#RhodriMorgan: A politician who will be truly missed

| May 19, 2017 | 0 Comments

Rhodri Morgan (pictured), former EU official, who served as First Minister of Wales from 2000 until 2009, died on Wednesday (17 May) aged 77. Nick Powell remembers a politician whose affable manner and pragmatic approach helped his party weather storms almost as severe as the one that threatens to engulf Labour in the general election next month. 

Apart from a shared love of walking in the Welsh countryside, Rhodri Morgan didn’t have much in common with Theresa May. Although both were grammar school educated Oxford graduates, it wasn’t just their political beliefs that were very different but their entire approach to politics.

It’s certainly hard to imagine Rhodri Morgan ever refusing to take part in a political debate with his opponents. For him, every meeting, every press conference, every trip to the pub or bike ride with friends was an opportunity to debate, discuss –and digress.

The son of a university professor, he had an unembarrassed desire to share knowledge, explore options and never ever be reduced to robotically repeating a spin-doctor’s sound bites.

However, like the Prime Minister, the former First Minister of Wales was propelled into office by one of the crises caused by Britain’s unique approach to its membership of the European Union, the combination of high principle and low politics that has led to Brexit.

Rhodri Morgan was badly misjudged by Tony Blair, who could never quite fathom his garrulous manner and often unkempt appearance. When Blair became Prime Minister he decided not to entrust ministerial office to someone who so utterly refused to embrace the slickness of new Labour

But that control-freak approach was to risk disaster. Before the first election to the Welsh Assembly in 1999, Blair had expended considerable political capital persuading the party not to make Rhodri Morgan its candidate to head the new government of Wales. The result was to make the Prime Minister’s preferred choice, Alun Michael, look like a puppet in the eyes of many voters.

Faced with the prospect of not winning an overall majority in Wales, Blair flew straight to his party’s Welsh conference from a European summit in Berlin. He announced that he had secured billions of pounds in European aid for the poorest parts of Wales. As a bribe it didn’t work and Michael found himself heading a minority government, with the opposition parties waiting for an opportunity to force him from office.

Rhodri Morgan was given the economic development portfolio, but he knew that the apparent boost to his budget was worthless. He’d spent seven years as the Commission’s representative in Wales and knew one of the guilty secrets of Britain’s membership. Whenever part of the UK received European aid, the Treasury in London would reduce its own payments by the same amount, Wales would be no better off.

The democratic scrutiny provided by the Assembly soon exposed what the Treasury had been getting away with for years and the ensuing crisis cost Alun Michael his job. An emergency meeting of the Welsh cabinet chose Rhodri Morgan as his replacement. Tony Blair had little choice but to accept the decision and the Treasury rules were changed a few months later. Rhodri Morgan set about forging a distinct Welsh identity for Labour in Wales, placing what he called “clear red water” between himself and Blair.

A committed European, as well as a life-long Labour member, Rhodri Morgan saw support for the EU as something quite separate from the Blair project. He had sat out the party’s disastrous 1983 election campaign, fought on a manifesto that included a commitment to pull Britain out of the European Community. He had viewed events from the neutrality of the Commission’s Cardiff office.

Four years later, he was one of a group of new Welsh Labour MPs who had won their seats from the Conservatives and then set about teaching their party to love Europe and to rediscover its commitment to self-government for Wales. Both had been reliable causes of deep divisions within Labour for decades but Rhodri Morgan was one of those who made them key values in the party’s renewed appeal to the electorate.

Labour’s rejection of Blair’s legacy led to an ambivalence about the European Union shown by the party at the time of the Brexit referendum. Many of its most loyal supporters voted leave. They are now telling opinion pollsters and party canvassers that they will follow the logic of their decision last year. That means backing Theresa May at next month’s election.

Labour in Wales is now facing a potential disaster bigger than 1983 or 1999. For the third time in the forty years the party is close to losing its grip on Welsh voters. This time Rhodri Morgan isn’t there to play his part in dragging Labour back from the brink.

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Category: Frontpage, UK, Wales

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