This week we heard the sad news that Rhodri Morgan, the former Labour First Minister of Wales, died at the age of 77. There have been many deserved tributes for his service, both in the Welsh assembly, where he headed coalition governments, and as Member of Parliament for Cardiff West. I feel a particular loss since Rhodri, with his friend and flatmate at the time, Neil Kinnock, were prominent amongst many generous people in Cardiff who encouraged and supported my nascent teenage interest in politics. Reflecting on these times makes me realise how positive we all felt about Labour politics in the late 1960s.
Rhodri was seven years older than me and had completed his Harvard Masters before returning to Cardiff. I first met him when we were campaigning in the 1964 General Election; I was a somewhat awkward sixth former at Cardiff High School a grammar school that had pretensions and social aspirations. Instead of playing local secondary schools at rugby our headmaster aspired to build up a fixture lists with public schools; prefects were called ‘sir’. I rebelled, wholly ineffectually, against this environment and found great solace in the local Labour Party.
It is easy to forget just how pervasive class prejudice was in provincial cities at that time and what a political motivator it was for those who held left-of–centre politics. The dominant figure in Conservative politics in Cardiff was the late Wilf Wooller. He was an outstanding athlete, winning 18 caps for Wales at rugby, and becoming the dominant force in Glamorgan cricket successively as Captain, Secretary and President. Wooller was instrumental in appointing a wholly unsuitable gentleman amateur and former Cambridge Blue, A.C. Burnett to captain the county – unfortunately Burnett did not know much about field positions and his period in charge was mercifully short. Not content, Wooller then arranged for Ted Dexter, another Cambridge Blue (although in fairness an excellent cricketer) to contest the Cardiff South-East constituency at the 1964 general election. Jin Callaghan was defending a majority of under 900.
Wooller doubtless believed that Dexter would be a suitable a role model and an inspiration for us ordinary folks – someone for us to look up to. Unfortunately Dexter had no political skills and displayed limited ability on the platform. I did not witness them myself but he was reported as delivering the following statements at various hustings meetings: the electorate should “consider sending their sons to Eton, on the grounds that it didn’t only qualify children for careers in politics and merchant banking, but that he personally knew several Old Etonians who had gone on to be racing correspondents and bookmakers” and “Labour-voting households could be identified by their ‘grubby lace curtains and unwashed milk bottles on the doorstep’”*. Equally importantly, Dexter had no knowledge of Cardiff nor desire to acquire such knowledge. During the campaign he was publicly humiliated and wholly destroyed at an election meeting when he was subjected to forensic questioning on council spending from one of our rising stars – Rhodri Morgan. It came as no surprise to any of us when Rhodri want on to greater things.
Campaigning in the 1964 election remains one of the happiest memories of my lifetime. Rhodri and Neil Kinnock were generous young men who were to make immense contributions and leave lasting legacies.
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