John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for May, 2020

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The pandemic has exposed the failings of Britain’s centralised state | John Harris

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Councils have been kept in the dark and starved of funds as coronavirus has spread. Power must be dispersed

And so it is that we reach a watershed point in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, manifested in a tangle of stories all unified by vivid themes: power concentrated at the centre, a lack of meaningful checks and balances, and the exposure by incompetence and arrogance of the mess beneath. Primary schools are meant to partly reopen next Monday, but many are in no position to do so; a test-and-tracing regime that should have materialised weeks ago is still frantically being assembled. And then along come the revelations of Dominic Cummings’s wanderings – ostensibly a tale of one man’s self-importance, but really the story of an unelected courtier whose influence and reputation speak volumes about how broken our system of government now is.

One recurrent spectacle has defined the last couple of months: ministers, presumably egged on by their advisers, grandly issuing their edicts, only for people to insist that they simply do not match the reality on the ground. The schools story is one example; another was the shambolic and arrogant way that Boris Johnson announced the shift from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and his call for droves of people to return to work. Watching the leaders of Wales and Scotland insist they had no input into the government’s change of message and then stick to their existing lockdowns was a stark reminder that the UK is continuing to fragment. In England, meanwhile, the council leaders and mayors who were suddenly faced with huge consequences for transport and public health had been caught on the hop. “No one in government thought it important to tell the cities who’d have to cope,” said the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham. Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, told me last week: “The first I knew about it was when I saw it on TV.”

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Virtually anywhere but Westminster: ‘We’ve found a new kind of sincerity’

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

In lockdown, our series is using footage sent in from around the UK to tell the story of the world outside the political bubble

The day after the 2019 general election we were on an early-morning train from Stoke-on-Trent to London, feeling as if a long and messy chapter of recent British history had at last come to some kind of full stop. Brexit was a certainty, the Conservatives had won a big parliamentary majority, and the Labour party was more estranged than ever from its old heartlands. Having covered a country in mounting political ferment since 2010, we thought we could at least put Anywhere but Westminster on pause.

I have found moments of emotion in the footage that it would be hard to match in anything I shot myself

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‘Normal’ life failed us. The coronavirus crisis gives us the chance to rethink a new economy | John Harris

Sunday, May 17th, 2020

It’s now clear that drastic changes are needed: the Labour party cannot afford to play it safe

About a month ago, many people I know on the political left were brimming with the belief that the Covid-19 crisis opened the way for a watershed conversation about deep social change. Now, as the full horror of the UK’s coronavirus experience becomes clearer and we begin to understand an all-enveloping crisis whose effects will be felt for years, that mood seems to have been supplanted by a pained mixture of anxiety and fatalism. On a bad day, our national nightmare now appears so deep and complex as to feel not just depressing, but insurmountable.

But from a somewhat unlikely source, there was recently a note of hope. Around the time of the recent VE Day celebrations, the journalist and historian Max Hastings – something of a freethinker, but also someone with a classic establishment background – wrote a piece for the Times. His jumping-off point was the social revolution that began in 1945, but he quickly moved his focus to 2020. “The present crisis seems destined again to change the face of Britain, unleashing demands for social, political and economic reform unprecedented in our memories,” said this one-time editor of the Daily Telegraph. To him, the immediate future was clear: “The polo season, figuratively speaking, is over.”

The dysfunctional centralisation of power in England, a blind spot for both the left and right, needs to be reversed

Related: The global pandemic has spawned new forms of activism – and they’re flourishing | Erica Chenoweth, Austin, Choi-Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Pressman, Felipe G Santos and Jay Ulfelder

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Musicians call for industry shake-up to protect artists during lockdown

Monday, May 11th, 2020

Two new campaigns call for artists to receive greater cut of Spotify and streaming royalties

Two organisations that represent thousands of British musicians and songwriters will today launch a Keep Music Alive campaign calling for urgent changes to the music industry to protect artists at risk of ruin as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The campaign calls for solutions to the problems that the lockdown has inflicted on musicians. The suspension of live music under lockdown has cut off most artists’ one dependable source of income: gigs. And payments from streaming services such as Spotify are so negligible that they cannot hope to fill the massive hole in artists’ incomes.

Related: Musicians ask Spotify to triple payments to cover lost concert revenue

Related: Musical notes: how is pop music changing during the pandemic?

Related: Spotify’s ‘tip jar’ is a slap in the face for musicians. It should pay them better

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We can’t hide behind the bunting – let’s face up to what’s happened to Britain | John Harris

Monday, May 11th, 2020

There are seeds of collective action in the Covid-19 crisis, but don’t underestimate the power of nationalist mythology

It was Boris Johnson who used the term “unlockdown” at the last prime minister’s questions; it was presumably sources in government who encouraged newspapers to think that giddy headlines about “freedom” reflected what he was about to announce. God knows, plenty of us are in the market for anything remotely hopeful. But in the wake of the mixed messages and bungling that blurred into the prime minister’s statement on Sunday, millions are likely to be feeling yet more anxiety.

Notwithstanding its rather forced delivery and the surfeit of diagrams and scales, what he said could perhaps have been worse. But Johnson had already undermined his words by his own actions, or lack of them. Promises of a “world-beating system” for testing and tracking, and plans for quarantining new arrivals at airports, only underlined the fact that these things have yet to materialise. And at the dread moment that the screen was filled with green and yellow and the baffling words ‘Stay alert’, his context overwhelmed him. Here, inevitably, was yet another reminder of dire incompetence at the top.

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