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J. Barry Jones

Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre was founded by J. Barry Jones (1938-2015) in 1999 at the advent of Welsh devolution. Professor Michael Keating’s obituary reflects on the contribution of the pioneering academic, of whose legacy the Wales Governance Centre forms a proud part.

Barry Jones was one of Wales’ leading intellectuals and a distinguished scholar of Welsh politics and devolution. Born in 1938 in Whitford, north Wales, he was one of two sons of Eileen and Frank Jones. After a short spell at a private school where he did not get on (his friends will not be surprised), he transferred to Meliden primary school, where his father was headmaster. His secondary studies were at Rhyl Grammar School, after which he studied at Swansea University.

An MA in politics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton kindled a long interest in Canadian affairs before his return to the UK to teach at St Mary’s College in Twickenham. Before long, he was back in Wales as lecturer at University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, later merged with Cardiff University. He retired in 2005 as Reader in Politics.

Pioneer of devolution studies

Barry pioneered the study of Welsh politics at a time when the subject hardly existed, with a string of publications from the 1970s through to retirement. This spanned a crucial period in Welsh politics, including the nationalist revival, the battles over devolution and the post-1999 politics of the National Assembly for Wales. His book The Welsh Veto provided the definitive analysis of the decisive defeat of devolution in the referendum of 1979. In 1999 he became the first director of the Wales Governance Centre, coinciding with the opening of the National Assembly for Wales.

He combined this with an interest in the politics of the Labour Party and close observation of Labour’s travails over devolution. In 1985 he and I co-authored a book on Labour and the British State, looking at the Labour Party’s ambivalent attitudes to the institutions and practices of the state. It is still cited but it was typical of his restless mind that he was always saying that we could have done a much better book. It was, if I recall, in a bar somewhere in Wales that we then had the idea of looking at the role of sub-state territories or regions within the European Communities (now European Union). This generated two books and a whole area of academic study but, ever the realist, Barry never succumbed to the idea that European states would disappear into a Europe of the regions or the peoples.

Barry Jones was not the sort of political scientist who seeks mathematical certainty or determinist models of behaviour but stood rather in the humanist tradition. He had a profound understanding of politics as a distinct way of conducting public affairs, of the importance of ideas and of the role of individuals, parties and movements. His reading was both broad and profound and not confined to disciplinary boundaries. He was a lively conversationalist and invariably had something new, interesting and intellectually provocative to say.

A public intellectual in the radical home rule tradition

Barry was a proud Welshman but not a nationalist. He stood, rather, in the radical home rule tradition, combining the politics of the centre-left with those of self-government, not an easy task in Wales in the last generation. He was for many years a member of the Labour Party and was active in the devolution campaigns of the 1970s through to the 1990s. He was secretary of the Yes campaign in the 1979 referendum and helped keep the movement alive in the difficult times of the 1980s.

He was never, however, a strong partisan and was much in demand as a commentator on public affairs and, for a while, presented a current affairs programme on television. An alternative career as a broadcaster was open to him but his prime commitment was always to academia. Universities these days are pre-occupied with the notion of ‘impact’, often seen in a narrow and instrumentalist way. Barry Jones would be better described as a public intellectual, someone who could explain complex ideas in lay language and whose role was to question, to provoke and to clarify rather than to come up with ready-made answers to difficult problems.

Barry remained active in retirement although in recent years illness curtailed his activities. As the United Kingdom is caught in a new phase of constitutional turmoil, his keen judgement will be missed. He is survived by his two daughters Sian and Ceri, and grandchildren Caitlin, Cameron and Rhiannon.