Rhodri Morgan deserved the honour of leading the way out of the Senedd today carrying the mace. He'd held the office of First Minister with dignity for nearly the whole lifetime of the National Assembly and this was a fitting tribute. I wish him well in his retirement ... although family life may not be as quiet and relaxed as he would like it to be if Julie manages to get elected in Cardiff North.
Looking back at his contribution, two things stand out in particular:
• The first was being seen as a distinctively Welsh First Minister. Alun Michael held the job first, although he called himself the First Secretary. But he was always seen as Tony Blair's poodle, and it was probably a good thing that he lost the vote of no confidence and refocused his attention on Westminster, where he was an still an MP and where he seems to be much more comfortable.
So Rhodri—who was never really liked or thought competent by Tony Blair—assumed the role, and in so doing managed to give the Assembly a more distinctively Welsh character. In my opinion this has been the main reason why public opinion in Wales has come to fully embrace devolution after the very narrow victory in the referendum of 1997.
• The second thing that marked his tenure was the huge increase in public spending during the period when he was First Minister. This made it easy for him to be seen as a generous and avuncular leader. As the main purpose of the Assembly was to decide how to spend the ever increasing amount of money we received in the form of the block grant, he never had to make any particularly difficult or unpopular decisions.
Of course what most people in Wales didn't realize was that although public spending in Wales was increasing, public spending on the other side of Clawdd Offa was increasing far, far more. As we can see from this graph taken from the Holtham Report, public spending in Wales as a proportion of equivalent public spending in England has fallen from about 126% to 112% since 1999:
This lower increase in Wales was a consequence of the Barnett formula known as the "Barnett squeeze", and it is for this reason that the money available to Wales is now considerably lower than it would be if we were treated on the same basis as a region of England.
Now of course Rhodri Morgan and his colleagues in the Labour administration knew full well that Wales was progressively losing out throughout the time he was First Minister ... but did absolutely nothing about it. He preferred not to stand up for Wales; perhaps because he felt it was a battle he could not win, but probably because it wasn't in his character to enter the fight and scrap it out with his Labour colleagues in Westminster. Maybe this was why he was never rated very highly as an MP. For in spite of all the talk of "clear red water", Labour in Wales always takes second place to Labour in Westminster.
Wales would not be in the crisis situation it is now in with the scale of public spending cuts if Labour had reformed the Barnett formula when they had the opportunity to do so. This will always stand as a huge black mark against his time as First Minister, and Labour's time in government.
So one very good thing and one very bad thing. On balance, I think the good of winning over hearts and minds to fully embrace and value the National Assembly outweighs the financial failure. We now believe that we can make decisions that affect Wales in Wales. Next comes the harder task of learning to stand on our own feet financially.