Alan Watkins: I'd rather spend a long weekend in Basra

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The Independent Online

"That's no way to pour a cup of coffee," the man from the Mirror remonstrated.

"You'd think yourself lucky to have any of that where I've just come from, chum," the waiter replied.

"Where was that, then?"

"Strangeways Prison."

On another occasion I had booked into a more modest establishment and had asked for a room with a bath. As usual, there had been a muddle about reservations, whether brought about by the hotel or by the paper for which I was then working. On arrival, I was told that only a shower was available.

"It's a lovely room, love," the woman behind the desk said optimistically.

"I'm afraid I have to have a bath," I said. "You see, it's part of my religion."

This was a straight lift by me of an episode from one of the wartime novels in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. It worked just as well in practice as it had in fiction. The woman consulted a younger man who was evidently in a position of some authority. I could hear her use the words "says it's his religion". If asked for further particulars, I had been prepared to swear that I belonged to the Strict Baptists of Ammanford, believers in total immersion at least once a day and, indeed, whenever possible. But such a subterfuge proved unnecessary. Out of respect for religion, I was duly provided with a bath, though to get in and out of it required the agility of an acrobat.

The only reason the Liberal Democrats came to Blackpool was to prove that they were one of the big boys too. In the past they have added a mild interest to the beginning of the political year by taking us to Buxton or Harrogate or to towns which the larger parties used to visit but have now relinquished, such as Llandudno, Margate or Scarborough. To a certain extent, they brought their troubles of last week on themselves: as if they had hired the Albert Hall for a grand celebration gala of Mr Charles Kennedy's most recent electoral triumph.

In fact - by which I mean, as people usually do when they use that phrase, in my opinion - Mr Kennedy had a perfectly good story to tell. He told us some of it on Thursday. There was a case (I am putting it no higher than that) for setting out his stall on the Sunday evening or the Monday morning and making his second speech when he did. There was no case at all for popping up and down in a vaguely apologetic manner, as he kept doing for most of the proceedings. True, the Liberal Democrat policy of trying to decapitate leading Tories in their citadels had proved an unqualified failure, as it deserved to be. Equally, there were solid seats in the South-east occupied by less famous persons which Mr Kennedy's party could and should have won. But the panic which it caused in what used to be the People's Party in the immediate wreckage of the election was completely forgotten last week.

In the aftermath of the election it was, admittedly, difficult for a casual reader of the papers to grasp that Labour had won an unprecedented third victory with a comfortable majority. Anyone would have thought that Mr Tony Blair had lost the election. Today, for no good reason that I can see apart from the London bombings (which hardly count as a good reason), the political compass has swung round through 180 degrees.

The trouble with the Liberal Democrats is that they believe everything they read in the papers. They believe, for example, that any political party worth the name must have a clear identity and a defined sense of direction: for that, after all, is what the leader columns and most of the political commentaries tell them that proper parties must have. Historically, there is very little evidence that this is so. Similarly, the papers and the commentators tend to agree that, in order to garner Tory votes, the Liberal Democrats must offer Tory policies.

This is by no means self-evident. There is not the slightest purpose, for instance, in trimming on Iraq. To be fair, neither Mr Kennedy nor Sir Menzies Campbell has done so. On the removal of troops, their policy is more that of the White Man's Burden - that we owe some permanent moral obligation to keep our troops there. I think there would be a greater chance of gathering not only Labour votes but Tory votes as well if they adopted a policy of getting out now, bag and baggage.

It is really not worth going to Brighton either, in my opinion. A couple of years ago, in Bournemouth, I was about to enter the hall at two o'clock on the Tuesday afternoon to hear the young war criminal address his stormtroops, when my progress was impeded by a young functionary in a suit.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but you can't come in."

"My name is Alan Watkins," I said, "and I write a political column for The Independent on Sunday" - not, you understand, in any attempt to pull rank, a practice I have always despised, but more to establish who exactly I was, and what I was doing there.

"I know perfectly well who you are," the youth said, "and you still can't come in."

Entry to the non-delegates' area, he explained, was restricted to editors, political editors, members of the diplomatic corps and persons who had subscribed large sums of money to party funds specifically to attend the occasion in question. So, like any properly brought up Sunday journalist, I made my excuses and left, in this case to watch Mr Blair on television in the press room outside the conference hall. Why travel all the way to Brighton when I can do exactly the same from the modest comfort of my book-lined study in Islington with, moreover, a fortifying drink conveniently to hand?

There is something else. Being molested by the Sussex Police at roughly two-hourly intervals is not my idea of the summit of human felicity. At least you know more or less where you are with them, which is more than can be said of the Basra Police. Even so, I am almost as reluctant to venture within the Brighton ring of steel as I am to spend a long weekend in Basra.

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