John Harris

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You don’t have to be a lockdown sceptic to worry about how Covid is being policed | John Harris

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

All the ‘tough’ talk ignores who is always targeted in such crackdowns, and those who still need help

The lockdown sceptics, it seems, are in abeyance. Opportunistic media voices who made a habit of denying the necessity of restrictions and the severity of the pandemic are still here, but noticeably quieter. Only 16 MPs, split between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, voted against the government’s latest measures. Bursts of dissent about restrictions and the truth of the virus itself will doubtless continue, as proved by the awful spectacle of those people outside London hospitals, seemingly dragged from the subterranean depths of social media into the everyday world, chanting “Covid is a hoax!” But with the crisis entering this new, frightening stage, the mood has inevitably changed.

At the same time, many things that ought to jangle our nerves are as clear now as they were in 2020. The Johnson government has an awful attitude to basic parliamentary scrutiny – and, in Priti Patel, a home secretary who draws on a deep well of authoritarianism and nastiness. Its current Covid regulations are so complicated that they are reckoned to stretch to just under 50,000 words, which makes any coherent understanding of them, let alone questions of enforcement, much more difficult than many people realise.

Related: How the British government is trying to crush our right to protest | Gracie Mae Bradley

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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‘Open all schools!’ ‘Close all schools!’ What England really needs is creative thinking | John Harris

Monday, January 4th, 2021

The pandemic has sparked a shouting match. Instead we should be working out how to keep everyone in education safe

The crisis enveloping schools, and the noisy resentment it has sparked, reflect just about every aspect of England’s Covid-19 story. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has taken the government’s grim mixture of arrogance and incompetence to new depths. When Boris Johnson was interviewed by Andrew Marr today it was striking to see so much of the conversation devoted to schools, but there was a wearying familiarity to the vagueness of the prime minister’s position on urgent issues. The fact that there is no clear line even on the proposed opening of all schools in England a fortnight from now hardly answers people’s need for clarity and leadership.

Yet again councils, who are only too aware of local realities, have objected to edicts from Whitehall. In London, boroughs that rejected the demand that their primary schools open on 4 January forced yet another government U-turn. Meanwhile, as concerns grow about the new variant spreading via schools, talk of “a switch to online learning” is now common – yet this could exacerbate many hard realities that have emerged during the pandemic. For plenty of families, “connectivity” amounts to a pay-as-you-go smartphone running on a mobile network; in millions of cases, remote learning is a completely vain hope.

Related: The government has pitted England’s schools against health. It didn’t have to | James McAsh

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Fear, mistrust – and hope: Britain’s long walk away from the EU

Friday, January 1st, 2021

For many, Friday marks a departure as mind-boggling as it is heartbreaking. But the path to Brexit was laid years before the referendum

As a previous Tory prime minister trying to find his way through difficult times once said: this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Brexit is hardly complete. The last-minute nature of the UK’s trade deal with the EU and the fact that it barely covers whole swaths of the economy – financial services are a good example – means some negotiations will have to grind on. The new bodies set up to arbitrate between the two sides will soon have work to do. Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods and will be enforcing EU customs rules, the most vivid example of the deal’s contorted provisions, which may have no end of political consequences. Certainly, given that public opinion in Scotland now suggests unprecedented levels of support for independence and that elections to the Scottish parliament will take place in May, what Brexit means for the increasingly fragile union between the UK’s four countries will now start to become clearer.

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Throughout history Britain’s ruling class has created crisis after crisis – just like now | John Harris

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Boris Johnson’s run of bad decisions on Brexit and Covid have their roots in a saga of elite entitlement and superficiality

When the novelist John le Carré died earlier this month, among the passages quoted by journalists was a short excerpt from The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990. In the book, the words are spoken by Le Carré’s fondly loved character George Smiley. “The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth,” he says. “Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.”

The words are a cutting summary of the far-off era of upper class treachery and cold war subterfuge, but also fit the less romantic time of Brexit, the pandemic and a Conservative party whose leadership by two public schoolboys has so pushed us into disaster. Therein lies a huge part of the national tragedy that, amid stranded lorries, a shamefully high death toll and some of the greatest peacetime blunders this country has ever made, has recently seemed to be reaching some kind of awful climax. Of late, some of the best writing about the mess we are in has focused on Boris Johnson’s character flaws, which are undoubtedly a big part of the tale. But what has been rather less examined is the fact that his shortcomings blur into a much longer story about our longstanding ruling class, and its habit of creating crisis after crisis.

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Unless we start paying, making music will become the preserve of the elite | John Harris

Monday, December 21st, 2020

Coronavirus has left Britain’s musicians struggling to survive. An industry revolution is needed, but change can start with us

A few weeks ago, I spent £27 on a record with the enticing title Live Drugs. I bought it because I am a fan of its creators, the Philadelphia-based rock group the War on Drugs, and also because I was in the midst of a pandemic-related phase of insomnia and anxiety and it seemed to offer the prospect of a bit of uplift. But the main reason was the prospect of some kind of reconnection with something I almost seem to have forgotten: live musical performance, and what it’s like to hear and watch a band with a multitude of other people.

Live Drugs was recorded in an array of places across the world over a period of five years; one review called it “a grand love letter to live music”. Its best moments suggest a kind of inarticulable dialogue between the group and its audience, something heard most spectacularly on the 12-minute evocation of 21st-century living titled Under the Pressure, when thousands of people passionately sing along not with the words, but the guitar part. They sound like a football crowd.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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