through tears: “Carl has taken his own life”.
He was referring to Carl Sargeant, who four days before had been removed from the Welsh Government’s Cabinet by First Minister Carwyn Jones following unspecified allegations of sexual harassment.
I let out an involuntary “What?” that mingled astonishment and anguish, and was heard across the newsroom.
It was an appalling and unexpected sequel to the shocking news of his dismissal the previous Friday.
I’ve been a journalist for more than 40 years and have been aware of a number of politicians over the years who have been notorious for their inappropriate behaviour towards women.
On one occasion, when I was a witness to blatantly gross behaviour, I reported the individual to his party. I was later assured that he had been given a warning, but months later he was promoted to a ministerial role.
Carl Sargeant was never on my list of sleazeballs. On no occasion did I observe him behaving in a lewd or suggestive way towards women. He was a champion of women’s rights and a crusader against domestic abuse who piloted legislation aimed at tackling it.
Women who knew him as well as men were shocked that no details of his alleged transgressions were given to him before he was sacked from his role in the Cabinet and humiliated publicly by being suspended from the Labour Party in a way that was clearly inconsistent with the party’s own sexual harassment policy. Instead of referring Sargeant for investigation by a specialist civil servant under the ministerial code (as Damian Green was by Theresa May), a special adviser was tasked with conducting a cursory ad hoc inquiry, the results of which did not stay in government but were passed to the Labour Party.
For many sympathetic to Sargeant, natural justice appeared to have taken leave of absence.
At his funeral mourners were urged to wear white ribbons in solidarity with domestic abuse victims – and as the sign of a pledge to do what they could to end violence against women.
Something didn’t add up. Over the months since Sargeant’s death there has been endless speculation about what happened in the days before he was sacked. Some evidence has emerged of collusion between individuals within government and others outside it in advance of Sargeant’s sacking, but much remains unknown, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in Welsh political life.
He was first elected in 2003, four years after the Welsh Assembly came into being. At the time of his death I described him as an authentically working class politician – one of an increasingly rare breed.
I socialised with him and on occasions a group of us – all involved in politics in a number of guises – would go for a curry. He became chief whip of the Labour group and then a minister, but he remained down-to-earth and unfailingly kind.
When I met him in his local Labour Club in North Wales for the first time during one election campaign, he asked one of his team to walk me to the station so I didn’t get lost and could catch the last train to Cardiff.
Convivial as he was, I became aware of his vulnerability three years before he died when he told me during dinner at a friend’s flat how he was being bullied by a senior government official. Implausible as it sounded, he convinced me that it was indeed possible for an official to bully a minister.
Unfortunately neither Carl nor anyone else wanted to go on the record at the time, and he got cold feet when I produced a draft story about the alleged bullying. I felt able to write and publish a piece about it after his death, as part of an effort to establish the truth.
Carl Sargeant’s death and the circumstances which surrounded it continue to dominate Welsh politics. Even when a story has no bearing on the late minister, the events of November 2017 often conspire to impinge on it.
The Sargeant family has embarked on a High Court challenge aimed at overturning a decision that their legal team cannot cross-examine witnesses during a QC-led inquiry into the First Minister’s treatment of Carl Sargeant.
Former ministers and advisers have spoken of a toxic culture at the heart of Welsh politics. Personal relations between people who have been friends for years have been put under strain in a way that previously would have been unimaginable. Attempts have been made to nobble stories, sometimes with success.
Carwyn Jones may have stood down as First Minister, but his role in the Sargeant affair remains under intense scrutiny. Those around him are sensitive to any negative publicity that may damage his legacy. Underlying trust has broken down, despite a superficial attempt to maintain business as usual.
Before November 2017 things were very different. From an external point of view, Welsh politics was seen as the least interesting of the three devolved nations. Scotland and Northern Ireland hold out to the English the unedifying prospects of independence and a return to terrorism. Wales, by contrast, appears not to hold out very much, apart from the occasional sex scandal.
It simply doesn’t have the leverage to cause significant trouble, which is one reason why the Welsh Government caved in to Westminster on the EU Withdrawal Bill “power grab” issue while the Scottish Government continued to hold out.
Nevertheless, politicians and other players in Welsh civil society remain preoccupied with the status of Wales and the constitutional change they say is necessary to even up relations between the four nations of the UK.
Carwyn Jones has become the champion of a constitutional convention, one of whose remits would be to come up with workable proposals for a second chamber at Westminster to replace the House of Lords. From time to time he makes speeches to academic audiences that are well received by academics and the slightly wider Welsh civil society community. The conundrum, of course, is how to come up with proposals that will be acceptable in England, which through sheer size holds all the negotiating chips, certainly in relation to Wales.
Without any leverage, Wales is in the position of permanent supplicant to its next-door neighbour, often mixing indignation with an appeal for fair play.
When Westminster says no – to electrification of the main railway line beyond Cardiff, for example – there are howls of disapproval from Welsh politicians who know they are impotent to do anything about it.
Never mind: the headlines in Welsh newspapers and packages on Welsh TV news channels play well with the local parties. When Welsh political journalists are not reporting on the latest perceived insult from Westminster, they are grappling with the challenges of providing decent public services with limited funds in what is the UK’s poorest nation.
At least that was the case until November 2017.
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