Swift was the bookmakers' odds-on favourite but it is understood that at the judges' meeting chaired by Carmen Callil, the publisher and writer, his book faced a late challenge from Seamus Deane, the Northern Irish author, and his book Reading the Dark.
Callil said last night: "Choosing the winner was torture but we eventually settled on Last Orders, a wonderful book that will give great pleasure to thousands of people."
Swift has written five novels and has been translated into more than 20 languages. He was short-listed for the Booker in 1983 for his novel Waterland. His latest book relates the story of a bizarre day's outing when four friends of a London butcher try to honour his wish to have his ashes scattered at sea.
One Booker insider described the novel as "nice popular romp" adding that perhaps it lacked the grand scale of the entries by Margaret Atwood and Rohinton Mistry. Atwood, who has now been short- listed three times, has yet to win the prize. Beryl Bainbridge and Shena Mackay were also shortlisted, Bainbridge for the fourth time with her novel about the Titanic.
Callil herself reviewed Swift's book earlier in the year and wrote: "His characters live in the mind, a gift only a few writers give us." He was presented with his cheque at the prize dinner at the Guildhall in London. Swift, a keen fisherman and close friend of Salman Rushdie, is the son of a civil servant and read English at Cambridge. Last Orders is published by Picador.
In her speech, Callil, the founder of the feminist publishers Virago, attacked what she called a small clique of critics who denigrated English novels while over-praising modern American literature and writers from the Third World.
She also attacked writers' agents for being greedy and publishers for overworking editors. But it was modern critics whom she particularly singled out.
She said she doubted they read English novels:"Obsessive denigration of English fiction is the dying chirrup of some sort of imperial misery. English novelists are no longer the greatest in the world, therefore they must be the worst."
They had become a threatened species, and could not "stand up and say, `I'm English and I'm writing about life in my vibrant, interesting/doom- laden country with the confidence of a Scots or Irish person'."Reuse content