Alan Watkins, 1933-2010

Former NS political columnist dies at 77.

Alan Watkins, one of the longest-serving political columnists in British journalism, died yesterday at the age of 77.

He wrote his last column for the Independent on Sunday on 18 April, shortly after the first of the three leaders' debates. And it is a perfect illustration of Watkins's artistry (not too strong a word, I think, for what Watkins did week in, week out for well over 40 years; his former colleague on the Observer, Robert Harris, describes Watkins's weekly despatches from the heart of British politics as "unsurpassed in [their] wit, [their] knowledge of parliamentary history and the quality of [their] prose").

Beneath a headline that now looks unusually prescient ("Clegg's soft touch will be hard to sustain"), Watkins displayed an attractive imperviousness to the conventional wisdom that too often asphyxiates political journalism in this country:

From the acres of opinion on display on Friday, I seem to find myself in a minority of one. The "great debate" has been pronounced an outstanding success. Hardened political commentators journeyed all the way to Manchester for . . . for what exactly? They might just as well have watched the proceedings from the modest comfort of their own sitting rooms, as I did myself.

Indeed, I watched part of Coronation Street, with the sound turned down. The first time I have done so, on that previous occasion turned up, for about 20 years. I watch a good deal of Channel 4, but to the main ITV channel I give a wide berth. There it is.

Not only was Watkins immune to debate-hysteria, he was also sceptical of "Cleggmania". Too many commentators, he suggested, were mistaking a minor earth tremor for a permanent shifting of the tectonic plates -- a judgement that, for all the unprecedented excitement and intrigue of this weekend's behind-closed-doors horse-trading, looks pretty secure in the wake of the Lib Dems' disappointing showing on Thursday:

Politically, the effect of Mr Clegg's appearance on Thursday evening was the same as the effect of a Liberal Democrat win at a by-election. For many years there was almost a guaranteed supply of Liberal Democrat upsets. In later years, the supply was in danger of drying up. There is no comparable peril on 6 May. Mr Clegg can say: vote for me. There is bound to be a Liberal Democrat somewhere within easy reach.

The New Statesman is proud to be able to say that, for several years, Watkins was one of our own -- as political correspondent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the editorships of Paul Johnson, Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard. In 1968, the magazine sent Watkins to Blackpool to cover the 100th Trades Union Congress:

Who is the windblown figure, battling along the front at Blackpool? Past "Seaview" he goes, past the Belgrave, past the Cliffs, sharp left and past Yates's Wine Lodge -- where Labour ministers will drink a glass of lunchtime champagne to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers -- and finally to the Winter Gardens, in which the only visible form of plant life is the fruit machines. Is it? Can it be? Indeed, it is: the Political Correspondent of the New Statesman, refreshed after several weeks' holiday, come to the one hundredth annual Trades Union Congress.

You can read the rest of his report here.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war