Alan Watkins: Doyen of political journalists who covered Westminster for more than 40 years

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The Independent Online

When he was still a student, Alan Watkins asked himself whether he would prefer to be Mr Justice Devlin, a glamorous judge in the Court of Appeal, or Henry Fairlie, the raffish political columnist of The Spectator.

Soon after, he chose journalism, which he found to be an honourable and entertaining occupation. Watkins started to write a political column in 1963, and was still doing so more than 40 years later. Although he had been elected a Labour councillor in Fulham in his mid-twenties, he discovered as he grew older that he got on better with people on the right. He never became a party hack. Like Fairlie, he was more interested in the life of politics.

As a trained lawyer, he loved to rummage around the minutiae of party rules, especially for electing party leaders. He wrote a scholarly tome on the subject. When he approached this subject in his column, some of the more detailed observations made the eyes of even his greatest admirers glaze over, but his strong sense of history, the depth of his experience and the elegance of his style made him, over the decades, the most entertaining and informative of political columnists. For the last 17 years of his life his column appeared in The Independent on Sunday, and it was only a few weeks ago that illness put a stop to his writing.

Watkins' influence on the politicians he wrote about was not as great as high-minded commentators working for newspapers with larger circulations. He was principally a judge of character, and was the first political commentator consistently to attack Tony Blair – whom he referred to as "the young war criminal". He was more admired by fellow-journalists than by politicians, especially in later years on The Independent on Sunday when he stopped attending the Commons and relied on the BBC for the facts. By then, he was like a familiar, and well-loved antique.

Alan Watkins was born on 3 April 1933, in the mining village of Tycroes in Carmarthenshire. His paternal grandfather was a winder in the local pit – he operated the lift to the coal seam. His father, D.J. Watkins, who did not read English until he was 12, became a schoolteacher. He married Violet Harris, a fellow-schoolteacher, who was a doctor's daughter. Watkins was an only child.

From his father, Watkins inherited a respect for learning and a love of rugby union football. D.J. Watkins played for London Welsh after the First World War while teaching in London, and Watkins himself played as a schoolboy in Tycroes. Like his father, Watkins could be close with money, and was reluctant to undertake simple household tasks – although he did live alone for the last 25 years of his life and described himself as a competent cook. His mother, who considered the Welsh language "silly", bequeathed a hard, logical mind and an aptitude for English grammar.

Watkins was a classic case of the upward social mobility encouraged by the Butler Education Act of 1944. From the Amman Valley grammar school he went to Queen's College, Cambridge, where he read law, became chairman of the Labour Club, and met his wife, the daughter of a Church of England vicar. He did not, however, lose his accent.

At Cambridge, the Watkinses lived in a converted stable in the back garden of G.E. Moore, one of the most distinguished of all English philosophers. ("I wish I had talked to him more," Watkins wrote, "but I don't think he would have been very interested.") He worked briefly in Chivers jam factory before National Service in the RAF, which was spent conveniently close to Cambridge, teaching other National Servicemen.

In the interlude between Cambridge and journalism, Watkins was called to the Bar, and did research at the LSE for the Professor of Public Law, William Robson. When he informed Robson that he was leaving the LSE to work for the Sunday Express, the Professor was shocked: "But it is a popular newspaper," he said. So it was, with a circulation four or five times greater than it has today. Watkins was well-regarded by Sir John Junor, the paper's fierce Scottish editor, who freely advised young reporters on the ways of the world. (He informed Watkins that "only poofs drink rosé.") Junor sent Watkins to New York as the paper's correspondent in 1961 and gave him the Crossbencher political column in 1963. He had a detached relationship with his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, to whom Watkins admitted that he spent a good deal of time making inquiries on the phone. Beaverbrook's advice was to rip out the cord and throw the telephone away. Talking to people in person was the way to get exclusive news, he said. Some years later, Watkins admitted that Beaverbrook had been quite right.

One of the people Watkins talked to was the radical Tory Iain MacLeod, whom he admired for his oratory and his love of gossip. When Macleod fell out with the Tory Party after the election of Sir Alec Douglas-Home as leader in 1964, he became editor of The Spectator, and immediately offered Watkins the job he aspired to – the political column that had belonged to Henry Fairlie.

Watkins had his vocation, and he stuck to it. When Ian Gilmour sold The Spectator in 1967, Watkins joined the New Statesman, where he worked for more than a decade, part of it during the editorship of Anthony Howard, his brother-in-law. He moved to The Observer in 1976, and felt he belonged there because the role had previously been played by Hugh Massingham, whom, so Watkins argued, had founded the modern political column. He was attracted by Massingham's radicalism, his disdain for policy, and his elegant, irreverent style. Watkins was, in all senses, a follower. He was no scoop merchant, but he was proud of being first to reveal the remarkable news that Michael Foot - known as "the Old Bibliophile" in the column – proposed to run for the Labour leadership in 1980.

He left for The Independent on Sunday in 1993 after a dispute about money with The Observer. Watkins was never knowingly underpaid. A change of scene made no difference to what he wrote, or how. His columns were written at home in Islington on Friday mornings. The handwriting, on lined paper, was very small. The finished article was dictated to copytakers, and checked for literals in the office, where he would appear on Friday afternoon, carrying a sandwich for his lunch, to make any cuts or add a few lines, if that was necessary. No one else was permitted to change his copy. He made no apology for this fastidious behaviour and always warned against newspapers where hands-on editing was taken for granted.

He was not a regular on the radio or TV, partly because he occasionally stuttered, but mainly because he did not much like the instantaneous nature of much political punditry. He was very fond of gossip, however, and he did occasionally write the Atticus page for The Sunday Times. He wrote a similar column in the Evening Standard, but the best gossip was to be had was first hand, in El Vino in Fleet Street, or in The Garrick and the Beefsteak clubs, where he raised the level of political conversation but lowered the sartorial tone. As he grew older, he put on weight, and none of his clothes quite fit.

Being a man who preferred subjects he knew about, he wrote about wine for The Observer, but the extra-curricular journalism that gave him most satisfaction was the rugby column, begun in 1986 in The Independent. He liked the company of politicians such as Anthony Crosland and Denzil Davies, but the man whose call he always answered was the Welsh rugby coach Clem Thomas when there was conversation to be had and drinking to be done. The line "Alan Watkins is away" where his Observer column usually sat meant that rugby was taking precedence over politics. His Independent rugby column lasted almost 20 years until he quit early in 2006.

Watkins did not write a formal autobiography, but he did write extensively about his life in a number of books. He intruded personally least of all in The Road to Number 10, a book about how politicians became leader of their party – which was well received by learned constitutional historians. He wrote accurately about the political intricacies involved in the fall of Mrs Thatcher in A Conservative Coup. He was a constant presence in most of the 28 delightful profiles in Brief Lives, mostly of people he worked with and for. (His piece on D.J. Watkins, teacher from Tycroes, noted that his son "went to Cambridge and later became a journalist in London".)

The nearest he came to autobiography was A Short Walk Down Fleet Street. He told tales of legendary figures and heroic drinking before the diaspora of newspapers to distant places where they do not properly belong, such as Canary Wharf and Kensington High Street. The book became required reading among young journalists for whom it was like passing through the looking glass to enter a different world. He recycled many of his best stories in these volumes and in various essays about political journalism, but most readers tolerated this, and regarded them indulgently, like old acquaintances. He himself became a character, the subject of fond memories of journalism seen through a nostalgic haze.

He wrote little about his personal life, except to say that he had had much happiness and some unhappiness. His marriage failed, and both his wife and a daughter predeceased him. He liked to drink champagne, red wine and armagnac, and a mild stroke on Good Friday, 2006 did not persuade him to curtail the pleasure he got from them. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

Alan Rhun Watkins, political journalist: born Tycroes, Carmarthenshire 3 April 1933; married 1955 Ruth Howard (died 1982; one son, one daughter and one daughter deceased); died 9 May 2010.