(Title Image: BBC Wales News)
After a bruising UK general election, it now seems like a long time ago when we all heard the sad news that Rhodri Morgan passed away cycling in the lanes around Wenvoe.
They say you’ve made it in Wales when you’re known only by your first name, and it didn’t take long for Rhodri to earn that honour. Such was his impact on post-devolution politics (amidst the dearth of coverage of Welsh current affairs) I’m in no doubt there were many people who – even until the last few years – probably thought he was still First Minister.
The way by which his family, friends, former colleagues and other well-wishers said goodbye was typically Welsh: “half-and-half” (minus the curry sauce) – a state funeral without the pretentiousness or baubles of London, yet at the same time retaining the intimacy of a family service.
Considering his noted enthusiasm for sport, it was fitting that the Champions League festivities were taking place nearby – a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod, rather than hurting the solemnity.
It was also right for it to take place in the Senedd building, as without Rhodri there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have had it at all.
That first year of Welsh devolution was a PR disaster. The electorate voted for it by the skin of its teeth, the Welsh Assembly itself was enfeebled and the (somewhat reluctant) First Secretary, Alun Michael, was seen to be Tony Blair’s man in Cardiff – eventually resigning before a no-confidence vote in 2000 over the issue of (ironic, considering the present situation) EU structural funds.
Rhodri clearly wanted to lead the Assembly from the start. Usually, when someone wants a leadership position instead of falling into it, it’s a bad omen. But when he took over, he brought much-needed stability, displayed some independence from London by entering into a coalition with the Lib Dems and paved the way for what would become a “Welsh way of doing things” (both for better and for worse).
Rhodri seemed to care about how his policies would go down with the man or woman in the street: “Cynulliad y werin, nid Cynulliad y crachach”. Moving into the Second Assembly, we started to see this in action.
While Labour in England was turning large sections of public services into “Third Way” social experiments (i.e. foundation hospitals, PFI, city academies, top-up tuition fees), Rhodri’s Labour focused on universal redistributionist “freebies”: free prescriptions, free museum entry, free bus passes, free school breakfasts. Not only was this seen as a form of social solidarity (which New Labour had lost) but also cemented devolution in the minds of the public, showing that the Senedd could make a difference to their everyday lives even if it had little real power.
Rhodri’s successive Welsh Governments were quick to recognise the impact of climate change and support sustainable development to protect Wales for future generations. Now, I don’t like the word “sustainable” as it’s become nothing more than a meaningless buzzword used by politicians to greenwash policies; but apart from a throwaway remark about nicer weather (vis-a-vis climate change) Rhodri seemed to “get it”.
Wales became a Fair Trade Nation on his watch and had one of the first governments to put sustainability at the heart of public policy (even if it’s paid lip service to now). He also encouraged everyone to embrace the natural landscape of Wales by being one of the driving forces behind the Wales Coastal Path.
Of course, I have to be objective and Rhodri – for all his undoubted intellect and charisma – didn’t get everything right. In fact, on occasions, there were complete balls-ups.
While Rhodri was more enthusiastic about devolution than many of his party colleagues, I don’t believe he pressed the case for more powers as enthusiastically as he should’ve done. He established the Richard Commission but shelved nearly all of its findings. It’s unlikely the report’s recommendations will be fully implemented until 2021 at the earliest – 15 years after it was published.
The result is we’ve had a Senedd that’s under-powered, while the opportunity to change things has ebbed aways as the public appetite for more politics and more politicians has waned. It’s a stance that suits the “90 minute nationalism” Rhodri thrived on, but it does Wales a disservice to only support further powers when they’ve got no other choice (as in 2011, done so at Plaid’s behest), not when it’s practical to do so – devolution of policing, for example, or a more recent example of devolution of rail infrastructure.
The jury’s out on one of his flagship policies – the “Bonfire of the Quangos”. The void left has been filled by the voluntary/third sector, which is even less accountable and in some cases more politicised than the WDA and Wales Tourist Board ever were. It’s our new shadow state: overly reliant on government patronage, yet just about arms-length enough to get away with it. So in that respect, his bonfire fizzed out, and it’s not politically correct to throw charities and other linked organisations on a pyre, when we need to be asking whether they should be?
Perhaps his biggest mistake was his inaction and resistance to public service reform in the face of poor service delivery – particularly within the NHS. Many New Labour reforms in England wouldn’t have worked in Wales primarily for topographical or geographical reasons – foundation hospitals, for instance – while he did oversee major reforms elsewhere like the Foundation Phase.
However, the flat rejection of big reforms – perhaps taking criticism of poor performances as a criticism against Wales or the Welsh political class as a whole – has led to Wales trundling along at the bottom. It’s true most of the damage was done before devolution, but instead of turning things around Rhodri oversaw a managed decline – a process Welsh Labour seem to want to continue.
For example, in 2000 Rhodri set Wales a target of reaching 90% of UK average economic output (GVA) by 2010. In 2015 Wales was at 71%: 7% lower than in 2000. That’s a failure on all levels.
It was an inevitability Rhodri would become First Minister, but as an interesting thought experiment, how might history have played out if he didn’t?
Firstly – and most likely – at least two from: Carwyn Jones, Leighton Andrews, Huw Lewis, Jane Davidson, Edwina Hart or Jane Hutt would’ve eventually become First Minister (or First Minister sooner in Carwyn’s case). It’s impossible to say how things might’ve panned out politically for any of them other than Carwyn; Huw Lewis might’ve been able to enact his 2009 leadership bid’s co-operative vision, Leighton Andrews might’ve gone down a Blairite-lite route, Edwina Hart might’ve gone more to the left and made “Clear Red Water” a lot redder.
Second – but less likely – is the Labour government would’ve eventually collapsed, opening the door to a nationalist/nationalist-led government. The process of devolution may have accelerated and it’s likely the Senedd in 2017 would look more like the Richard Commission proposals. Labour in Wales would probably be in a Scottish-style decline. Or, if it didn’t work, there might’ve been a Unionist backlash which may have eventually opened the door to a Conservative-led rainbow coalition and/or an earlier and more sustained involvement by UKIP.
Thirdly – and the most destructive course – is Labour in Wales slavishly copy and paste policies enacted in England like foundation hospitals, rampant PFI, city academies etc. It’s likely the Senedd building wouldn’t have been built. I doubt the devolution settlement would’ve gone much further than LCOs and measures, while the Assembly would continue to resemble a rowdy county council on steroids. AMs would still double-job as MPs, would be less popular, less trusted and if we held a referendum in 2011 it would probably have been for the Assembly’s abolition.
The honorific “Father of the Nation” has been tentatively tagged to Rhodri (in the same manner as it was to Scotland’s Donald Dewar following his death in 2000). In my opinion, it should be reserved for when Wales actually becomes a nation, not a pretend one – and it goes without saying that it’s wrong to assume it’ll be a father.
“Father of the Senedd” would be more appropriate: the institution that owes a debt to him, and to whom he certainly gave the steering hand of a father figure.