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Tribute to Lord Morris of Aberavon

Lord Morris of Aberavon: 5 November 1931 – 5 June 2023 | Image courtesy of UK Parliament

Lord Murphy of Torfaen

Lord Murphy of Torfaen

4 min read

A minister under Wilson, Callaghan and Blair, Lord Morris was respected across the House. But above all he will be remembered as a passionate Welshman

In 1997, as a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, I was put on the cabinet committee dealing with the new Labour government’s devolution proposals. Sitting with me was the attorney general John Morris and, for him, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s work and commitment to the establishment of a Welsh parliament. Indeed when, some years later, the late Queen opened the new Welsh Assembly (now Senedd), it was John who played a major part in the ceremony.

He had been bitterly disappointed when, as Welsh secretary, in the late 1970s the devolution project had been decisively rejected by the Welsh people. Twenty years later, his dream was fulfilled.

John Morris was born in 1931 in West Wales and spoke only Welsh until he was seven. He came from good Cardiganshire farming stock (and, indeed, worked for  the Welsh farmers union for a short time), although one grandfather had been a miner in the Rhondda. He studied law at Aberystwyth University and at Cambridge before doing his national service with Welsh regiments.

He joined the Labour Party when he was 20, and, remarkably, was selected for the hugely safe constituency of Aberavon (Port Talbot), winning it by an 18,000 majority (over Geoffrey Howe) in 1959. I was 11 years old! He remained the town’s MP for 42 years: a record length of time for any Welsh Labour MP.

To me he was a wonderful source of good advice and great wisdom

On the right of the party, he soon obtained ministerial office, at power, transport and defence, and in 1974 Harold Wilson appointed him secretary of state for Wales, a post he held until Labour lost office in 1979. He remained on the front bench, as shadow attorney general, until 1997 when Tony Blair made him attorney general, a job he kept until 1999. As a distinguished barrister and QC, he was ideally suited to the post and he played a significant role in making decisions on the legitimacy in international law of our military operations in Kosovo. He was knighted, served as Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed, and was made a Knight of the Garter.

To me, and other Welsh Labour politicians, he was a constant reassuring presence and my memory of him goes back to the late 1970s, addressing Welsh Labour Party conferences in Swansea. As secretary of state he was ably assisted by Lord (Barry) Jones and Lord (Ted) Rowlands and I was personally very pleased, many years later, in following his footsteps as Welsh Secretary; to me he was a wonderful source of good advice and great wisdom.

No one in Wales could match his experience: he was one of only two former MPs alive to have been elected in the 1950s and he was the longest-serving privy counsellor.

Above all he was a great and passionate Welshman – a firm supporter of the Welsh language and of Welsh culture. He spoke frequently in the House of Lords on Welsh issues and was widely respected across the House. John was, for a number of years, chancellor of the University of Glamorgan (now South Wales) and was an honorary fellow of his old Cambridge college, Gonville and Caius. To him education was the key to the success and prosperity of the Welsh nation. Another great achievement when John led the Welsh Office was the creation of the Welsh Development Agency which brought thousands of jobs to Wales.

John was a particularly good friend to me, and he had a huge number of friends, all of whom recognised his great devotion to his wife, Margaret, his three daughters and his grandchildren.

Few living politicians can match John’s long and great service which included being a minister under Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Tony Blair.

May he rest in peace.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen is a Labour peer

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