John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for March, 2019


Britain’s Brexit crisis is rooted in the power of our public schools | John Harris

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Learning from this mess, we must cut the ties that bind the state and key professions to a tiny number of schools

Among the myriad absurdities of Brexit, one has repeatedly taken the whole thing into the realms of the surreal: the gifting of the whip hand to the Tory faction known as the European Research Group. At the start of yet another watershed week, it is still this 90-strong band of ideologues that holds the keys to both Theresa May’s political future and the fate of her deal. Faced with a third meaningful vote, will they accept that their only remaining options are the prime minister’s version, or such a long delay that their dream will start to fade? Once more the spotlight will shine on their de facto leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg. This one-man embodiment of the mess into which we have all been dragged is reportedly coming round to supporting the withdrawal agreement, and “seeking a ladder to climb down”.

Where did he come from, this human museum piece? His late father William’s editorship of the Times, conducted according to instincts described by one obituarist as both “economically dry” and “socially conservative”, is one part of the story. Another goes even further back, to the roots of the Rees-Mogg family wealth, in the ownership of coalmines in Somerset. This is the same county where Rees-Mogg now represents such fading former pit towns as Radstock and Midsomer Norton, places replete with the ghosts of a lost industrial past and the consequences of the austerity that he has enthusiastically endorsed. At university, Rees-Mogg was a nightly presence in the debating hall of the Oxford Union. His apparent skill in matters of high finance – which, according to a recent edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, has earned him an estimated £7m since the referendum, assisted by the fall in the value of the pound – goes back to childhood dealing of stocks and shares, and time spent in Hong Kong and the City. The most telling element of his background, however, is surely the school that saw to the key five years of his education – Eton College. This institution sits at the heart of the Brexit mess and the dismal political failings that led to it. What comes to mind at the mention of Eton? Tailcoats? The eternally mysterious wall game? Or the angry lament contained in the Jam’s Eton Rifles, with its Larkin-esque opening line: “Sup up your beer, and collect your fags / There’s a row going on, down near Slough”, that lyrical portrait of a working class serially defeated by privilege (“All that rugby puts hairs on your chest / What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?”). Eton chiefly symbolises the unbroken English link between private education and power. To quote one old boy, who did his time in the 1980s: “Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country.”

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Local communities are being silenced. We’re in the age of the ‘Unplace’ | John Harris

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Towns and cities across the country are losing their radio shows. Who will tell their stories now?

If you want to understand a country’s basic pulse, listen to its commercial music radio. In the US, whatever genre of music they play, the stations crowded on to the FM waveband mix crass adverts with waves of songs uncluttered by any talking, suggesting that the only really important things are calmly getting through another very long drive while thinking about what to buy next. In Italy, what you hear is often hyperactive to the point of absurdity, as if there is simply too much to say and too much music to play, and the clock must endlessly be raced against.

And Britain? Beyond the BBC’s Radios 1, 2, 3, 6 Music and its city and county stations, there are set-ups traditionally grouped under the heading of “independent local radio”: stations whose output suggests that a lot of us crave something that can distract us from whatever crisis the country has fallen into, while demanding little in return apart from keeping the dial where it is.

Related: Scores of UK radio stations to lose local programmes

Related: Distinct radio voices: why we need local heroes

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Could robots make us better humans?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Machines can already write music and beat us at games like chess and Go. But the rise of artificial intelligence should inspire hope as well as fear, says Marcus du Sautoy

As Marcus du Sautoy greets me at the entrance to New College, Oxford, his appearance is a quiet riot of colour. His clothes rather suggest someone who ran into White Stuff or Fat Face and frantically grabbed anything he could find – in this case, a salmon zip-up top, multihued check trousers and shoes that are a headache-inducing shade of turquoise. When we settle down to talk in a nearby meeting room, he repeatedly glances at a notepad – whose pages, just to add to all the garishness, are a bold shade of yellow.

They are full of what look like scrawled equations, mixed with odd-looking shapes: the raw material, he explains, of a project involving very complicated geometry. “There’s an infinite symmetrical structure that I’m looking at,” he says, “and I think the top bit of it will tell me everything that’s going on inside it. It’s almost like an infinite lake, and I should be able to know everything that’s happening in it by looking at the first centimetre.”

There is no fundamental reason why at some point in the future we can’t make a machine that is conscious

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The unanswered question: why do antisemites think Labour is the party for them? | John Harris

Monday, March 4th, 2019

The left used to side with the victims of bigotry. Now it’s denying and doubting them

I had a conversation last week with a Jewish woman from a family of Holocaust survivors, and people murdered by the Nazis. She has been a Labour party member for nearly 40 years. “It feels like being in an abusive relationship,” she said. A year ago she made an official complaint to the party about what she has experienced, but aside from an acknowledgment, she has heard nothing. During debates in her constituency general committee about issues of antisemitism, she has been jeered – by as many as 30 people – for trying to point out the gravity of the issue. At one party event about hate speech, she was prevented from speaking. Some of her supposed comrades have said that claims of antisemitism have been invented to undermine Jeremy Corbyn; she knows of at least one suggestion that such accusations are the work of Israel.

She told me that the people responsible seem to fall into two broad groups: a belligerent and relentless hard core including a few people who seem to be “attracted to conspiracy theories”, and an element who seem much less zealous, but are “swept up by a kind of tribalism”. “A lot of my Jewish friends have left Labour,” she told me. “I feel that I have to stay and fight. But I’m on the brink.”

Related: How Labour has fought to gain control of the antisemitism issue

Related: Brexit: Labour will whip MPs to back second referendum, says McDonnell

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