Everybody knew him as Rhodri. You couldn’t help but like him. For me it was his quick mind, suffering fools gladly with amused exasperation; his silver-tongued articulacy, galloping ahead regardless, goading the baffled to keep up; his authentic polymath’s panoramic cultural and intellectual range that meant he could only ever be a man of the left; and, above all, his utterly unselfconscious, unapologetic, undemonstrative and unalloyed Welshness.
All his best qualities flowed from that Welsh wellspring. Wales doesn’t have a ruling class as such, simply because we are ruled by others, but a uniquely Welsh version of an ‘elite’ has nevertheless developed over the centuries. Without the power structures of realpolitik, our vanguard has had to emerge in alternative ways. In the vacuum of a nation without nationhood it was down to the intelligentsia to rise to the surface and take what initiatives were possible, congregating around the liberal arts of literature, language and learning for its own sake. Thus it has always been the musicians or poets or writers or thinkers or teachers that we have respected and lauded, and it was from that abiding strain of Welsh life that Rhodri emerged. His father TJ Morgan (1907-1986), the son of a Tawe valley coal miner, became a scholar of the Welsh language, professor at the University of Wales and serious academic writer, while his mother Huana Rees (1906-2005) from Swansea was also a teacher and writer. This background, regarding education as the highest purpose in life, instilled cerebral curiosity not purchased by privilege and not tainted by snobbery. There was always something of the didactic, idealistic, amiably impatient polytechnic lecturer about Rhodri – characteristics that became more and more precious as post-industrial Wales slid into dumbed-down, depoliticised passivity. His upbringing also endowed him with the effortless self-confidence that is the only common factor Welsh leaders share with the British ruling classes. However, although he could sometimes come across as blusteringly dismissive, his confidence was based on the solid ground of actual merit rather than the British comfort blankets of haughtiness, arrogance, supremacism, belittling, self-delusion and silver spoons.
He also represented a strand of politics that has become far too rare, if not almost extinct, in today’s Welsh Labour Party. Maintaining the radical, socialist traditions that were the Party’s founding purposes, traditions that automatically included anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and liberation for all small nations, including Wales, he kept alive those principles, albeit watered-down, while most of Welsh Labour took the Brit bribes and betrayed Wales. For him devolution was, in the words of Ron Davies, “a process not an event”. For Carwyn Jones’ timid, passive government, forever bridling at every tiny extension of self-rule from minor tax tweaks to policing, and for a tranche of rightwing Unionist Labour MPs who see their very pay-packet threatened by Welsh actualisation, devolution is definitely an event not a process – and, if at all possible, an event that they would like to see reversed.
Welsh Labour is currently in the hands of principle-free, closet Tory apologists for inequality, greed, and injustice and advocates of Welsh dependence and servitude, robotic clones who talk in vapid marketing speak, are guided by the billionaire proprietors of the Daily Mail and The Sun, and stand for nothing except feathering their own nests. They represent the polar opposite of Rhodri’s calling cards: imagination, knowledge, historical grasp, natural fluency and overarching concern for Wales and the interests of the Welsh people. Always trailing years behind the times, the Labour Party’s Welsh sub-branch has become totally Blairite just as Jeremy Corbyn is trying to push the party leftwards and just as socialism is needed more than ever by working class and young people throughout the UK. That’s why, for instance, the barely literate election material of Stephen Doughty, MP for the safe Labour seat of Cardiff South & Penarth where I live, contains not one mention of Corbyn and the excellent policies in his manifesto and instead keeps repeating the patent post-truth that the upcoming General Election to decide who sits in the House of Commons is purely about “local issues” and Doughty’s apparently extraordinary ability to “get things done” – someone should tell him we’ve just had the council elections. This is a cowardly and reactionary attempt to distract the electorate from the supposedly off-putting ‘loony left’ (©Daily Mail), when all Corbyn proposes is the sort of mildly Keynesian redistributive economics that would have put him squarely in the mainstream of the pre-Thatcher Tory Party and on the centre-right of the pre-Kinnock Labour Party. That is how far Labour has shifted rightwards. The consequences have been catastrophic for the UK, opening the way for the demagoguery and low populism of UKIP to occupy what should be Labour’s anti-establishment territory, and calamitous for Labour’s electoral hopes: the UK already had a Conservative Party to protect the interests of Big Business and the super-rich and attack the poor and the weak; it most definitely did not require another. Corbyn’s attempt to reconnect Labour to its values and its working class base is admirable, and Rhodri fully backed him, but the problem for Labour now is their phalanx of appalling MPs, many from the Blair-era intake, who actually think, talk and emote exactly like the far-right. In Wales the situation is particularly dire. We are beset by British nationalist Labour MPs such as Doughty, England-fan Owen Smith (Pontypridd), who ran the despicable and failed campaign against Corbyn for the leadership, Stephen Kinnock (Aberafan), the very incarnation of the benefits of nepotism, Nia ‘nuke em’ Griffiths (Llanelli), David ‘rule Britannia’ Hanson (Delyn), and the immortal Ann Clwyd (Baghdad West). Hopefully Corbyn might strengthen his position and then be as ruthless in purging Labour of the rightwing entryists as they have been in trying to oust him. Meanwhile, the state of the rudderless, pointless mess of Labour in Wales prompts the question of who in the Party is there with the understanding and commitment to continue Rhodri’s work and take Wales further along the journey to freedom? Where are Labour’s idealistic, passionate, new Rhodri Morgans for the 21st century? I’m looking, I’m listening, there’s no-one on the horizon…
The infant Welsh Assembly needed a Welsh patriot above all else during its painful birth and traumatic formative years. Following the narrow ‘yes’ vote in the 1997 referendum, the ‘moment of madness’ of devolution architect Ron Davies in 1999, the imposition of British stooge Alun Michael as First Minister by Blair and Labour’s London party machine, and then Michael’s turfing out by the AMs after a mere year in office, the fragile institution cried out for someone with Rhodri’s enthusiasm, energy, cleverness and sheer charisma. As First Minister between 2000 and 2009 (and AM for Cardiff West 1999-2011), he cemented the Assembly into Welsh consciousness and effortlessly proved, with humour, humanity, ethics and eccentricity, that Welsh democracy is a very good idea. His patent superiority by any measurement over his Labour contemporaries in London, Blair and Brown, demolished the notion that Wales is so lucky to be governed by those trustworthy, talented politicians in Westminster, while his radical roots were strong and hardy enough to not comply with the Blairite surrender to capitalism or wither under the weight of the baubles and status of high office. Thanks to both his instinctive understanding that the Tories are the real enemy and his bone-marrow overriding loyalty to Wales not Britain, even with precious little room to manoeuvre while constrained by the shackles of Blair’s insulting devolution settlement, he was able to put ‘clear red water’ between his government and New Labour in London and form a progressive ‘One Wales’ coalition with Plaid Cymru. And it is thanks to measures taken by that coalition that Wales is today slightly cushioned from some of the most damaging impacts of the free-market fundamentalism of Westminster. Welsh public services and social infrastructures, although grievously stretched and pauperised, have some semblance of fortification against the wholesale privatisation the Tories crave and as a result we don’t have all the manifestations of creeping marketisation, like foundation hospitals, academy schools, private finance initiatives, selective education, league tables and so on, that have been inflicted on the poor people of England. Only last week we saw an example of this when the English NHS, still using long redundant Windows XP in its computer systems, was brought to a standstill by hackers – something impossible in Wales because Rhodri’s Assembly government invested in up-to-date technology.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Rhodri was that man. In retirement, and after a heart attack, much of his rebelliousness, sharpness and stomach for the struggle inevitably faded. His weekly column in the Western Mail, which too often settled for the MediaWales template of bland bromides and Pollyanna platitudes, would have been thrown straight in the bin by the Rhodri of the 1990s who wrote the fiercely critical Cardiff: Half & Half a Capital and courageously led the opposition to the Barrage. Such are the depredations of time, I presume.
But nothing ever diminished what was his key identity: Rhodri the Cardiffian. He was born here (his father was a lecturer in Welsh and then Registrar at the University of Wales in Cardiff between 1931 and 1961), he lived the first 21 years of his life in Heol Isaf, Radyr, he went to school at Radyr Primary and then Whitchurch Grammar (now High School) and he knew every nook and cranny of the city like the back of his big, bony hands. His accent was a delicious mix of Cardiffian vowel sounds and pan-Wales crachach, his bouncy boyishness and breezy banter were a typically Cardiffian response to the demandingly macho conventions of playground matehood, his total lack of ostentation was the epitome of the classically Cardiffian suspicion of airs and graces, and the puppyish pleasure he derived from sports of all descriptions was ingrained by a city that has no means of expressing itself other than sport.
I am just one among 350,000 Cardiffians, yet I regularly bumped into Rhodri over the years: stressed out like we all are in the car park at Llandochau hospital, twinkling wittily on a bar-stool in the Robin Hood pub and, most often, mixing freely with the crowds at Riverside Farmers Market on Sunday mornings. He was always interested and eager to engage, even when I strayed into inappropriate rants. Compare and contrast this open accessibility and approachability with that of his British equivalents: Blair hiding on tax dodgers’ yachts with an armed guard lest he be arrested for war crimes, or May only allowing stage-managed Tory gatherings to admire her bullet-proof vest (by Vivienne Westwood) and freshly-botoxed face. Rhodri, without trying, couldn’t help but underline how very different Wales and Britain are.
The recent scary rise of a new crypto-fascism around the world, exemplified by Brexit and Trump, must have dismayed and demoralised him in his final days. But I reckon he would have kept his rich sense of humour, his pugnacious appetite for enlightenment values and his sweeping historical perspective despite it all. And I like to think he was happy at the very end, a free spirit cycling the green lanes of Gwenfô on a summer evening, still exploring and still discovering the land he loved.