by Nick Powell
After he left office in 2009, Rhodri Morgan lost his initial enthusiasm for writing his autobiography, preferring to channel his writing energies into a newspaper column. We must add his decision to complete his memoirs to the many debts that Wales owes its former First Minister.
By then he was entering what sadly turned out to be the last year of his life. But perhaps the passage of time helped to make him more candid in what he was prepared to commit to paper. There is always a danger that a politician writing soon after stepping down will feel inhibited about how much he can reveal.
There is certainly little sign of such inhibition in this book. There are fresh insights into the Welsh Labour leadership battles of 1998 and 1999 and the political crisis of 2000 that finally made Rhodri Morgan First Secretary – or First Minister as he soon renamed the post.
It is not especially surprising to learn that Peter Hain rang Rhodri with the news that Ron Davies had just resigned as Secretary of State for Wales, following an incident on Clapham Common. The real revelation is that Hain told him to see Tony Blair that night to try to secure the Prime Minister’s support in a second attempt to become Labour’s candidate to lead the Assembly.
In fact, Ron Davies had not yet given up hope of clinging on to the position he’d fought for in a bitter leadership contest with Rhodri. He still hadn’t bowed to the inevitable when Blair finally agreed to see Rhodri two days later. It was one of those classic encounters with a Prime Minister adept at saying warm but non-committal words.
We have always known Blair’s official reason for not backing Rhodri, which was his lack of ministerial experience because Blair had sacked him from the front bench after Labour won the 1997 General Election. In his book, Rhodri reveals his response to that argument when, at a further meeting after Ron Davies had stood down, Blair tried to talk him out of standing in the leadership election.
“Tony, if there was any force in that argument, Margaret Beckett would be sitting on that sofa right now and not you”, he told a dumbstruck Prime Minister. Like most of his cabinet, though unlike Beckett, Blair had only become an MP after Labour had entered its long years in opposition to Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
But Tony Blair's mind was made up and he successfully backed Alun Michael to defeat Rhodri for the Welsh leadership.
It would have been wonderful for any journalist to have been a fly on the wall in the Number 10 study. In my case, a more realistic ambition would have been to have propped up the bar more often at the Red Lion in Bonvilston, near Cardiff. In early 2000, it would have been time well spent.
Rhodri names those who risked joining him for a pint. One of them was a backbench Labour AM called Carwyn Jones. The two future First Ministers discussed what to do if Alun Michael tried to hang on to office after losing an imminent vote of no confidence.
Rhodri was more concerned about what would happen if he replaced Alun and the opposition parties then decided to bring him down too. Conveniently, he lived in the same village as the Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas, so a neighbourly chat brought an assurance that a second vote of no confidence wouldn’t be allowed.
All these tales are told in Rhodri’s unique style. This is no dry chronological account, though it covers his entire life from wartime babyhood to tending his chickens in retirement. Anyone who experienced Rhodri’s discursive conversations will hear his voice on every page. Whether he’s talking about Guy Fawkes or the former Welsh Secretary David Hunt, he invariably slips in some extra bits of information, sometimes at odds with the historical record.
Rhodri never wanted to stick to a script, even when he had one. He admits to wandering so far from what journalists were briefed about his ‘clear red water’ speech that he never actually used those carefully chosen words when setting out a distinct direction for Welsh Labour.
If you want to know his main regrets about his time as First Minister, you can’t just read the last chapter. His thoughts about how he could have sometimes pushed harder for what he wanted come in the section supposedly about Labour’s time in coalition with the Liberal Democrats between 2000 and 2003. Not that those regrets are particularly to do with those years, they are prompted by a detour into how he’d wanted to do more to celebrate the Grand Slam –in 2005.
At the end of the book, he states that he did not offer ‘charismatic leadership’ to Wales. At first it seems to be an extraordinary statement by a man who led Wales with considerable personal charisma. What he means is that he was always careful not to take Wales too far, too fast, on its devolution journey and put at risk what he calls ‘default option’ support for the Labour party.
A little over a year after Rhodri Morgan left office, his approach was vindicated when Wales voted in a referendum to give the Assembly significantly greater powers. When he’d taken charge of what was not yet called a Welsh Government, people had wondered if the whole project was about to collapse. He told a mass meeting of demoralised civil servants that because they worked for the Assembly, their mothers probably preferred to tell the neighbours that they were piano-players in a brothel.
I can’t imagine Tony Blair or Theresa May – or even Carwyn Jones - telling a gag like that.
Rhodri: A Political Life in Wales and Westminster by Rhodri Morgan. University of Wales Press. £24.99