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  1. Politics
9 May 2010

Alan Watkins, 1933-2010

Former NS political columnist dies at 77.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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.

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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.

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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.