John Harris

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Levelling up? Most of the UK is still in the grip of austerity | John Harris

Monday, March 1st, 2021

After a decade of cuts, local government is in tatters, services have been slashed, and some town halls are facing bankruptcy

It may be neither fair nor particularly rational, but in the past three weeks or so Boris Johnson and his allies have been buoyed up by rising public optimism. Thanks to the vaccination programme and the expectations swirling around the somewhat provisional back-to-normal date of 21 June, the government’s dire handling of so much of the pandemic has receded from view.

The prime minister looks both very lucky, and a more formidable leader than he seemed in the grim days of late 2020; Keir Starmer seems to have stalled. Meanwhile, even people with an understandably cautious sense of the immediate future can surely warm to the prospect of packed pub gardens, revived music festivals and family reunions.

Related: Fears of English local elections chaos due to lack of staff and venues

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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What British politicians won’t admit – we need to transform the welfare state | John Harris

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

Nearly 80 years on from its creation, the benefits system has been exposed by Covid to be broken beyond repair

I found an anecdote towards the end of The Road to 1945, the late historian Paul Addison’s history of how the second world war changed Britain. It centres on Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin – then minister of labour in the wartime coalition government – and thousands of soldiers setting off to mainland Europe. In June 1944, two days before the D-day landings, Churchill and Bevin went to Portsmouth to say farewell to the troops. “They were going off to face this terrific battle,” Bevin recounted, “with great hearts and great courage. The one question they put to me when I went through their ranks was: ‘Ernie, when we have done this job for you are we going back on the dole?’… Both the prime minister and I answered: ‘No, you are not.’”

Despite the self-evident caveat that wars and pandemics are very different things, the parallels between the uneasy historical moment that story captures and the current phase of the Covid crisis are obvious. The past 12 months have seen a mixture of unprecedented deaths and huge collective sacrifice. Moreover, as the crisis has gone on, profound social questions that have been rattling around British politics for at least a decade – about poverty, inequality, work, and housing – have roared into the foreground. If some people are asking questions about a return to “normal” and the dashed hopes that would represent, that hardly seems unreasonable.

Related: The combination of Covid and class has been devastating for Britain’s poorest | Owen Jones

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Covid has damaged our small businesses. Now Brexit might finish them off | John Harris

Monday, February 15th, 2021

Multinationals can just about cope with the new UK-EU trading rules, but independent businesses are mired in problems

If you had to design a scenario guaranteed to fatten up big business while squashing the rest of the economy, it would probably resemble what Britain is living through.

Thousands of independent businesses are shuttered up. Amazon and the big supermarkets, boosted by the suspension of anything other than “essential” retail but gleefully selling a huge range of stuff, have carved up consumer spending between them. And the economic impact of Covid-19 is now fusing with an issue that will endure even as lockdown restrictions are eventually eased: the dire effects of Brexit on smaller companies staring into the future with a mixture of fear and bafflement.

Related: Department stores are far more than just shops. Their loss leaves a hole in the heart | Polly Toynbee

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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‘It’s like being in prison’: what’s behind the rise in school exclusions?

Saturday, January 30th, 2021

Exclusions in English schools have gone from a last resort to the go-to punishment for children who are deemed disruptive or simply don’t fit in. Is there a better way?

I meet Lewis just before the first lockdown, early in 2020. He is 18, and in the middle of his A-levels: a sparky, irreverent presence, with a strong sense of injustice about what he experienced at his London secondary school. In year 9, around the time he turned 14, he started being bounced around the school’s disciplinary system. At one point, he spent every school day for six weeks in a single-room facility called “the annexe”. He was also forced to spend time at home. Sometimes, work was sent for him to do; sometimes, he spent whole days doing nothing.

“I was in the top sets for a lot of things, and there weren’t many black kids in those classes, so I tended to stand out,” he says. “But also, I was acting up.” There were reasons for his behaviour: “I had a lot going on. My mum had had a miscarriage. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I had an uncle who was sectioned. I’m not going to be like, ‘I was a good kid.’ I was lashing out. But the worst part was, I’d spoken to some of my teachers about the reasons.”

I’ve seen children in isolation rooms on trumped-up charges. And they were full of black kids

There was no learning. Kids with headphones on, playing cards, turning up when they wanted. It was like a bad youth club

They have to sit there in silence for a day with three toilet breaks. Theoretically, they give them work, but they don’t

He’s been excluded for playing with a fidget toy that they gave him. He’s been excluded for asking for work

Children stab people when they’re angry. So we’re not forcing them into a situation where they have to react violently

They started just excluding me for the littlest things. And then they ended up getting rid of me

If 80% of kids respond well to a zero-tolerance policy, what about the other 20%? Do we accept them as collateral damage?

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These are big moments in our history. Why is Labour’s response so small? | John Harris

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

Keir Starmer can skewer Boris Johnson in the Commons, but competence isn’t enough. He has to spell out a vision, and soon

One of the most glaring aspects of the Covid-19 era is yet another Westminster-centred crisis of political leadership, if not politics itself. This may be a polarised age in which the idea of millions being helped through dark times by the people at the top is laughably old-fashioned. Trust in power has hardly been a feature of recent British history. But it has been clear from the start of this crisis that Boris Johnson has neither the gravitas nor the basic administrative talents to offer us any convincing kind of inspiration or comfort, and the surreally poor quality of the cabinet only makes things worse.

And then there is Keir Starmer. In the eyes of most voters, the Labour leader is clearly a vast improvement on Jeremy Corbyn. The skills he developed as a lawyer mean that he does such an enviable job of skewering Johnson and his colleagues’ failures that it has become a cliche to even mention it. The union jacks Starmer habitually appears in front of are clearly intended to tell the people rattled by Corbyn’s time at the top that all is now well again. But for many reasons, the use of such symbols feels awkward and incongruous: here, it seems, is someone who would like to channel the national mood, but cannot yet find a way to do it.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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