Rhodri Morgan (1939-2017): Humanist, first First Minister of Wales, and father of Welsh devolution

Rhodri Morgan. Photo: National Assembly for Wales.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is today mourning its patron of many years, Rhodri Morgan, who served from 2000 to 2009 as First Minister of Wales.

Born in Cardiff in 1939 to an academic family, Rhodri set his sights on public service from an early age, and was particularly set on improving the conditions of Wales. He saw Wales as unduly neglected by the UK Government at that time, which he felt was unable to properly appreciate and cater to Welsh national interests from Westminster. After studying PPE at St John’s, Oxford and a Master’s in government at Harvard, Rhodri returned to Wales, where he campaigned for future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s seat in Cardiff South alongside his future wife, Julie Edwards, as well as Neil Kinnock, and Glenys Kinnock. This quartet had in common with Callaghan more than just a political vision for Wales and the United Kingdom; they were distinctive within their party, and within British politics at the time, for their shared humanist outlook on life and politics.

Rhodri’s devotion to public service led him to run and be elected for Member of Parliament in his home seat of Cardiff West in 1987, a seat he held until 2001. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he served Cardiff West with distinction and was rewarded by Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith with frontbench roles for environmental policy, energy, and Welsh affairs. In the latter role, he was a tireless campaigner for Welsh devolution, a dream he helped to realise when his party came to power in 1997. In 1999, Rhodri was elected the first ever Assembly Member for Cardiff West in the newly established National Assembly for Wales. He then succeeded Alun Michael as First Secretary of Wales and head of the Welsh Government in February 2000, and was retitled as First Minister of Wales in October that year. In his tenure as First Minister, Morgan helped to define Welsh politics and sought to carve out a distinct policy and social agenda for Welsh Labour.

Rhodri Morgan at the BHA stand at the 2016 Labour Party Conference, pictured with Kelvin Hopkins, Julie Morgan, and Andrew Copson.

Rhodri joined the Parliamentary Humanist Group, which is supported by the BHA, after entering Parliament as an MP in 1987. His long and successful tenure as First Minister helped to shape the relatively secular character of Welsh politics. At a time when the UK population was rapidly losing interest in religion, politics in England and the UK as a whole seemed to be moving in the other direction: away from public opinion. Rhodri defied that trend and instilled in Welsh civic life an ethic of tolerating and respecting difference, while thinking always of Welsh citizens not as members of sects or groups, but as individuals. Under Rhodri’s leadership, Wales was encouraged to think of itself as one community, celebrating of difference but united by a common humanity.

Before and after his retirement, he gave enthusiastic support and encouragement to the work of the BHA, particularly in its community services provision. In 2009, he wrote to congratulate the newly formed Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Students on their formation, helping to give non-religious student activists a greater voice. In 2014, he was the Cardiff Humanists’ inaugural Darwin Day Dinner speaker, lecturing on ‘Evolution and devolution: Darwin and Wallace’. He made regular appearances alongside the BHA and Labour Humanists at party conferences, most recently speaking at the 2015 Welsh Labour conference on ‘Working for a more equal, ethical, and secular government.’ Alongside his wife Julie Morgan, his fellow BHA patron, he gave his support to the launch of Wales Humanists, the BHA’s new section focused on Welsh national policy and delivering community services in Wales.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘Rhodri’s crowning achievement was the success he made of Welsh devolution. A committed man of high ideals and strong principles, we will also remember him as a warm human being and a pleasure to be around. Our thoughts are with Julie and the whole of the family at this difficult time.’

Notes

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

The BHA has well over 150 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. The BHA’s President is the writer and comedian Shappi Khorsandi, who is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor A C Grayling, and Polly Toynbee. For a full list of patrons, see https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/patrons.

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