John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for October, 2019

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The housing crisis is at the heart of our national nervous breakdown | John Harris

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

If we built the houses we needed, the anxieties and fears that motivated the Brexit vote would at last recede

Over the past three years, commentary about the nervous, uncertain condition of Britain has repeatedly veered into questions of “belonging” and community. These things tend to be framed in terms of culture: conversations about whether liberals and leftwingers can speak to people attached to nation and place, angst about flags, understandable fears about the point at which such things blur into nastiness and bigotry. In the process, one crucial point is rather missed. If you are going to talk about whether people feel rooted, and the absolute basics of community, there is one subject that ought to command your attention: that of the basic, primal idea of home, and the fact that far too many people in this country either do not have one, or worry that the one they possess might be about to get snatched away.

It is, in other words, time we talked about our national predicament – and indeed, what might be at stake in the election, whenever it arrives – by acknowledging that housing is a central issue, and always has been. The nitty-gritty of politics is often reduced to the cliche of “schools and hospitals”. But think of the aftermath of each world war, and the great steps forward marked by the concerted building of council houses. Or the way that, post-1979, Thatcherism became hegemonic via the right-to-buy scheme, and the sale of many of those same homes to their occupiers – and then in turn to private landlords, a fact that defines a lot of the dysfunction of modern Britain. And let’s not forget: it was housing that tipped the world into the crash of 2008, when the banks finally confronted the lunacy of sub-prime mortgages, essentially a replacement for the public housing the US – and the UK – had forgotten how to build.

Related: Welcome to Manc-hattan: how the city sold its soul for luxury skyscrapers

if we built the houses we need, the sense of a population often terrified of the future … would at last recede

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No filter: my week-long quest to break out of my political bubble

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Websites such as OneSub, Nuzzera and AllSides hope to subvert political polarisation by offering news and views from beyond users’ usual sources. But is it that simple?

As strange as it may sound, above a Dorothy House charity shop in the shabbier end of central Bath, a handful of people are quietly trying to push the world – or at least a small part of it – away from the polarisation that currently defines politics, and towards something a bit more open and empathic. To compound the unlikeliness of it all, they are led by a man called Jim Morrison: not the reincarnated singer of the Doors, but the 40-year-old founder of a new online platform called OneSub, whose strapline is “Break the echo chamber”.

I have come to OneSub’s HQ as part of a week-long quest to push my reading habits and general soaking-up of information out of my usual left-inclined social media bubble, get some much-needed perspective, and try to use the internet as it was originally intended – not to confirm my prejudices, but to reintroduce me to the confounding, complicated, surprising realities of the world as it actually is.

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Little by little, big tech’s veneer of invincibility is starting to crack | John Harris

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are rattled. And two women, one on each side of the Atlantic, are leading the way

Just for a moment, let us pull our eyes away from Brexit and focus instead on two interwoven stories about how the world has gone wrong, and what it might take to start to put it right. At the centre of each is a woman who has set herself against the male-dominated corporations we collectively know as big tech. What is happening is about high politics and the grind of government rather than street-level noise and mass activism, which is maybe why it still seems overlooked.

The frontrunner in the US Democratic party’s crowded nomination contest seems to be the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Over the past couple of years she has hardened her intentions to tackle the power of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. Thanks to leaked recordings of Mark Zuckerberg addressing a meeting of his staff, we know he seems to consider her plans an “existential” threat that would “suck for us”, and that he would “go to the mat” to fight them.

Her point was effective: ‘Facebook have decided to let political figures lie to you … while getting richer off the ads.’

Related: The great break-up of big tech is finally beginning | Matt Stoller

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The fantasy of Britain at war could be nearing its last hurrah | John Harris

Monday, October 14th, 2019

The Brexiteers’ belligerent nostalgia is deeply anachronistic, but powerful. The next few months will tell us whether it can survive

Can you hear it: the theme from The Great Escape, and the hum of Spitfire engines? Such is the mood music that echoes around many leading Brexiteers: men who seem to have all but forgotten the comparatively recent conflict centred on Northern Ireland but affect to be consumed by the distant stuff of Dunkirk, the blitz and VE day. Question marks still hang over how we will get to a general election, but some aspects of the looming campaign seem certain. If Boris Johnson somehow gets a deal with the EU and manages to steer it through parliament, he will presumably continue to talk about a country destined to stand apart from Europe and set an example to the world of derring-do, mention Winston Churchill and use a lot of martial metaphors. If everything comes to grief and he has to request the dreaded extension, that stuff will doubtless be accompanied by rhetoric about remainer MPs and judges, the obstinate and unreliable French and Germans, and a view of Ireland as a country that has ideas above its station.

Deal or no deal, all these things will presumably be voiced by Nigel Farage and the Brexit party – who, like their fellow Brexiteers in the Conservative party, have a vision of Britain unbound that harks back to the days of empire, and a loud obsession with Britain’s role in the second world war, or their imagined version of it.

To anyone under 40, these things must surely seem weird beyond words, which ought to give cause for hope

Related: Can Anglo-German relations survive that disastrous London-Berlin phone call?

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Britain is less polarised than the media would have us believe | John Harris

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

In Milton Keynes I found few signs of the Brexit culture war that supposedly defines our times

Last week I spent four days in Milton Keynes, the Buckinghamshire new town that sits in the English imagination as a byword for modernist architecture, endless roundabouts, and the fact that many of us still think that anything remotely futuristic is best sniggered at. The Conservatives’ conference provided the mood music; in between nights spent in a short-let, new-build house in the neighbourhood of Bletchley, I drove and wandered around business districts and ever-expanding housing developments, trying to get a sense of where the country has arrived.

Contrary to the received idea of the place as somewhere strange and almost unique, Milton Keynes reflects English politics in imperfect microcosm. Though it has two Tory MPs, 2017 saw its voters split pretty evenly between the Conservatives and Labour. The local electorate narrowly voted in favour of leaving the EU by a margin that matched leave and remain’s shares in the UK as a whole. The population reflects the diversity of modern Britain, and there are depressingly familiar signs of inequality: child poverty rates across its council wards range from just over 6% to about 40%, and the centre of town is smattered with those grimly familiar clumps of tents in which homeless people sleep.

A discourse of bitter partisanship, on both right and left, is leaving a lot of people cold

Related: Lewis Hamilton misspoke on Stevenage’s ‘slums’. In fact, this town can teach us a lot | Gary Younge

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