Alan Watkins: 'Brilliant journalist, a one-off'

Independent on Sunday columnist Alan Watkins died on Saturday at the age of 77 after a 51-year-career in journalism.

He had spent the last 47 years as a weekly political columnist for various publications – the last 17 of which for the Independent on Sunday. In 2005 Watkins won the Edgar Wallace award for fine writing from the London Press Club. In 2008 he won a lifetime achievement award at the What the Papers Say Awards.

His death today prompted lead obituaries in The Guardian, Times, Independent and Telegraph.

In 1959 he joined the Sunday Express as a feature writer under then editor John Junor, after leaving a fledgling career in the law. He was made New York correspondeont in 1961 and was given the Crossbencher political column in 1963. In 1964 new editor of The Spectator Iain MacLeod recruited him as a weekly political columnist.

When the title was sold in 1967, he joined the New Statesman – staying there for 10 years until he was recruited by then Observer editor Donald Trelford in 1976.

Writing in The Independent today, Trelford said: ‘Alan Watkins was one of the last great Fleet Street characters.”

He said that until recently Watkins wrote his columns in longhand, dictating them over the telephone, before taking lunch at famous journalists’ watering hole El Vino’s and then arriving at the Independent on Sunday offices in Docklands to proof the page.

Explaining why Watkins left The Observer to join the Independent on Sunday in 1993, Trelford said it followed an address by executives from The Guardian – which had bought the title. Watkins apparently muttered: “They’re a conquering army. I’m off.”

Trelford also recounts Watkins’ biggest ever scoop, after Michael Foot called him after the Conservative election victory in 1979 to reveal that he was running for Labour leader.

Watkins was credited with coining the phrase “the men in suits” to describe party grandees who tell their leader it is time to resign, as well as “young fogey” for an up-and-coming politician with attitudes from a previous generation.

Independent on Sunday editor John Mullin said: “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.”

Watkins also wrote about rugby and wine and was the author of A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, The Road To Number 10 and A Conservative Coup.

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