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Saturday 18 November 2017

Alan Watkins

Doyen of Fleet Street's political columnists, he was best known for the elegance and erudition of his writing

ALAN Watkins, who has died aged 77, was a political journalist whose crumpled bulk was a contrast to his punctilious prose. Although nominally a man of the Left, he was by temperament an elitist who enjoyed the company in London clubland and mocked the blandishments of the Labour modernisers.

His column, in The Observer and later in The Independent on Sunday, was for many years the best weekly review of political events, depicting the Westminster landscape via detailed disclosure. Paunched and bottle-worn though he might have appeared, Watkins had a sharp ear for the biographical nugget, the intricate trait that betrayed a parliamentarian's character.

He relished such foibles, not only in politicians but also among colleagues in Fleet Street's bibulous heyday. Despite a facade of frayed indolence he was, from the mid-Sixties to the Eighties, one of the Westminster lobby's better-informed journalists and shrewdest commentators.

Alan (Rhun) Watkins was born in Wales on April 3, 1933, the son of a rugby-playing Carmarthenshire schoolmaster. Alan was the only one of three Watkins children to survive infancy. His mother, Violet, also a teacher, loved him "extravagantly" and imbued in him a respect for correct English and a suspicion of blowy Welshness. Even after her death at the age of 92, Watkins would halt his fountain pen over awkward sentences and wonder: "Would Mama approve of that?" His columns were always composed by hand.

He was educated at the Amman Valley Grammar school and early on leaned towards the law, which he read at Queens', Cambridge. He retained a lawyer's mind, as he showed during the Meacher libel trial some 30 years later.

At Cambridge he chaired the university's Labour club and was active in the Union, where contemporaries included Michael Heseltine, Tam Dalyell, Douglas Hurd and John Biffen.

After a sedentary National Service in the RAF Watkins was called to the Bar, but never practised. One Friday in 1956, heading by train towards a Lincoln's Inn dinner, he was enjoying Henry Fairlie's political column in the Spectator. Watkins silently asked himself if he would rather be Mr Justice Devlin, the most glamorous judge of the day, or Henry Fairlie. He found that he would prefer to be Fairlie and decided to become a journalist.

After a dry spell as a research assistant at the London School of Economics Watkins submitted an article to a journal called Socialist Commentary. Its subject was Parliament's high-handed treatment of the Sunday Express editor, John Junor, who had been summoned to the Commons to apologise for criticising MPs.

The Socialist Commentary piece, sympathetic to Junor, secured Watkins a job on the Sunday Express. From features he moved to the Crossbencher diary column and then became political correspondent, securing weekly audiences with the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson. He liked Wilson but did not fall for him completely.

A brief tour of duty in New York followed, where he had frequent contact with Lord Beaverbrook. His tasks included accompanying the Express's ageing proprietor on walks round Central Park, with strict instructions from London not to get lost (one Express man, unfamiliar with the geography, had kept Beaverbrook out in the cold for several hours).

In 1964, with Beaverbrook dead and Junor tinkering tiresomely with his copy, Watkins left to become political columnist of the Spectator, thrilled to fill the seat, only six years after having set out in journalism, once occupied by his idol Fairlie.

His flair for controversy became apparent when, during an intelligence row between the government and the press, Watkins used his Spectator column to publish the "D" Notices with which officialdom had prevented the fourth estate printing sensitive information. He and his editor, Nigel Lawson, argued that "there is no D Notice on D Notices" but the episode earned the Spectator a severe reprimand from Whitehall. It did Watkins's career no harm, however, and in 1967 he was poached by the New Statesman.

The offices of the Statesman were handily sited for El Vino, a dusty wine bar at the junction of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane to which, at dusk and often earlier, a bookish crowd of journalists would proceed like elephants to a Serengeti watering hole. Watkins, along with such men as Peregrine Worsthorne, Paul Johnson and Peter McKay, was to be found there most evenings.

Champagne was his drink. In dress and hygiene he exuded mouldiness, but in wit he was agile. Beneath the air of tolerance lurked stubborn intellectual resolve. Asked how he came to be so fastidious about the English language, he replied that he considered it his duty, seeing as he spoke no other tongue (save some childhood Welsh). Indeed, Watkins was not a good traveller, finding little abroad to compensate for the reassurances of home.

In 1974, having separated from his wife after 19 years of marriage, he moved to a small flat in Islington, north London. It was chosen for its proximity to Arsenal Football Club, which Watkins's son supported. Another neighbour was the Daily Telegraph's parliamentary sketchwriter Frank Johnson. The two became friends and, over sausages one day, started to use the phrase "chattering classes" to describe fashionable, media-savvy bien-pensants. It was not meant altogether unkindly.

Watkins enjoyed gossip. He just made it sound more elevated. Watkins would also develop the term "young fogey" to describe a certain type of young man prevalent in the early Eighties.

Shortly before Christmas 1975 Watkins nearly left the New Statesman to rejoin the Spectator, which was under the new ownership of Henry Keswick.

The deep-pocketed Keswick had offered Watkins £6,000 per annum, £1,300 more than he was being paid at the Statesman. Watkins expected the Statesman to match the Spectator's offer and was miffed when it did not. Watkins's New Statesman editor (and brother-in-law), Anthony Howard, was not to be defeated easily, though. He persuaded The Observer to hire Watkins at an even higher price. The Statesman may have lost him, but so did its rival. As for Watkins, his salary had practically doubled in three days.

The Observer column quickly became a hit, and within a couple of years many people bought the paper simply to read Watkins. He made politics sound civilised, yet he was an elegant mauler of reputations.

One such victim was the controversial Conservative, Edward du Cann. "Talking to Edward du Cann," wrote Watkins, "was rather like walking downstairs and somehow missing the last step. You were uninjured but remained disconcerted."

By now much of his research was being done at the bar of the Garrick. Labour had lost power and the days of long briefings from the Shadow Cabinet were gone. When Neil Kinnock became Labour leader Watkins found little to attract him to the party, Kinnock being just the sort of Welsh windbag his mother had taught him to avoid. Tony Blair later held equally little attraction; Watkins preferred well-read men.

Towards the end of the week he could, by this stage, sometimes be found in a heap of sleep at his desk. Visitors would pause at his office door and be shown a figure snoring like a walrus. "That," a guide would whisper, "is Mr Alan Watkins composing his Sunday column."

Watkins described his victory in the Meacher libel trial in A Slight Case of Libel (1990). Other books included Brief Lives (1982), comprising sketches of his Westminster fellows, and the autobiographical A Short Walk Down Fleet Street (2000).

A Conservative Coup (1991), which detailed the toppling of Margaret Thatcher, was one of his great later flourishes. But New Labour filled him with little joy. He had as little time for the management of The Guardian, which had bought The Observer, as he did for Peter Mandelson. Indeed Watkins moved almost immediately to The Independent on Sunday, which gave his copy the respect it deserved.

From 1959 to 1962 he had sat on Fulham Borough Council in the Labour interest and was credited with a decision to ban old people from huddling in public libraries.

Long after the newspapers departed Fleet Street, Watkins could still be found alighting creakily from taxi cabs to step swollen foot inside El Vino. Often he would be alone.

He continued to write with distinctive elegance until last month, when his final column described the first televised debate between the party leaders and noted that "Mr Clegg is adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath".

Alan Watkins married, in 1955, Ruth Howard, who died in 1982. They had one son and two daughters, one of whom predeceased him.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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