Welsh politician

Born: September 29 1939;

Died: May 17 2017

RHODRI Morgan, who has died aged 77, was the Labour MP and later Assembly Member for Cardiff West and, from 2000 to 2009, First Minister of Wales and leader of the Welsh Labour Party.

Morgan was an early and enthusiastic supporter of devolution for Wales and, as the longest-serving First Minister, played a central role in ensuring its successful operation and the expansion of the Assembly’s powers in 2006. His term in office was also notable for his readiness to distance the Welsh Labour party from the policies of the Westminster government led by Tony Blair.

These achievements were the more impressive because – in marked contrast to the mood in Scotland towards the end of the 20th century – the Welsh electorate was initially lukewarm about the concept of or need for a devolved assembly. Though it had been proposed (along with Scottish devolution) by the Kilbrandon Commission set up by Harold Wilson in 1969, when a referendum was eventually held in 1979, it was rejected by four to one by voters in Wales. (Scotland narrowly voted Yes but fell short of the requirement that 40 per cent of the electorate approve the proposal.)

When the issue was again presented in the referendums of 1997, three-quarters of Scots voted for devolution, but advocates for a Welsh Assembly only just scraped a win, with 50.3 per cent of voters. The act which set it up the following year gave the new assembly no power to initiate primary legislation, and many Welsh voters regarded it as irrelevant or superfluous – despite the fact that for more than a decade before Labour came to power, no Secretary of State for Wales had actually held a Welsh constituency.

Nor were Morgan’s predecessors in the job an unqualified success. The hapless Ron Davies, who had narrowly beaten Morgan for the nomination as the inaugural First Secretary (as the post was then called) in September 1998, resigned less than a month later, after a “moment of madness” on Clapham Common.

Morgan was hot favourite to replace him both as the First Secretary and leader of the Welsh Labour Party, but instead Alun Michael received the backing of both Blair and the trades unions. His tenure was not regarded as a success, and many thought it responsible for significant losses from Labour to Plaid Cymru. In February 2000, after only nine months in office, Michael resigned to avoid a vote of no confidence in his minority administration – as it happened, on an issue, funding from the EU, over which he had in any case no control – and Morgan was at last elected to the post.

As First Minister (as the post was redesignated later that year) and Welsh Labour leader, Morgan had much stronger support from party members than his predecessors. In the elections of 2003, Labour secured half the 60 assembly seats – effectively a majority, since Plaid’s Daffyd Elis-Thomas was Presiding Officer. He was deft at understanding and developing the new political landscape presented by devolution, working first with the Liberal Democrats and then, when the 2007 elections left Labour just short of a majority, in coalition with Plaid Cymru.

Hywel Rhodri Morgan was born on September 29 1939 in Cardiff, the son of TJ Morgan, later Professor of Welsh at Swansea University, and his wife Huana, whom he had met at the Eisteddfod in 1926. Rhodri was educated at Whitchurch Grammar School and St John’s College, Oxford, where he read PPE. He then went to Harvard University’s School of Government, from which he took a masters degree in 1963. His first job was as a tutor organiser with the Workers’ Educational Association in south Wales, before spells as a development officer with Cardiff, and then South Glamorgan, councils, interrupted by a couple of years as an advisor to the Department of Trade and Industry in 1972-74. In 1980, he moved to become head of the press bureau for the European Community’s office in Wales.

Morgan was elected as the Labour MP for Cardiff West in 1987, a post he held until stepping down in 2001; his wife Julie, whom he married in 1967 and with whom he had a son and two daughters, became MP for Cardiff North in 1997. In opposition, he served as a spokesman on the environment, energy and, from 1992-97, for Welsh Affairs.

But after the Labour landslide of 1997, he was not offered the post as Secretary of State, instead becoming chairman of the select committee on public administration. His relations with Millbank (then Labour HQ) and the Blair government were, and remained, semi-detached. Though he never, as First Minister, actually said that he wanted to put “clear red water” between the Welsh and national Labour parties (it was in the draft of a 2002 speech, but he dropped the phrase), it was clearly his sentiment.

With hindsight, that position may not only have bolstered his widespread popularity in Wales, but been a recognition of the new political realities presented by devolution. Under his leadership, the powers of the Assembly were amended in 2006 to allow it to introduce primary legislation (subject to Westminster approval); 20 areas of government are now devolved to Cardiff.

In July 2007, he had to have surgery for heart problems, but he had announced some time earlier that he intended to retire on his 70th birthday; in the end he hung on until after the budget vote in December 2009.

Morgan enjoyed long-distance running and wood carving, and was passionate about marine wildlife; he once said that he would like to spend his last day on earth swimming with dolphins off Mwnt, the village in Ceredigion where he and his family spent their annual holidays for more than 40 years.

He is survived by his wife and children.