Why is there a tree on Rhodri Morgan’s head?

Collections - Posted 07-10-2019

Many of you will be familiar with the point in life where you first see things which were part of your childhood in a museum. Collecting an archive which documents events, campaigns and people which you remember; you feel a bit older than you do but there is something special about re-living those events, often from a different perspective.

Mumph’s cartoons fed my teenage interest in politics. I looked forward to reading the Just William cartoon strip in the Western Mail on Saturday morning which followed the adventures of Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague. The portrait of Hague as a schoolboy in shorts and with a map of Wales upside down on the wall in his office may have been a bit harsh, but it did reflect the feeling that the job of Welsh Secretary had a low status in the cabinet, and the resentment that MPs with no connection to Wales had been appointed to the job. Sir Wyn Roberts’ role appeared to be to try to educate the Secretary of State on the issues of the day, but usually without success!

Mumph’s portrait of William Hague’s successor Ron Davies was very different. The strip was re-named The One Ronnie, with comedy connotations, but Ron Davies himself was portrayed as a gangster with dark glasses and a white suit with Minister Jon Owen Jones looking like a version of Frankenstein’s monster. In 1998 it was Alun Michael’s turn to star in the St Michael cartoon strips. This time the portrayal was heavily based on the idea that Alun Michael was parachuted in to the job by Tony Blair, so he always wore a parachute and was sometimes almost invisible except for his glasses. Peter Hain was portrayed wearing rollers and Rhodri Morgan with a tree growing out of the top of his head. When Rhodri Morgan had a hair cut, the tree was removed, but the stump remained, causing a great deal of confusion to a university friend which was only explained when I found an appropriate picture of the First Minister to make the comparison!

With the opening of the National Assembly opposition politicians made more appearances; Dafydd Wigley, Mike German and Rod Richards –  usually with an English flag in his hat.

On one level cartoons like this are quite light-hearted, depending on emphasises physical features, mannerisms or character, but they reflect the political zeitgeist in a way that other media often fail to. The exaggerated features are often based on the way the public, or sections of the public at least, see them. If they’re not, the characters don’t really work. The cartoons record important events in a visually accessible way including the discussions over the Cardiff Bay Opera House, weapons, education, health and elections and the first decade of devolution.

Taking this collection into the Library is very exciting. Mumph cartoons are at least partially responsible for my interest in politics, and so they’re indirectly responsible for me being the political archivist. Digitising and making these cartoons available will hopefully spark more interest in the field, although it is hard for me to think of them as a historical resource. This is an expensive business and we’d appreciate any help towards the costs via our Collections Fund.

Those Saturday mornings reading Just William feel like a long time ago now.

Rob Phillips
The Welsh Political Archive

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