Is Nick Clegg Britain’s Moqtada al-Sadr?

Drawing a comparison between the Iraqi and UK elections.

The Conservatives have been scaremongering about a hung parliament again, claiming it will lead to "paralysis at the top", a "lack of accountability" and a "political stitch-up". Hey, why stop there? Why not also claim that a hung parliament will lead to pestilence, plague and biblical Armageddon?

I happen to agree with the calmer analysis produced by Peter Riddell of the Times. Hung parliaments, he argues, can be "made to work" and can produce "effective" coalitions. He points out:

Many countries most highly rated for good government, such as Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations, have multiparty rule.

One country where a hung parliament hasn't, however, been good for business or for the nation as a whole is the one we recently (and illegally) invaded -- Iraq. And, reading Patrick Cockburn's piece on the "Iraq election row" in the Independent today, I couldn't help but notice the rather odd parallels between the Iraqi parliamentary elections and our own (minus, of course, the Mesopotamian violence, bloodshed, corruption, vote-rigging and sectarian hatreds).

A bit of background: the 7 March parliamentary election in Iraq produced a hung parliament in Baghdad, with no single party or grouping securing a majority. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has been described as "difficult to deal with, quick-tempered and deeply suspicious of others". Who does that remind you of?

Right now, he is trying to cling on to power despite coming second in terms of share of the vote, if not seats. To stay in office, however, his governing State of Law party needs the support of its ideological and sectarian allies in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which came third in both seats and votes. But guess what? The anti-American Shia faction led by the "firebrand" cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is the single largest party in the INA, and the Sadrists, says Cockburn, "are adamant that Mr Maliki step down as prime minister".

So is Nick Clegg -- having said at the weekend, "You can't have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10" -- Britain's Moqtada al-Sadr?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.