Going to Iraq and ruin

'The current traffic picture in Baghdad is impending gridlock. Trams were the answer once. They can be the answer again'
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The Independent Online

I am proud to say that I have recently been involved in some top-level decision-making at the Liberal Democrat party conference. I also have to admit that it was quite by accident. I was there only to do some background reporting. But I was passing a conference room one day when a man rushed out and said: "We need another delegate to make up a quorum for a debate on the Iraqi war – will you come in and help?"

I am proud to say that I have recently been involved in some top-level decision-making at the Liberal Democrat party conference. I also have to admit that it was quite by accident. I was there only to do some background reporting. But I was passing a conference room one day when a man rushed out and said: "We need another delegate to make up a quorum for a debate on the Iraqi war – will you come in and help?"

"I didn't know the Lib Dems were declaring war on Iraq," I said.

"Don't be silly," he said. "We're not. We would never declare war on anyone. Except, perhaps, Charles Kennedy, when the time is ripe. But we have to know where we stand on everything. If we don't know, the public will never know! So today we're doing Iraq. Come on!"

One doesn't often get the chance to enter the inner sanctum of Lib Dem policy-making, so I trotted in and sat where I was told, at the bottom of the table. Looking around, I was thrilled to recognise several of the well-known Lib Dem personalities who will be familiar to you from the Lib Dem's natural habitat – ie, local government. There was the man with the beard. There was the man who sounded as though he knew a lot about schools. There was the woman who liked shaking her head when other people were speaking. There was the man who always smiled. There was the Asian man. And there was the affable chairman...

"Let's be honest about this," he said, by way of opening the meeting. "People do not expect us to be authoritative on the Middle East. After all, the Lib Dems have made their name in politics at the local level. People trust us in local government. But... yes, Sandra?"

"I have here a study document about traffic conditions in Baghdad," said the steely-eyed lady referred to, "and it is my belief that if and when there is a power vacuum after Saddam Hussein's removal, then we must take the opportunity to introduce some form of trams into Baghdad. The streets are wide enough. The need for improved public transport is there. The current traffic picture in Baghdad is impending gridlock. Trams were the answer once. They can be the answer again."

"Yes, but..." said the chairman. He never got any further. He was interrupted by the one who always smiles.

"Can I just say something?" said the smiling one. "Yes to trams. Yes to pedestrianisation of inner Baghdad. Yes to hanging baskets of flowers – and well done to Baghdad for winning the Middle East in Bloom title for the third time in a row!"

"These are just words," said the man with the beard, gloomily. "We are never going to get anywhere with the reconstruction of Baghdad in a post-invasion situation if Park'n'Ride schemes are not introduced forthwith. People are simply not going to Baghdad for their shopping any more. Local traders express despair about the annual reduction in turnover. Tourist trade in Iraq is down again, for the 17th year in a row. And do you know why?"

"Because people hate getting killed?" I suggested. "Because we and the Americans are bombing the place? Because it's safer to go shopping in Riyadh or Damascus? Or York or Cheltenham?"

Nobody even looked at me.

"Because we have to pedestrianise, pedestrianise, pedestrianise!" said the beard. "We have to make Baghdad a place where shoppers know they can stroll in safety!"

"The Arabs worked out a way of doing it 4,000 years ago," I said. "They called it a bazaar. They still have them."

"There will be a lot of moaning when we introduce traffic-exclusion zones," said Sandra. "There always is. People never realise to begin with that we are doing things for their benefit and that we know best."

Sandra's steel-grey eyes lit up momentarily, terrifyingly.

"When Mr Blair comes to us for our support on Iraq," said the chairman, "I think he will find we have a pretty good public-transport policy to insist on as a condition of our backing. Good. Now, let's move on to the matter of refuse-collection. There used to be a twice-weekly collection in central Baghdad, but the state-run service has declined dreadfully, and I am wondering if we should not push for the help of private contractors here..."

My eyes started to glaze over at that moment, and I crept out unnoticed. But it's nice to know that after the balloon has gone up in Iraq, when the smoke finally drifts away, the Lib Dems will be on stand-by to do what they do best.

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