Obituary: Keith James – a friend of Wales

Keith James is the IWA founder

Geraint Talfan Davies, former Chair of the IWA, remembers its co-founder Keith James, who passed away on 4 May 2023.

Keith James, who died last month, is the reason that the IWA exists. He sensed early the need for a Welsh think tank, but without his sense of conviction and his contacts in the business world, it might never have happened. 

In the 1980s, as Wales weathered the closure of coal and the rundown of steel, as well as the trauma of the long miners’ strike, Keith and I were wont to meet in The Three Horseshoes in Peterston-super-Ely. There we would put Wales and the world in its place and vent our frustrations at the prevailing culture in the Welsh business world of private complaint but public silence about government in those pre-devolution days. 

Even civil servants at the time complained of a lack of intellectual challenge from the business community. 

We concluded that crying into our beer was not enough, and put together a paper proposing a new think tank to sharpen the policy debate and broaden the audience for ideas. It was through Keith’s influence that we managed to raise enough money from the Welsh Development Agency to set up the Institute of Welsh Affairs in the autumn of 1987. 

A little later Keith – for many years a legal advisor to the Hodge Group – was also crucial in getting Sir Julian Hodge to back the venture, by providing finance to support the appointment of a full-time Director. 

Keith put together a letter that naturally praised Sir Julian’s own contribution to Welsh life. A meeting was arranged. When we both sat down in front of Sir Julian, then in his 80s, he greeted us warmly: ‘Thank you, boys, for your very lovely letter. I assume I’ve got the job.’ He got a big laugh. We got the money.

Happily, 36 years later the IWA still exists. Keith served on its Board for two whole decades and was very supportive of successive Chairs and Directors of the organisation thereafter.  

He had been a figure of growing stature in the legal world in Wales ever since becoming a partner in the Cardiff firm, Phillips & Buck, soon after completing a law degree at Queens’ College, Cambridge in the 1960s. It was indicative of his loyalties that after graduating from Cambridge, it was to Cardiff that he returned to practice law. Later, although insistent that his practice should grow, and be ambitious and outward-looking, he saw no reason why that could not be done from the Welsh capital. 

It was no surprise that he was a leading figure in the merger of Phillips & Buck with several other practices in England to become Eversheds – more recently known as Eversheds Sutherland – a company with a very strong base in Cardiff to this day.  

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Over the years, his acute strategic sense as well as his legal expertise also assisted the development of a long list of Welsh companies – many of them companies whose markets and ambitions were not limited by geography: Hodge, Hamard, Lion Laboratories, Hotspur Armoured Products, Osprey Metals, Peel Jones Copper Products, the Bank of Wales, Axa, Peters Savoury Products, Atlantic Properties and the Admiral Group. 

He wanted success for his practice and, naturally, he wanted success for its clients. In fact, I often thought that the commercial world was actually a greater attraction to him than the law. But more than that, he also wanted success for his own patch. He wanted Wales to be a better place. A passion we both shared. 

Keith was an active, engaged citizen

It was in our frequent and intense conversations about the Welsh economy and business community that you could see behind Keith’s usual measured, diplomatic exterior, and sense that emotional impatience that he had with all things substandard or second rate – whether in business or politics, or in a restaurant or theatre – the pursed lip, and the flashing eye. He was even renowned for occasionally leaving the theatre in the interval, if the play didn’t suit. 

Keith was an active, engaged citizen, always with that meticulous integrity that Henry Engelhardt, the former Chief Executive of Admiral, commented upon in Keith’s memorial service. His breadth of interest was remarkable: ultimately, the Chair of the Hodge Group, a director of the Admiral Group, of HTV Wales and of the Bank of Wales. But also a Chair of the Wales Committee of the National Trust and, more recently, a director of the Moondance Cancer initiative. 

He was a rounded person, who saw his own community in the round, too. He had a mind informed by wide reading (and podcast listening!): literature, political tracts, nature, the environment and local history. 

Rarely, if ever, would he emerge from a second-hand bookshop without some new purchase. Something on the future of civilisation one day, and the history of his family’s roots in Alltwallis in Carmarthenshire the next. He had a feel for the land of his birth, not only because he was of it, but because he had walked so much of it. He loved its countryside, and I think it comforted him. 

He was the source of much wisdom and empathy, of sound advice, encouragement and support. Always good counsel. In short, he was a great citizen of Wales, to whom our debt is large. But I shall remember him, above all, as a truly wonderful friend. 

Keith James died on 4 May 2023. He is survived by his wife, Linda, and children, Alys, Lizzie and Tom and their families.  

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Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of the IWA, and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European (Parthian, 2018).

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