John Harris

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To mask or not to mask? That shouldn’t be the question | John Harris

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

In shifting Covid risk to individuals in an already battered society, the British state has set the scene for countless futile conflicts

England has now entered the strangest phase to date of its Covid experience. Though the health secretary insisted, in a tweet he eventually deleted, that we must not “cower from” the virus, the contradiction between the lifting of restrictions and most epidemiological wisdom sits in the midst of our national life like a dull headache. The same prime minister who promised his ideological soulmates a new dawn of liberty is now embracing vaccine passports, and reportedly facing the prospect of defeat in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, references to “personal responsibility” have brought a new unease to everyday life, as the government reverts to type and does what Tory administrations usually do, transferring risk from the state to individuals.

Wearing a mask now feels a bit like putting on a badge. On what the rightwing press rather laughably called “freedom day”, I did some shopping at my local Asda, observed a masked-to-umasked ratio of about 70:30, and sensed – or thought I sensed – the crackle of judgment and mistrust, passing between those who were sticking with face coverings and those who had decided to go without. Two days later, I was in Stoke-on-Trent, where the ratio in a huge Tesco was more like 60:40 in favour of masking up. Despite announcements over the PA advising people to behave as if restrictions were still in place, the fact that some were sticking to the old rules while others were not felt like a matter of dull normality.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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A kind, inclusive England is stirring – and as usual, our politicians don’t get it | John Harris

Monday, July 19th, 2021

The aftermath of Euro 2020 shows there’s a better story to be told about a country too often defined by Brexit

Just under a fortnight ago, I watched England’s Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark in another country. I was in Wales. In the bar of a Swansea hotel, I took my pre-booked place next to an English guest apparently sent by central casting. There he was: as the great Billy Bragg sang, “one of those blokes / The sort who only laughs at his own jokes”, eating and drinking on his own but frantically yelling at the giant television screen even during the pre-match buildup. He booed Denmark’s national anthem and liberally used the C-word about the players in its team – but then mysteriously disappeared when England’s players took a knee. Once he returned, his performative belligerence worsened after he was asked to pipe down by the (Welsh) bar staff, and he soon left without paying his bill: an embodiment of the irate spirit of Albion, caught as ever between self-pity and arrogant fury, and apparently reduced to watching the match in his lonely room.

In the week or so since England’s climactic defeat by Italy, this mode of Englishness has once again passed into infamy, sped on its way by the behaviour of some fans at the championship final and the subsequent racist abuse of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka. The licence given to such bigotry by both the government and the rightwing press has now disappeared into the establishment memory hole – Boris Johnson denying having ever implicitly excused the booing of the England team, the Sun topping its front page with the priceless strapline, “Nation unites against racists”. But as absurd as they are, these things have happened because of this year’s most fascinating development: the unexpected entry into post-Brexit politics and culture of a collective cast of mind that is profoundly humane, inclusive and kind – not the kind of adjectives usually associated with 21st-century England, which is some token of how striking recent developments have been.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Keir Starmer needs a vision. ‘Buy British’ is not enough | John Harris

Monday, July 5th, 2021

It should not be difficult. Covid has highlighted a new public mood, and the injustices caused by a decade of Tory government

Midway through her campaign to be the MP for Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater put up a 90-second online video. It was a bog-standard tumble through the kind of things that parties tend to bang on about in byelections: pledges of “a reduction in antisocial behaviour”, “more police on our streets” and “better, safer roads” , along with a drive to “protect our green spaces”. But when she suddenly mentioned “international concerns around Palestine” – something presumably inserted to try to stem the flow of votes to George Galloway – one of her party’s biggest problems was revealed.

Between the doorstep and the occupied West Bank, there was a very familiar Labour vacuum, which 15 months of Keir Starmer’s leadership has left unfilled, and which partly explains why his party came so close to losing its second byelection in two months. In the haze of relief that followed Leadbeater’s unexpected win, these failures seemed to be temporarily forgotten. But they will soon come roaring back.

Related: Analysis: why is the narrow Labour byelection victory in Batley and Spen being treated as a comeback?

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Keir Starmer needs a vision. ‘Buy British’ is not enough | John Harris

Monday, July 5th, 2021

It should not be difficult. Covid has highlighted a new public mood, and the injustices caused by a decade of Tory government

Midway through her campaign to be the MP for Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater put up a 90-second online video. It was a bog-standard tumble through the kind of things that parties tend to bang on about in byelections: pledges of “a reduction in antisocial behaviour”, “more police on our streets” and “better, safer roads” , along with a drive to “protect our green spaces”. But when she suddenly mentioned “international concerns around Palestine” – something presumably inserted to try to stem the flow of votes to George Galloway – one of her party’s biggest problems was revealed.

Between the doorstep and the occupied West Bank, there was a very familiar Labour vacuum, which 15 months of Keir Starmer’s leadership has left unfilled, and which partly explains why his party came so close to losing its second byelection in two months. In the haze of relief that followed Leadbeater’s unexpected win, these failures seemed to be temporarily forgotten. But they will soon come roaring back.

Related: Analysis: why is the narrow Labour byelection victory in Batley and Spen being treated as a comeback?

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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As Hancock exits, the future looks the same: hope mixed with dread | John Harris

Monday, June 28th, 2021

Whoever may come and go in the new era of ‘living with the virus’, this government lacks the skills to see us through

Two days before Matt Hancock began his tumble towards resignation, you could sample news stories about the immediate future of the Covid crisis and choose from two completely different narratives: one all about apparently boundless optimism, the other a mixture of caution and despair.

Thanks to government sources, the Times announced that with vaccinations working their wonders, the country was heading towards the new “terminus date” of 19 July in fine fettle, ready at last “to lift all remaining lockdown restrictions … including social distancing, facemasks and work-from-home guidance”, and to embrace “personal responsibility”. But later the same day, it was announced that 16,135 new cases of Covid had been recorded in the previous 24 hours, the highest number since early February. In Oldham, the Greater Manchester town that has been at the extreme edge of the Covid experience since last year, 3,000 schoolchildren and 210 of their teachers were said to be self-isolating.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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