Rhodri Morgan: A tribute from a Friend

Rhodri was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever known and I was extremely fortunate to have been his advisor through the intense political years between 1995-2000.

In that era of political spin some couldn’t comprehend how a politician so free-range and organic as Rhodri Morgan could have the kind of political reach with voters of which well-groomed perfectly packaged politicians could only dream.

And Rhodri really did have reach. He could knock on any door in Wales and be recognised – the only question was if those he met would express delight and amazement at a visit from the First Minister, or simply say

“Hello, Rhodri”

and invite him in for a cup of tea like a longstanding friend or long-lost uncle.

Long before he became First Minister I went with him to a one-day cricket cup-tie at Sophia Gardens. We had a couple of tickets in the cheap seats. At the time, there was a BBC Wales campaign in support of the team with the chant

“We love Glamorgan-Morgan X 2”

which had been adopted by the fans.

As we arrived late to take our seats the crowded stand stood and started chanting:

“We love that Rhodri-Morgan – We love that Rhodri-Morgan”.

Of course many have mentioned his sporting obsession, particularly his interest in Rugby and Welsh Athletics. In fact the last time I saw him, with Julie, the Saturday before he passed away, he leaned over during a scintillating Indian Dance performance at the National Museum to ask me to look up the score in the European Rugby Cup Final on my phone.

Famously at the Hay Festival a few years ago the late, great poet Dannie Abse was remembering the Cardiff City line-up of his youth but could not remember the final name, a voice from the back of the audience helped him out – it was of course, Rhodri.

But our friendship was at root political one, and it was the events before and after the 1997 General Election that forged his place in Welsh History. He was blunt and profane when he rang me up to tell me that Tony Blair had not appointed him to government after the years he had put in on the Welsh Affairs Shadow team preparing for devolution.

But as Julie said last week – Rhodri never dwelt on things for long – he didn’t look back in anger.

It always amused me when he was First Minister, that he liked to take visitors out on the balcony next to his office to show them all the things he had unsuccessfully opposed like the Barrage, or this building which he called ‘The Lean-to’.

He never wasted time brooding on a setback – he embraced it as an opportunity.

So in 1997 he quickly decided that he would stand for the Assembly and the Welsh Labour Leadership. He understood, more than anyone, that devolution would change everything – and that it would fail – and Labour in Wales would fail – if it was believed to be s branch office of Labour HQ in London. In a real sense that was the moment that Welsh Labour was born.

He saw the real potential of devolution before anyone else – and even when intense pressure came on him to stand down to allow the then Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies a clear run he was determined there should be a contest.

I remember being told that the Secretary of State would not have time to do any debates with Rhodri. I explained that this was not wise. Two or three set-piece debates were all that was needed – but if that was refused Rhodri would get himself invited to every Labour Party Branch in every little village in Wales – he would drive himself there – know half the people in the room – be related to the other half - drink a swift half – eat fish & chips and enjoy himself immensely whilst the busy Secretary of State for Wales would be run ragged trying to keep up with him – and so it proved.

The rules in that contest did not allow for a fully democratic vote, but there was no doubt who the people of Wales really wanted.

The rules of the second contest were a little better but again all the stops were pulled out from the top to stop him But if Rhodri was anything he was determined –  actually he was stubborn – he believed passionately that he was the right person to make a success of devolution precisely because he didn’t fit the model candidate mould.

He knew that for Wales to embrace devolution the leader would not just have to be from Wales but would have to be seen to be have been made in Wales.

I remember once when the umpteenth Cabinet Minister that week was sent down to tell Welsh Labour Members why Rhodri was the wrong choice, he quoted an American General from the Battle of the Bulge

“They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards”.

it was another setback but he threw himself loyally into his work as an Assembly minister.

When he got the top job I was his special advisor and our first visit was to Ireland with Paul Murphy. The Irish loved him because he was loquacious, learned, witty, and as my father used to say “could talk the hind legs off a donkey”.

It made me think that perhaps the real reason the London establishment never took to Rhodri, at least at first, was that he was absolutely not, an Anglo-Saxon. They seemed to think he was joking when he was serious – and that he was serious when he was joking – l

ike when the London media reported it straight when he said he enjoyed being driven around in his First Minister’s car with the number plate “Taff 1”.

The Irish got his enjoyment of the  playful art of seemingly pointless but actually deeply illuminating conversation in a way that the efficient functionaries of the modernising project never could.

Many people have spoken about how in later years, Rhodri randomly gifted them produce from his garden. One woman said to me, rather memorably, last week –

“he honoured me with his rhubarb”

And in a way that’s how I feel about the many hours of meandering conversation he and I had in the office or the pub, at the rugby or on long car journeys or down the Riverside Market.

“He honoured ME with his rhubarb”.

 It was a privilege to converse with someone so genuinely interested in everyone and everything – for whom conversation was an art to be explored and enjoyed and for whom the most painful pun like ‘Last Quango in Powys’ – was a treasure to be celebrated like the finest poetry.

Not that there was anything shallow in Rhodri’s cultural life – he enjoyed Art, Music and Poetry as he loved Sport and Politics.

Ironically, words cannot adequately encapsulate this remarkable Welshman – this everyman – this sometimes somewhat dishevelled figure with his unique, unruly hair – who treated everyone equally, who loved people of all races and backgrounds, who loved life, loved his family, particularly his grandchildren, who loved nature and loved to grow things in the soil, and swim with dolphins in Cardigan Bay

– no words can capture him but when I thought of Rhodri and his sudden passing and of the mortality we all share with him.

These words of Walt Whitman came to my mind

“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Thank you Rhodri, for honouring us all with the gift of your friendship and company and with the legacy of your life and freedom.

Hwyl Fawr