John Harris

Journalist & Author

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A nation ‘bored of Brexit’ risks sleepwalking into disaster | John Harris

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Voters are switching off from the sound and fury as Brexit hits fever pitch. But this indifference could redefine our politics

Just before Christmas, I spent a day in Cowley, a working-class suburb of Oxford where a factory now owned by BMW manufactures that great British icon, the Mini. The plant closes its doors for an annual “maintenance period”, usually timed to coincide with local schools’ summer holidays. But this year, amid the company’s concerns about Britain’s future relationship with Europe, the shutdown will not only be longer than usual but is scheduled to begin the day after we formally leave the European Union – a decision taken, says the company, to “minimise the risk of any possible short-term parts supply disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit”.

You might imagine the surrounding streets would be full of anxiety and urgency. But once BMW had declined my request to visit the factory and I had resigned myself to long hours spent vox-popping, I was not entirely surprised to find the complete opposite: questions about Brexit being met with an exasperated indifference, as if it were something in which people were barely interested.

Related: Chris Grayling denies ‘void’ in government over Brexit plan B

Related: Corbyn promises no-confidence motion against May ’soon’

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Who will pay for Donald Trump’s border wall?

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

With the US government in partial shutdown, the president continues to demand funding for his Mexican border wall. Lauren Gambino, in Washington DC, and Bryan Mealer, in Texas, discuss how Trump’s central campaign promise has led to this point of paralysis. Plus, John Harris looks back to the optimism of 1989

Donald Trump has visited the southern US border in Texas after walking out of talks to resolve one of the country’s longest government shutdowns in history. The president has refused to authorise the release of funds to pay up to 800,000 government workers until he secures funding for his central campaign promise of a border wall.

The Guardian’s US political correspondent, Lauren Gambino, joins Anushka Asthana to discuss the paralysis in the US government and why the president is so fixated on building his wall. And, as Trump tries to rally support in Texas, the Guardian’s Bryan Mealer reports that there is indeed a crisis at the border, but one largely of the president’s own making. Refugees and asylum seekers are facing appalling living conditions in detention centres struggling to cope with new arrivals.

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Together we can thwart the big-tech data grab. Here’s how | John Harris

Monday, January 7th, 2019

A decentralised internet sounds offputtingly complicated. But our lives, online and off, now depend upon it

Our family got a Google Home Hub for Christmas. As comparative lifestyle Neanderthals, we have so far only used it as a glorified digital picture frame and music player, though this is clearly not what it was built for. Say “Hey, Google”, tell it what you want, and a whole universe of entertainment, advice and help can be supplied – up to and including instant control of internet-connected doorbells, thermostats and more.

Contrary to their branding as “assistants”, the primary purpose of these devices is not to devotedly help the people who use them. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, once we have paid for the hardware, we get the services they can deliver largely for free, in return for limitless access to the small details of our lives. Big tech is therefore able to carry on making advertising more and more precisely targeted, and vastly increase the mountains of data that power its development of artificial intelligence. Smartphones, tablets and computers have been helpful, but evidently not helpful enough. Build data-gathering machines into the domestic sphere, and you break open whole streams of personal information.

Related: There is a leftwing way to challenge big tech for our data. Here it is | Evgeny Morozov

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If we must look to the past, let’s make it 1989: a year of transformation | John Harris

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

From eastern Europe to the dancefloors of Britain, a new optimism emerged. We should remember and take heart

Whatever happened to the future? Brexiteers cling on to a fantastical mixture of empire, war and an England whose genius was supposedly embodied by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In the United States, Donald Trump harks back to an America of economic might: musclebound men toiling in car factories and coalmines, and splendid isolation. A recent issue of the Economist surveyed politics in Europe and the US and observed “an orgy of reminiscence”, partly traceable to the fact that millions of westerners cannot shake off a deep and understandable sense of decline.

There’s an obvious irony in having to look back to find something better, but 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of a run of events that embodied pretty much the polar opposite: optimism, faith in the future and a sense of shared humanity that could not be more different from the polarised, rancorous mood of today. As this year unfolds, the events of 1989 – a year as replete with significance as 1848, 1945 or 1968 – will be celebrated and picked apart; in Berlin there will be an impressive run of commemorative events . Leafing through histories of the time, and thinking back to what happened, what most sticks out is a set of emotions and impulses that we would do well to revive: defiance, joy, an urge to run headlong into whatever happened next.

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David Cavanagh: the writer who saw the musicians behind the music

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

With his acute observations on David Bowie, Paul Weller and Radiohead, Cavanagh combined a passion for music with an eye for the small details of human behaviour

David Cavanagh had a brief go at Twitter, then stopped. He didn’t use Facebook. No one thought to write him a Wikipedia page. Four days after Christmas, when news came of his death, his former colleagues and readers paid him no end of tributes, all of which were suffused with both a deep sense of shock and a fitting sense of someone who had lived and worked outside the ephemeral cycles of the modern media.

Anyone who spent time with him would recognise most of the following: the fact that he could be introverted and silent, but also talkative and extremely funny; his fondness for the unfashionable pleasure of a couple of lunchtime beers; his astounding brilliance at pub quizzes. I still don’t know the year he was born (1965, at an informed guess), but I am reasonably certain he was brought up in Belfast, had a violinist father who became the leader of the BBC’s Northern Ireland orchestra, and had a degree in Russian. His key biographical detail, however, was absolutely certain: as someone said on social media in the wake of his death, he was “the best music writer of his times”, which stretched from the late 1980s to the present day and saw him write for the music weekly Sounds, Select (where he was also an editor), Q, Uncut and Mojo.

Related: How John Peel created our musical world

Related: Sign up for the Sleeve Notes email: music news, bold reviews and unexpected extras

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