Rhodri Morgan’s memoir a fitting farewell for the man who saved devolution

The dust jacket perhaps best sums up Rhodri Morgan and his place in Welsh life. I purposely use the term Welsh life as opposed to Welsh political life because Rhodri transcended politics: he was not just another politician, he was Rhodri.

The dust jacket includes a black and white picture, the word Rhodri and in much smaller letters “A political life in Wales and Westminster”. What other politician in Britain could have produced an autobiography title of just his first name and have it recognised.

Those who knew him can tell he wrote it himself, just like Rhodri, not the easy option of a friendly journalist, there would have been plenty of volunteers, recording his thoughts and using press cuttings to pad it out, no this is Rhodri in his own words and without either rancour or attacks on people who had hurt him.

This is the posthumously published account of the man who has been described as the father of devolution but I prefer to think of him as the man who saved Welsh devolution. Rhodri, despite what he says in the book, was a highly charismatic politician and took over as what was then first secretary at a time when Welsh devolution had only just achieved a majority in a referendum and the way the assembly was behaving in terms of censure and no confidence votes meant it was losing support across the nation.

If you were trying to produce an identikit leader for Labour in Wales then Rhodri Morgan would be it. Throughout the early pages he outlines, without comment or connection, his family and his pre political life:

One grandfather a coal miner.

One grandfather a small shop keeper who supported the miners in the 1926 strike.

His mother a teacher and his father a university lecturer in Welsh.

Well educated at Oxford and Harvard.

Fluent in both English and Welsh plus French and German.

A welsh non-conformist up-bringing.

Deep interest in football and rugby.

Family connections to both Swansea and Cardiff.

Experience of local government working as industrial development officer at South Glamorgan county council

Experience of Europe as head of the European office in Wales.

The ability to mix with and talk with everyone.

Things could have been so different. Having seen Lord Jack Brooks, the major figure in Cardiff South politics, in the constituency in which he used to live, he asked about the vacancy caused by Jim Callaghan’s retirement but he was rebuffed. Jack suggested he try Cardiff West.

Cardiff West was a surprise conservative win at the 1983 election but the candidate at that election, David Seligman, had decided not to seek the nomination again. This did not make the selection process any easier as he was up against the local constituency chair Gareth Williams who had several nominations but withdrew due to having young children. He was also up against Ivor Richard who later became Lord Richard and who also had been a minister when Labour had been in power during the 1960s. It was Richard’s to lose and he did so when he described as “impertinent” a question on whether he would be a full-time MP and cease being a barrister.

As Wales swung back to Labour, Cardiff West elected a Labour MP once again. Rhodri at Westminster, with Labour in opposition, became part of Tony Blair’s shadow energy team and then part of the shadow Welsh office team.  He was not appointed to the Welsh Office team in 1999 when Labour won.

A consistent and passionate supporter of devolution, Rhodri stood twice for leader of the Labour party in Wales but was defeated in both elections. Welsh Labour used the electoral college system and despite overwhelmingly beating Alun Michael in the one-member-one-vote membership ballot he failed in the other two sections. During this time he made one of his famous remarks “does a one legged duck swim in circles?” Of course, being Rhodri, he attributed to its original source which was Phil Ford, the former Welsh international rugby player

As first ninister of Wales he led three Labour governments in Cardiff Bay, including two coalitions, that he describes in detail. He managed to get support for deals with both the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru from politicians and party members who were bruised by electoral battles with them. He also produced another famous quote about the desire for “clear red Water between Wales and Westminster”

The book is written in his typical lack of ostentation and allows us to read his final reflections on his political life in Wales, in Westminster and beyond. It is a unique insight into the history of the Welsh assembly and Welsh politics. Rhodri we all miss you – and Wales is a poorer place without you.

Mike Hedges is AM for Swansea East.

Rhodri: A Political Life in Wales and Westminster by Rhodri Morgan is published the University of Wales press.

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