10 May 2010
Distinguished political columnist with a wry and sceptical tone who wrote an acclaimed book on Margaret Thatcher's downfall
From the time he joined The Spectator in 1964 until his final berth at The Independent on Sunday (in which he was still commentating at the time of the 2010 general election), Alan Watkins performed the role of a weekly political columnist, breaking only for annual holidays or periods of illness. It was a mark of his dedication and, indeed, a source of pride for Watkins, that during the three-week trial of a libel action brought against him in 1988 by the Labour politician Michael Meacher, he continued nonetheless to turn in his column. He had been the political columnist on The Independent on Sunday since 1993, and before that had written a political column for The Observer since 1976.
Alan Rhun Watkins was born in 1933 in the village of Tycroes, outside Ammanford — a mainly monoglot, Welsh-speaking area. His father was an elementary schoolmaster and a socially conservative Labour voter who used to shop at the Co-op. His mother, a middle-class Welshwoman, had been born in 1893 when it had been infra dig to speak Welsh, so Watkins was brought up with English as his first language. Although he always prized education highly, he vowed to himself early on that he would never become a schoolteacher. His father, mother, an uncle and two aunts were teachers. "I thought that life had more to offer than blackboards," he once explained.
Influenced by George Bernard Shaw's prefaces to his plays, Watkins resolved at the age of 18 to become a writer, but at Cambridge he changed course. While contemporaries such as Nicholas Tomalin and Mark Boxer explored undergraduate journalism, Watkins read law at Queens' College and became absorbed in politics, in both the Cambridge Union (where John Biffen and Tam Dalyell — then a Tory — were displaying their fledgeling talents) and the Labour Club. While there he met Michael Foot and Iain Macleod, who came to address the Union: he would later come to know Foot at Westminster and Macleod would be his editor at The Spectator.
After Cambridge, he did his National Service in the RAF, as Flying Officer Watkins of the Education Branch, teaching airmen English to GCE Olevel standard. He was still preparing to sit his Bar exams and to that end would travel to London at weekends for dinners at Lincoln's Inn. One weekend he was on a train reading an article in The Spectator by Henry Fairlie, when he asked himself whether he would rather be Henry Fairlie or Mr Justice Devlin, the highly regarded judge who was later made Lord Devlin. In this moment of epiphany he decided that political journalism, and not the Bar and the Bench, was the life for him.
On completing his National Service Watkins was research assistant for a while to William Robson, Professor of Public Administration at the London School of Economics and an old Fabian. In this role he acquired the discipline for work that had eluded him at Cambridge. In 1959 Watkins was hired as a feature writer by John Junor, the Editor of the Sunday Express. Junor had seen an article he read written for Socialist Commentary on contempt of Parliament and told him that there were people who can write and people who can't and that he was one that could and that, furthermore, if he came to work for him, Junor could teach him to write better. Within weeks, at the age of 26, he was writing the "Crossbencher" column, the paper's legendary political diary, while Wilfred Sendall was on holiday.
He went to serve as New York correspondent for six months, then returned to write "Crossbencher" for a whole year. As a Labour supporter writing for a Tory paper, Watkins was nonetheless able to agree with the paper's editorial line on some subjects. Beaverbrook was keen on the iniquities of the bench of bishops, while one of Junor's maxims was: "When in doubt, turn to the Royal Family."
From 1959 to 1962 he served as a Labour councillor on Fulham Borough Council, an experience that hastened his disillusionment with the Labour Party. He described council meetings later as "sheer Stalinism from start to finish" and declared that he was "ashamed that I ever had any part of it".
In 1964 Watkins succeeded David Watt as political correspondent of The Spectator, under the editorship of Macleod. Politically, Watkins was never convinced by Harold Wilson and therefore not so disappointed as others by the failure of the Labour Party to pursue radical policies throughout the late 1960s. He was a Bevanite on foreign policy (ie, convinced of the hostile intentions of the Soviet Union), though a Croslandite on domestic policy (ie, in favour of more equality in education and welfare, but against more nationalisation and government control) and he realised early on that the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were not operating a closed economy and that domestic policies were geared to the problems of sterling, over which the Government had little control. However, he believed that the Wilson governments failed the test of radicalism and that no one in the Labour Party after Tony Crosland was able to articulate the spirit of radicalism effectively.
Watkins deplored the move to comprehensive schools within the state system as a levelling-down process and was horrified by the accompanying corruption of the curriculum. "To me, socialism means that every child who wants to learn Latin should be able to learn Latin, not necessarily to do a marvellous job, but to be enriched there," he commented later. "And this was not at all how the comprehensive system worked out, through what I call a false radicalism." As a resident of Islington for many years, he voted in a couple of general elections for George Cunningham, the Labour MP-turned Social Democrat, whom he admired, before reverting to Labour. While scorning the decisions of the hard Left, his sardonic cast of mind was equally uncomfortable with the priggish tone of Tony Blair, whom he once put down with the tart observation that "in some ways he is a silly man".
In 1967 Paul Johnson invited Watkins to become political columnist of the New Statesman, and in addition he served as a director of the magazine from 1973 to 1976. In 1973, he received the What the Papers Say award for columnist of the year. While working at the New Statesman, he also wrote columns for a year at a time in each case, in the Sunday Mirror and the Evening Standard.
A Watkins column never foamed at the mouth. It was typically characterised by a wry, ruminative, sceptical voice; and by recondite knowledge drawn from psephology, political biography, Welsh and sporting folklore, and the law reports. Indeed, Watkins would occasionally summon up the persona of barrister manqué and discourse on constitutional matters — what he called his Sergeant Buzfuz approach. In his Observer days he would write his column in longhand between 10.30am and 2pm on a Friday, then spend an hour and a half dealing with what he called the "administration of life" while his column was typed by a secretary, and finally perhaps to visit one of his favourite Wren churches in the vicinity of the old Observer building on St Andrew's Hill.
Watkins spent more time in the Press Gallery of the House of Commons than most other political columnists, taking the pulse, and otherwise was an active member of the Garrick and Beefsteak. He wrote that "his entire working life had been spent in the quadrilateral enclosed by the East Road to the North, the Thames to the South, Goswell Road to the East, and Whitehall and the Charing Cross Road to the West". He was careless of his appearance, and was untramelled by any concern for physical fitness, carrying a prominent paunch as testament to his liking for claret and heavy food and emitting a perpetual wheeze, like a steam locomotive in a siding. His friends were not only fellow radicals, but also included right-wing journalists such as Frank Johnson and Peregrine Worsthorne, and High Tory dons such as John Casey and Maurice Cowling.
He occasionally regretted that he had not so arranged his affairs so that his Scottish Widows pension started paying out before he reached the age of 70, thus enabling him to devote more time to the writing of books. His first book was an understandably neglected work entitled The Liberal Dilemma (1966) and he then co-wrote (with Andrew Alexander) The Making of the Prime Minister 1970 (1970), which was generally accounted a disappointment.
This was followed in 1987 by Brief Lives, an enjoyable volume of essays about British public figures whom he had encountered, which was partly inspired by John Aubrey's book of the same title. A Slight Case of Libel (1990) was about the Meacher case. The book won the Edgar Wallace Award for Fine Writing at the London Press Club awards. It was both a rare elucidation of that branch of the law in practice, as well as a comedy about English class consciousness and the vanity of a politician .
Meacher, a high-minded socialist, had sued Watkins and The Observer over the suggestion that he had misrepresented his genteel, middle-class background as being working class, and Watkins had been faced with an allegation of malice that he felt would have ruined his reputation as a fair-minded columnist. In the event, the jury found against Meacher, who ended up having to pay more than £80,000 towards The Observer's costs. Watkins also wrote A Conservative Coup (1991), the best account of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher; The Road to Number 10 (1998) and A Short Walk Down Fleet Street (2000) and contributed to The State of the Nation (1997); Secrets of the Press (1999) and Roy Jenkins (2004).
Apart from politics, he wrote regularly about his other principal interest, rugby union — his sports columns were published as Sportswriter's Eye (1989) —and he holidayed each year in France.
He was married once, to Ruth Howard, who predeceased him in 1982, as did one daughter soon afterwards. He is survived by a son and a daughter from this marriage, and by Frances, his companion in later years.
Alan Watkins, journalist and author, was born on April 3, 1933. He died of kidney failure on May 8, 2010, aged 77.
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