Elwyn Watkins RIP

Elwyn Watkins

It is with profound sadness that I have to tell you that my good friend, Elwyn Watkins, passed away this weekend.

I first met Elwyn at the London School of Economics & Political Science, where he took a BSc. (Econ) in Government. He preceded me as President of Carr-Saunders Hall, going on to become General Secretary of the LSE Student Union and we were flatmates for several of our formative years. Later, he attained a double-distinction MBA at Bradford University – an achievement about which he was, rightly, proud.

After university, he started his career as an Analyst at Pergamon Press, a Robert Maxwell company, working for Ian and Kevin Maxwell, Robert Maxwell’s sons. Pergamon was a subsidiary of the British Printing and Communications Corporation (later Maxwell Communications Corporation) of which Robert Maxwell was Chairman, Chief Executive, and major shareholder. Elwyn had a ring-side seat to some of the aftershocks of Ian and Kevin’s meetings with their father: he described events as a combination of outrageous dysfunctional behaviour and a fascinating insight into the corporate world.

Following this, he spent time in the City, in Birchin Lane, supporting the C-suite at RoyScot Finance, then the corporate lease finance arm of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

He then spent around 17 years working between the UK and Saudi Arabia, principally as a close confidant of Sheik Abdullah Alhamrani, whom Elwyn helped secure overall control of the Alhamrani Group. I know how much he contributed during that period and, in my view, Elwyn was not recognised appropriately for his contribution to those endeavours.

Many will recall Elwyn as a robust campaigner for liberal values, which he held so dearly and his work as a Liberal councillor and prospective Member of Parliament. However, most will remember Elwyn for his unstinting efforts to represent and to improve the lives of his “Northern” kinfolk. Elwyn was a proud Welshman by heritage, a huge supporter of the Welsh rugby side and a proud “Northerner” in equal measure.

He had an amazing sense of fun. He was intelligent, well-read, he held strong and informed views on geo-political and social issues. He was also as warm-hearted as he was sharp witted!

He will not be remembered for his fashion sense. He struck a lovely balance of being thrifty and being hugely practical. He saw this as a positive northern trait, and how he loved a bargain. He was unfailingly loyal and incredibly generous with his time. He loved discourse, just talking with ordinary people.

He served on Rochdale Council for many years. He championed many causes, from cleaning-up former industrial-use land contaminated by asbestos, but which had been subsequently slated for a housing development; highlighting and promoting the case for justice for victims of grooming gangs (when it was politically ‘inconvenient’ to do so), and was equally at ease with the day-to-day challenges of resolving constituents’ issues with education, housing, advocating for support for people leaving social care and moving into wider society.

Many of you will recall how he stood up for justice and integrity, not only in politics but in life in general. I recall the times when he headlined the BBC News bulletins. He had raised an action against the sitting MP for Oldham East & Saddleworth, the former Minster for Immigration, Phil Woolas. Woolas’s team had published a number of false and derogatory claims about Elwyn in their election materials in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. It is a testament to how worried they were that Elwyn might win that they resorted to such tactics. As it happens, Elwyn fell short by 103 votes (out of 44,113 votes cast), so who knows what may have happened had these false claims not been made.

What some had considered to be a hopeless task, was suddenly energised when the Special Parliamentary Election Court (which had not been convened for almost 100 years and consisted of two High Court judges and had initially slated a day to deal with what they may have thought would be a perfunctory hearing) extended the expected timeline slated for the hearing upon reviewing the submission of Elwyn’s case, from Helen Mountfield, then QC, now KC and Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. I was attending a conference and was in my room in the Midland Hotel in Manchester when I received a call from Elwyn telling me that the Court had read the submission and were taking it so seriously that they had extended the expected duration of the hearing; he was really enthused by this news.

Helen presented Elwyn’s case expertly. I still recall the gasp in the Saddleworth room when the Judge, Mr. Justice Teare, handed down the verdict. He announced that he had advised the Speaker of the House of Commons, who was making a statement simultaneously. The Court upheld Elwyn’s complaint.

The Election Court ruled that Woolas, knowingly and deliberately, misled the constituency and as a result voided the election under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983). The election in the Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency was void and Wollas was to be ejected from Parliament (thus losing his seat). Furthermore, Woolas was debarred from holding public office for three-years thereafter.

Further drama ensued as Woolas appealed to the High Court of Appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice, ironically next door to the LSE. Elwyn was particularly pleased that Lord Justice Thomas handed down the Appeal Court’s decision, upholding the original verdict, in the courtroom often used by Lord Denning, the former Master of the Roles. Lord Justice Thomas commended Elwyn stating that his actions had brought about a great service to democracy. Elwyn was, rightly, immensely proud of that.

It was the mark of the man that he did not pursue the case for political advantage. Rather, he was ‘perturbed’ that the false accusations about his character and actions, including “photo-shopped” photographs that were published in opposition constituency campaign materials, at one stage had his mother asking if they were true. To Elwyn, that was the final straw, that he, a man of principle (often to the detriment of his political career) could not let stand – and the rest is history.

Elwyn was what we Scots would describe as a “well-kent face” – a familiar figure – in Liberal Party circles (a cause to which he dedicated a significant part of his life), particularly in by- elections. Over the last few hours, as I have been communicating the news, it has been nice to hear tributes from many of those he encountered on those adventures.

Elwyn spent some of the last few years, with his sisters and brother, traveling to the North-West to support his elderly mother, who was ill and infirm and sadly died recently. Latterly, he led a quieter life choosing to spend his time in Hanwell, in west London.

He was particularly proud of his sister, Merryl, a GP in Derby. He often cited the contributions she made (and continues to make), particularly during Covid. Indeed, when we last met, a few weeks ago, he spent much of the evening telling me how the NHS continued to face significant challenges and regaling me – as a proud brother – with stories of Merryl’s many positive contributions to local health agencies, to her community and to her patients. My heartfelt commiserations to all of Elwyn’s family and to all who knew and loved him.

Elwyn, you have been taken too soon. You will be sadly missed. Rest easy my friend.

RIP
@elwynwatkins

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3 Comments

  • Thanks for this Jim. Shocking news. I am sad enough to have saved some of our election leaflets from LSE days – looking at them will make me even sadder now. I will always remember Elwyn’s glee as a working class Liberal taking on upper middle class Trots at LSE eg campaigning on the price of chips in the cafe when they wanted to grandstand about the commanding heights of the economy. There will never ever be anyone like him again.

  • Jan Gilbert 4th Jul '24 - 8:53pm

    Thank you for posting the obituary. I was a General Course student at the LSE in 1984-1985 and lived in the Maple Street apartments, across the street from Carr Saunders hall. I remember Elwyn fondly, although we have not communicated in almost 40 years. He was a kind, down to earth student who made friends easily. For whatever reason, I thought of him today and decided to google his name. What a tremendous shock and disappointment to learn of his passing. I recall his student government days at the LSE. Notable among them were his efforts to make chips more affordable ( I remember joking with him that his campaign slogan should be “the man that launched a thousand chips” or “let them eat chips.”). I also recall his LSE election loss being invalidated after it was determined that the vote count was corrupt. Elwyn won when the election was rerun. What a coincidence that he should have a similar experience years later when running for parliament. RIP Elwyn.

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