On Monday 15 May Rhodri Morgan addressed around 80 members of Pontyclun U3A at its monthly meeting. It was entertaining. It was educative and thought provoking as Rhodri responded to many questions. We were enjoying the company of a friend.
We learned of Rhodri’s childhood in Radyr. He told us that his parents were a Welsh teacher and a Welsh professor who shared with Rhodri their concern for social justice in the communities of Wales. Rhodri and I had previously shared memories of our collier grandparents in the neighbouring villages of Ynystawe and Glais. Rhodri had studied politics at Oxford and Harvard before becoming an MP for Cardiff West in 1987.
We learned of Rhodri’s doggedness in putting aside Tony Blair’s opposition to his becoming First Minister in the new Welsh Assembly in 2000. He was determined to make Wales as proud of its own government as it was of its own rugby team – being seen to overcome challenges such as ‘foot and mouth’, as well as setting new directions for our economy and society. A Pontyclun U3A member told Rhodri that devolution to Wales had made her more confident of herself and her Welshness.
Rhodri’s talk in Pontyclun was his last public engagement. On Wednesday 17 May Rhodri suffered a fatal heart attack whilst riding the old bike he had recently rediscovered in his shed. He had told us of his new enthusiasm for his old bike. If any of us thought there might be risks in this enthusiasm, we would have recognised Rhodri’s life-long determination to make his own decisions and do it his own way.
I worked as Rhodri’s special adviser for the first eight years of his time as First Minister. He was a very special man, politician and friend. He was absolutely comfortable with his deep understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. Whereas other politicians can be worn down, become defensive, by the constant challenge and negativity of 24 hour political scrutiny; Rhodri’s open and genial personality was unshiftable. He was fascinated by every person he met: the initiator of a global corporation, the nurse at A&E or the coach of a junior rugby team. They would never forget Rhodri and, amazingly, he would never forget them. In a very rare sense for a modern politician, he was a father to our nation.