John Morris is one of two peers who have taken their title from the Welsh town Aberavon, the other being Geoffrey Howe. Howe’s association stems simply from having been born there. John Morris’ from more than 40 years of service as member of parliament for the constituency.
Growing up in Wales in a Labour family, you were always conscious of the big names of Welsh Labour politics of the time and John Morris among them. The political career he describes in his autobiography Fifty Years in Politics and the Law spans his arrival into the House of Commons of Aneurin Bevan, father of the NHS and Jim Griffiths, father of national insurance, with whose roots in the radicalism of semi-rural west Wales he had more in common than he had with the former. And it extends to him joining Tony Blair’s government in 1997 as attorney general.
His greatest contribution on the international stage was certainly his role during the 1999 Kosovo campaign where he was intimately involved not only in ensuring compliance with international law but in contributing to its development. Building on the principles established during the first Iraq war, Morris helped to develop the principles for intervention without a UN Security Council resolution, to avert humanitarian disaster, which later evolved into the ‘responsibility to protect’. The Kosovo doctrine stated that intervention was permissible where urgent and immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian disaster, where there is no practical alternative to the use of force and that the action contemplated is the minimum necessary to achieve the objective. Despite legal challenges in the UK courts, European Court of Human Rights and International Court of Justice, the Kosovo campaign remains an example of successful military intervention for humanitarian ends.
As a Welshman however, his real legacy will be a very substantial contribution to the development of a distinctive Welsh political consciousness and the emergence of devolution. His career is an illustration of Ron Davies’ maxim that Welsh devolution was a process not an event.
As secretary of state for Wales in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, Morris pursued a policy of gradual transfer of powers to the Welsh Office, and the establishment of all-Wales bodies to exercise a range of administrative functions so that when the time ultimately came to establish the Welsh assembly, there was a body of powers already exercised at a Welsh national level for the assembly to take over.
He hints at a turbulent relationship with fellow Welsh MP George Thomas (yet another son of Aberavon), whose devotion to the House of Commons as speaker in the 1970s and 1980s took an early form in his passionate opposition to Welsh devolution. The drama doesn’t quite break through Morris’ often understated lawyer’s prose but it isn’t hard to imagine the clash between two very different characters.
He was a good friend of the Welsh language, again unlike Thomas, responsible for the first statutory embodiment of the principle of ‘equal validity’ in public and other documents of Welsh with English and for his campaign to get onto the statute books the legislation which later laid the foundations for the Welsh-language fourth television channel, S4C. At a time when S4C is under immense financial pressure and the national newspaper of Wales has come out in opposition to the translation of assembly proceedings, for those of us who speak or care about the Welsh language, it seems that particular struggle isn’t over.
Law and politics have often been combined as vocations and many great figures of Welsh public life have done so over the decades. Though Morris professes to a regret at not having given more time to the law, it is clear that politics was his greater passion and Wales certainly the better for it.
Jeremy Miles is a candidate for the National Policy Forum in Wales and works as a lawyer. He tweets @Jeremy_Miles
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.