The travelling man

<strong>Gordon Brown</strong> likes to portray himself as a chancellor for the world. But he cannot

During the Labour party conference in September, one big beast was doing the rounds of the parties with a plan for Gordon Brown. First, the Prime Minister should fall on his sword for the greater good of the party. It was then necessary, according to this former cabinet minister, for the party to find a role for Brown travelling the world, talking to international economic experts. "There is no one with the level of expertise and the contacts that Gordon possesses," said this senior anti-Brown figure, grudgingly. "If he goes we would have to persuade him to help us out in that area."

In the event, Brown did not fall on his sword, but it is as if he has taken the other half of the advice to heart and found a role for himself as the supreme economic diplomat, a chancellor for the world.

What's more, he could just have found his party a strategy for winning the next election. For the best part of a year, Labour struggled with the basics: it lacked a clear and consistent message and a leader around whom it could unite. It was a party in continuous crisis, with open dissent from the back benches.

“Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way, then call a general election. There is no other option”

Now, it couldn't be simpler: keep Gordon Brown on the road promoting himself as the saviour of the global economy, returning to Britain only to report back about how well he is doing. It has worked so far and there is no reason to believe he is about to put a stop to his travels.

It is difficult to believe that it is just eight weeks since Brown stood up before the Labour faithful at the Manchester conference and delivered his "no time for novices" speech. He was advised at the time to go straight from the conference hall to New York to talk about the duties of the advanced economies towards the developing world, and on to Washington for talks with George W Bush. The joke was that things were so bad for Brown at home that his only hope of survival was to end world poverty and sort out the global banking crisis. It didn't seem like much of a strategy. But thus it was that the Brown bounce had its origins away from these islands.

From Washington, he went to Paris where, at a summit of the European leaders of the so-called big four countries of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, he reinvented himself as a dedicated European by claiming joint credit for unlocking £25bn of EU funds to help small businesses. His message in Paris has been replicated many times since: "Where action has to be taken we will continue to do whatever is necessary to preserve the stability of the financial system. The message to families and businesses is that, as our central banks are already doing, liquidity will be assured in order to preserve confidence and stability."

The Prime Minister's international itinerary since the beginning of October has been breathtaking. Barely a week has gone by without a foreign trip. On 12 October he returned to Paris for more talks with President Sarkozy and four days later he travelled to Brussels for a meeting of the EU Council. Then, at the end of the month, he was back in Paris to touch base with his new best friend, Sarkozy, for a third time. At the beginning of November, he was in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi to persuade Gulf oil state leaders to help finance the bailout of the international banking system. Then, a week later, it was back to Brussels for yet another crisis summit. In total, between the Labour party conference and the G20 summit in Washington, the Prime Minister has spent nearly two weeks out of the country.

At the same time as the globetrotting, Brown has bolstered his reputation as an international statesman through regular meetings at No 10 with world leaders. In the past few days, two presidents have visited: José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.

The conundrum for Labour is what to do when the recession starts to bite and significant numbers of people start to lose their jobs and their homes. The Prime Minister cannot keep travelling. In the not-too-distant future he will have to fight a general election. But Gordon Brown, for whom fortune has delivered such a dreadful hand in so many ways, has suddenly got lucky. It just so happens that, in April, the UK will be taking its turn at the presidency of the G20 group of world leaders, which means this country will be the venue for the next global economic summit. Brown will therefore be hosting Barack Obama on one of the first foreign trips of his presidency. Fortuitous timing indeed, with a possible snap May election to follow.

As one former cabinet minister who spent a long time at the Treasury told the New Statesman: "Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election. There really is no other option."

Derek Pasquill, a Foreign Office official cleared of breaching the Official Secrets Act, has announced that he will be suing the department for dismissing him from his job. Pasquill's disclosures to the NS about government dialogue with radical Islamist groups helped shift policy in that area. He also exposed details of UK government knowledge about secret CIA "rendition flights" of terror suspects. Like us, the Observer, Channel 4 and the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange ran stories as a result of the leaks and I am sure they will join the NS in offering Pasquill every support in getting his job back.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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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.