Alan Watkins, doyen of political commentators, dies at 77

Political leaders past and present join the salutes to the writing, influence and charm of this paper's much-loved columnist

Sunday 09 May 2010 00:00

Tributes were paid last night to Alan Watkins, the distinguished political columnist for The Independent on Sunday, who died yesterday. Watkins, who had been unwell for several weeks, passed away peacefully at his London home after suffering kidney failure. He was 77. Friends and family, journalists and politicians of all persuasions united to express condolences for the passing of one of Britain's most talented political commentators.

Watkins, author of books such as A Short Walk Down Fleet Street and A Conservative Coup, was an award-winning writer credited with transforming the modern political column into a literary art form. He was also widely considered to be the author of many phrases now in common use, coining "chattering classes", "men in grey suits" and "young fogeys". His son David described his father as a "proud Welshman and a proud journalist".

Gordon Brown led those paying their respects last night, saying: "Many years ago my father first pointed me to Alan Watkins's weekly column as something I had to read. For decades he graced the public stage with his elegant writing, his insights and his humour. His work will survive the test of time."

David Cameron described Watkins as a "superb columnist with perhaps the best sweep of British political history of anyone writing for a newspaper. His columns often made you chuckle, but always made you think and almost always made you better informed". Nick Clegg added: "Alan's understanding of British politics set him apart from his peers. He is a loss not just to journalism but to everyone who loves politics." Tony Blair hailed him as a journalist "full of insight, intelligence and cultured – tough, critical, but never mean-spirited".

The former Independent editor Andrew Marr added: "Alan was one of the genuine originals from the golden age of political essay writing, and along with Hugo Young, Bernard Levin and Peter Jenkins he was one of the giants of political column writing."

The author Robert Harris said: "He was a great friend. He wrote everything by hand with a fountain pen. He was fastidious about the English sentence and never wrote in clichés. He was a consummate stylist. He had an enormous zest for life and you always left a meal feeling happier than when you started it," he said last night.

John Mullin, editor of The Independent on Sunday, said last night: "Alan Watkins was the most brilliant journalist, a one-off. He had unrivalled contacts, a unique feel for politics, and he wrote like a dream. We were honoured that he wrote for The Independent on Sunday and he is utterly irreplaceable."

As a passionate Welshman, Watkins also wrote knowledgeably about rugby. Welsh rugby legend Gareth Edwards said: "I respected and admired his work. He was very knowledgeable about the game and he didn't seek sensationalism. People respected that. He enjoyed the game, and that came over in the way he wrote about it."

Born in Swansea in 1933, the son of Carmarthenshire teachers, he became a journalist after university and national service. He qualified as a barrister but gravitated to journalism after writing an article defending the former editor of the Sunday Express, Sir John Junor. He leaves a son and a daughter.

Tributes to Alan Watkins...

"I'm very sad about it because he was a great journalist. He was a very funny and articulate columnist and he was able to measure politics against history without being dull, which is a very rare thing these days. He was also very good at putting the boot in when he chose. When I chose to apologise to the people of Liverpool, of all the invectives that rained down on my head, his piece was the most erudite and brutal. We need him now, because no-one would be able to make sense of this situation like he would."

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

"Alan was a great character and though not of my political persuasion, he was one of the journalists who made the lobby such fun."

Michael Heseltine, former Tory deputy Prime Minister

"Without a doubt, he was one of the best political journalists of his generation. He was a voice of reason when so many others went for sensationalism, he always reported things just how they were. When you read something by Alan, you believed it."

Piers Morgan, broadcaster

"I knew Alan for over 50 years. We first met at a conference for the national association of labour students in the 1950s. He was a great journalist; a great writer who knew a lot about politics, which was a great combination."

Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the Labour Party

"Alan Watkins as my first appointment as editor of the Observer in 1975. He was essentially an essayist, a superb stylist in an almost Eighteenth century way – elegant, scholarly, detached. He was rarely excited by the hustle and bustle of every day politics, viewing events in an historical context – based on well-remembered experience and wide reading – that gave his judgements a solidity lacking in many commentators. It is sadly ironic that he should die at this pivotal moment in our politics, on which his comments will be badly missed."

Donald Trelford, journalist, former editor of the Observer

"Alan was an expert in constitutional problems so this current business would have been meat and drink to him. He was a columnist at the Spectator when I became editor and though he was left of centre, it didn't make a difference because he was fair minded and interested in getting at the truth. He particularly liked delving into political plots and manoeuvrings but he had what you'd call an affectionate cynicism; he was hard headed and cynical about politicians' motives yet he loved politics and politicians, and he could write. As a man he was convivial, excellent company and very jolly."

Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer

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