Born in Tycroes, Carmarthenshire, with parents who were teachers, he was educated at Tycroes Primary School and Amman Valley Grammar School before studying law at Queens' College, Cambridge. Ammanford, Carmarthenshire web site After National Service he was called to the Bar.
Much of his long career as a commentator on politics was spent at The Observer newspaper (1976-93), but he also wrote for The Sunday Express (1959-64), The Spectator (1964-67), the New Statesman (1967-76), the Sunday Mirror, and the London Evening Standard.
He was noted for coining the political phrase "the men in grey suits", indicating a delegation of senior party figures who come to tell a party leader that it is time to go. But as he wrote in a footnote in A Conservative Coup:
The original phrase was 'the men in suits'. It was used, for example, by the present writer in the Observer, 6 May 1990. During and before the 39 hours it became transformed into 'the men in grey suits', which stuck. As Lord Whitelaw observed on television, it was an inaccurate phrase, because on the day in question, 21 November, his interviewer could see that he was wearing a blue suit. And, indeed, the typical Conservative grandee tends to wear a dark blue or black suit, with chalk- or pin-stripes, what may be called a White's Club suit. The original phrase 'the men in suits' is the more accurate.
His style might best be described as that of a political raconteur, gently reminding readers that, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
He coined a number of phrases that have passed into common journalistic parlance, such as "young fogey" (1984).
At the end of each year he wrote a piece called "Master Alan Watkins' Almanack", written in the style of a 17th century seer and making tentative, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, predictions for the year ahead.
He was the author of A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, A Slight Case of Libel: Meacher vs Trelford and Others, Brief Lives and A Conservative Coup.