Back in 2003, a colleague who worked in opinion polling was briefing a team of field researchers in south Wales who were about to collect responses to an election survey.
These researchers were a formidable group of women whose no-nonsense approach ensured that Wales had the highest survey response rate in Britain. But it also meant that the pre-survey briefing could be a tough gig as their warm yet sceptical attitude – characteristically Welsh, I like to think – served to ensure that any hint of academic pomposity or self-indulgence would be immediately exposed and punctured.
And so it was until my colleague turned to discuss with them a question on the survey dealing with attitudes towards Rhodri Morgan, then First Minister of Wales, who passed away on May 17 at the age of 77.
“It’s amazing,” my colleague later said. “Not only did they all say they liked him, but they all claimed that they’d actually met him in some pub or club or somewhere!”
That was the thing about Rhodri (again in typically Welsh fashion, the surname is superfluous). Not only did people in Wales regard him as “one of us”, itself a rare enough feat among politicians, a staggering number of people actually seem to have viewed him as part of their wider circle of acquaintances.
In part this was, I suspect, due to his physical stature. Rhodri was a physically imposing man whose mere presence in a room seemed to generate a small gravity well. Whether he was suited and booted at an official function (yes, his aides did manage that on occasion) or wandering in Cardiff’s Riverside market in a tatty looking fleece, your eyes were always drawn to him.
Ultimately, though, his character was more important. Rhodri would talk to anyone and everyone about anything and everything. Sport, politics, culture, history, his knowledge was encyclopaedic and his enthusiasms apparently boundless. When he battled against his own party establishment to become Labour leader in the National Assembly for Wales, his detractors liked to put it about that Rhodri was a bit of a phony. After all, wasn’t he the Welsh-speaking son of an academic family who’d been educated at Oxford and Harvard?
But what made Rhodri unique is that he was entirely and utterly genuine – as genuinely enthralled by the history of Welsh boxing as he was immersed in the latest developments in the global steel industry. As proud of his success in growing vegetables as he was of his achievements in high office. Faking this kind of thing is impossible and people instinctively warmed to him – including eventually, previous detractors within his own party.
A truly Welsh man
This, though, isn’t his legacy. Rather it’s what he achieved with his status and undoubted popularity. Welsh speakers have an old saying about leadership: a fo ben bid bont – to be a leader is to be a bridge. Rhodri Morgan’s lasting legacy is to have acted as bridge for both his party and his nation.
Rhodri was always fiercely opposed to Plaid Cymru, in part because he saw himself as continuing his father’s battles with Saunders Lewis, the dominant figure in Plaid’s early history. Nonetheless, he was a small “n” Welsh nationalist who was both happy and eager to stress the differences in both values and policies between Welsh Labour and the British level party.
Whereas Scottish Labour became, in effect, the tribunes of New Labourism in Scotland, Rhodri Morgan used his credibility to stress the “clear red water” between Cardiff and London. His government remained committed to universal provision and was deeply suspicious of PFI jiggery pokery.
But more important, perhaps, was the simple fact that Rhodri was very clearly not Blair’s man. He was rather the antithesis of New Labour spin. By rebranding and differentiating “Welsh Labour” from the national party he ensured that Plaid couldn’t build on its strong performance in the first devolved election of 1999.
The current general election campaign only serves to underline the success of the effort to transform Welsh Labour started by Rhodri in 2000 and continued by first minister successor Carwyn Jones since 2009. In Wales, Labour is running a small “n” nationalist campaign presenting itself as “standing up for Wales”. While this may not in itself be enough to save Welsh Labour from a historic mauling, the party still matters here in a way that it simply doesn’t elsewhere in Britain.
Rhodri’s contribution to the wider nation has been even more significant. When he took over the leadership of Labour in the National Assembly in 2000, the institution still felt very fragile. The mandate provided by the 1997 referendum could hardly have been weaker and the disastrous first few months of devolved government under the leadership of Alun Michael had done nothing to improve matters.
Nine years later, however, Rhodri stood down as first minister with the principle of devolution having been very widely embraced by the Welsh public. He was the bridge over which Wales and the Welsh travelled in order to arrive at a point where a Wales without devolution is now nigh-on unthinkable.