Remembering Rhodri

Keith Edwards pays tribute to the late Rhodri Morgan. 

I first met Rhodri when I was his warm up man at a CND public meeting in Llanishen in 1988. He didn’t remember this when he was kind enough to come to introduce me at my CIH ‘farewell’ at the Welsh Housing Awards in 2014 – but I did. His presence and intellect hit me from the start. I was a young campaigner for defence jobs who had made the connection with opportunities to convert them into socially useful ones.

He was a conviction politician, brave enough to challenge the existence of ROF Llanishen, where a Morrisons superstore and new housing estate now stand, a major local employer and the only nuclear weapons establishment within a city anywhere in the world, according to CND.

His grasp of detail that night was awesome – he went off on tangents on individual weapon systems, aircraft and anything else that lured him away from the main topic. Indeed this tendency to move away from the brief – whilst exhibiting an amazing grasp of the minutiae on any topic he landed on – was a defining trait.

It could be frustrating, especially for his civil servants. Whilst First Minister he once changed policy on stock transfer ‘on the hoof’ at a CML lunch. When he spoke at TAI to launch the public land protocol in 2007 he went off piste very early on – to the despair of his senior official, who immediately realised that there was no longer a need to check the speech against delivery. Whatever policy announcements that were buried within it would have to wait for another day, another opportunity.

The view of civil servants was that that all was lost the precise moment on any podium or at the dispatch box he removed his glasses. Of course, what he had to say was always much more authentic and interesting than any pre-planned, run of the mill speech on achievements and policy changes.

He was exceptionally kind to me. On the evening I failed to get the nomination for Labour in Llanelli in the first Assembly elections, licking my wounds with my campaign team back at the house around midnight, I got a call from him. He was disappointed – for what it was worth I had publicly backed him to become leader after the elections.

But this was far from a brief call of commiseration. He wanted to know all the details of the hustings and was happy enough to spend 15 minutes chatting. Although I was devastated at losing, his compassion and willingness to spend time on me lifted my spirits – and still does today.

A few days later I had another call from him asking me to take part in the process of selecting candidates for the regional Assembly seats – I had no hope of getting one but as long as I was still in the process I had a vote on who the leader in the Assembly would be. I duly went to County Hall in Cardiff to make a pitch to the panel, solely because Rhodri had asked me to. Sometime after the Assembly elections he stopped me in Transport House car park in Cardiff – his office was two floors above TPAS – and he said how they could have done with me in the Assembly. I shrugged it off in the normal way you shun flattery, but he repeated it and said he genuinely meant it and once again I felt that spring in my step.

The last time I saw him was two weeks ago in Riverside Farmers Market – perhaps not surprising that the man of the people would often be seen there, naturally at home in such an informal and friendly community. His was the polar opposite of the sanitised, hand-picked, band of supporters approach that we’re seeing through this current election campaign. He was far more at ease in public even than Scandinavian politicians before Olof Palme’s assassination. It’s hard to imagine him ever needing – or indeed tolerating – a special branch or security service escort.

At Riverside he was chatting to the lovely people who have the Indian food caravan and after I’d said hello I asked him what he thought of the local election results a few days earlier. Lightning fast he shared his analysis – and as always it was uniquely his – that the beacon of contrast that shone out from the M4 corridor was the only good news for Labour, but one ‘they’ could learn from. He quickly added, because the detail was as ever important, that the exception was Bridgend, where Labour had bombed, bucking the South Wales trend from Newport, through Cardiff to Swansea.

He said all this in possibly ten seconds, yet in that time he captured so much of what made him such a great person. Quick, analytical, original, yet down to earth enough to spend time genuinely responding to the most anodyne of questions, and to make you feel that you mattered. Thank you Rhodri

 


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