John Harris

Journalist & Author

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Hit Factories by Karl Whitney review – British cities and the music they produced

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Why did synth-pop emerge in Sheffield and trip-hop in Bristol? A voyage through Britain and the bands who wrote the soundtrack to decades of change

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” These words are taken from All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman’s treatise on 20th-century modernity. Used as an epigraph, it begins the 2007 documentary about the English band Joy Division, and highlights one of the film’s essential themes: the relationship between that group and Manchester, and between music and cities in general.

Joy Division – along with Factory records, the pioneering record company that put out both of the band’s albums and curated their posthumous myth – came into being at a point when Manchester’s old industrial communities had been beset by years of decay and decline, which partly explains why the band’s music is so full of melancholia. But in the city’s built-up spaces, they also sensed the futuristic excitement of what Berman called “the expressway world”, instantly evoked by the opening line of their 1979 song “Shadowplay”: “To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you.”

Cities were once full of musicians because of their factory-based hard-working cultures, and populations in dire need of entertainment

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Any new prime minister is doomed if they don’t fix Britain’s democracy | John Harris

Monday, June 17th, 2019

If we are to avoid the kind of dystopia that now haunts not just politics but popular culture, great change is imperative

Presented with Brexit, a political system apparently breaking apart and the central importance of online networks to just about everything, it is tempting to ignore the past and focus on what seems to be a very modern picture. It is always difficult to zoom out from the daily hurly-burly and understand the true nature of a crisis. But what is happening actually reflects a rule that dates back many centuries: that if an economic slump and its aftermath combine with deep social and economic disruption, people will usually start to loudly question the way they are governed – chiefly because insecurity and uncertainty always focus our minds on questions of control.

Of late, when not asking members of the public about their views on the Brexit mess, I have been rereading Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, a masterful history of the ideas and movements that cohered around the time of the English civil war. For all that it describes an exotic world of Diggers, Ranters and Familists, its story has loud echoes now: the 30 years from 1620 to 1650 described “as economically among the most terrible in English history”, with the aftershocks of the Reformation and the first stirrings of the transition from agrarian feudalism to capitalism combining to drastically undermine England’s systems of power.

Related: ‘Mini-Trump across the Channel’: EU media on Boris Johnson as British PM

The urge to get Brexit ’sorted’ and the machinations of our newly assertive parliament verge on the antithetical

Related: Anyone who wants to be prime minister should have a course of therapy first | George Monbiot

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How to take over your town: the inside story of a local revolution

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

They are passionate about their community, know what the issues are – and are sick to death of party politics. Meet the independent groups from Devon to London who are seizing control

A quiet revolution has begun in the Devon town of Buckfastleigh. Its compact high street, functional-looking industrial estate and population of 3,300 suggest a place modestly getting on with business. But, while it may go unnoticed by those whooshing past on the A38, or tourists at nearby Buckfast Abbey, there is something happening in Buckfastleigh.

That something is a radical reinvention of the way that power works at a local level, based on a kind of politics that has nothing to do with the traditional party system. And it is authored not in a Whitehall ministry, but in towns, villages and neighbourhoods – where it is having a real impact on some of the services people most care about.

We’re passionate about our environment and we know what the issues are, and how to sort the problems out

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Brexit breakdown: 14 days that shook politics | Anywhere but Westminster – video

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Starting with the unexpected scramble for the European parliament and ending with the byelection buildup in Peterborough, John Harris and John Domokos go on a mammoth road trip into the new reality: politics changed forever by the internet, and voters who want direct control

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Britain is horribly divided – but that’s also the fault of remainers | John Harris

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

Opposing a reckless, no-deal Brexit by embracing a tribal war would be disastrous

In the buildup to the European elections, I travelled around Britain and had the sense of people talking about the state of the country in wildly different ways. “Democracy is broken,” shouted a Brexit supporter in Swindon. I met lifelong Tories on the affluent edges of the Cotswolds, anxious about how England seems to be embracing the politics of extremes. In Manchester, everyone was remain, but remarkably disengaged from the Brexit conversation. In Merthyr Tydfil, a woman who had voted for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, offered the brisk rationale about her town that “it’s the same as it’s always been, so that’s why we need a change”. In retrospect, everything fitted the picture offered by that much-discussed YouGov poll last week, of a politics so turbulent that the Liberal Democrats are suddenly popular again, Farage is newly insurgent, and the two-party carve-up of 2017 seems like a distant memory. What polling wouldn’t pick up, however, was present in encounter after encounter: woven into very different conversations, a shared sense of weariness and exasperation.

Related: Corbynism is now in crisis: the only way forward is to oppose Brexit | Paul Mason

Related: Don McCullin: England is at war with itself over Brexit

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