John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for August, 2020

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If democracy looks doomed, Extinction Rebellion may have an answer | John Harris

Monday, August 31st, 2020

At the heart of a new climate emergency bill lies a simple idea to cut through Westminster groupthink: a citizens’ assembly

The timing is impeccable. In the midst of political ferment across the world, and with anxiety about the coming winter hardening into dread, Extinction Rebellion is back. Over the weekend it has made its presence felt in towns and cities around the country; now, in the wake of several of its organisers being arrested, its activists and supporters are preparing to arrive on Tuesday at Parliament Square, outside the Welsh parliament in Cardiff, and in the centre of Manchester.

As usual, those involved will presumably be portrayed as eccentric and dangerous merchants of despair. But whatever the sense of millenarian doom that sometimes hangs over its actions, plenty of the people at the heart of the movement are admirably practical, and focused on overcoming the daunting political challenges that climate change still presents. And in among the protests, there will be an example of what this means in practice: the climate and ecological emergency bill, partly conceived by people with close links to XR, and due to be formally launched on Wednesday.

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‘Devastation’: how aviation industry’s Covid crisis is hitting towns across UK

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

Workers from Belfast to Caerphilly fear mass unemployment as government fails to offer support

Masked-up and carrying placards and banners, 40 or so demonstrators walk out of a pedestrianised shopping street and make their way to the office of a newly elected Conservative MP, above a Chinese restaurant. Once there, they join in sporadic chants of “No justice, no peace.”

It’s a drizzly, near-silent lunchtime in the Welsh town of Bridgend, a place that has played its own small role in Britain’s recent political convulsions, voting for Brexit and, in 2019, returning its first Tory to Westminster since 1983.

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The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating the breakup of the UK | John Harris

Monday, August 24th, 2020

Brexit and the pandemic have fuelled fresh calls for Scottish independence. For Westminster, the battle may already be lost

Covid-19 is a great accelerator. In most of the countries it has struck, whatever inequalities, divisions and tensions were festering before its arrival have now sped into the political foreground. And so it has proved here. Race, class, gender, poverty, wealth, the north-south divide – even though it often feels it as if time has stood still, all of these things are now vividly in front of us, demanding attention. And one key issue has come roaring back: the fate of the United Kingdom itself. Brexit and the pandemic are pushing its countries and regions in strikingly different directions.

Clearly, nothing highlights our increasingly unsettled, estranged national condition better than the politics of Scotland. One should always hesitate before claiming that mere polls represent historic shifts, but in the last few months, a number of surveys have found support for Scottish independence running at more than 50%. Leaving aside undecideds, a Panelbase poll last week put the for-and-against numbers at 55 and 45 respectively: an elegant inversion of the 2014 referendum result, and another excuse for stories about political shockwaves supposedly now spreading from Edinburgh to London.

It is remarkable that the possible end of the union has yet to enter England’s political conversation, on left or right.

Related: MPs ‘advising’ big business undermines democracy. Second jobs should be banned | Zarah Sultana

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No news, no shared space, no voice – the Tories are creating a cookie-cutter Britain | John Harris

Sunday, August 16th, 2020

Covid proves that local communities need power and a sense of place. So why are they being pushed in the opposite direction?

Last week, as the government announced the reshaping of its dysfunctional test-and-trace operation, one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic was once again made plain. First, reports said that the current centralised, privatised call-centre operation was to be cut back; by Sunday, the chosen term was “wound down”. Expecting any clarity from the people in charge is clearly a mug’s game, but what looks definite is that getting flashpoints of infection under control is now to be fundamentally overseen by local councils. Reluctantly, it seems, ministers are starting to acknowledge that the anti-Covid effort – which is still too top-down – will only work effectively if it is rooted in communities.

The fact that whole swathes of basic administration are best handled at the local level is a banal insight that has eluded British governments for decades, and so it has proved again. For all that we are encouraged to think of the pandemic as a national issue, all outbreaks are essentially local – and like extreme weather events, they demand effective on-the-ground action and communication, and the kind of strong institutions that affirm people’s sense of place and solidarity. After a decade of cuts to local services, Covid-19 has cruelly highlighted the importance – and lack – of both. It has crystallised a question that goes beyond matters of politics and government into some of the most basic ways that places function: if the coronavirus has proved that doing things from the grassroots up is so crucial, why are so many aspects of our everyday lives being pushed in the opposite direction?

Related: Why does No 10 want to ‘devolve’ local councils just as they are needed most? | Polly Toynbee

Related: The Tories’ planning overhaul is a ferocious attack on democracy | Laurie Macfarlane

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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England’s contact-tracing saga is at the heart of the government’s failures

Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

Move to include local authorities in test and trace could allow politicians to pass blame in a Covid second wave

The saga of the attempts to set up an English test-and-trace system is perhaps the central story of the government’s Covid-19 failure.

At the heart of the tale is a prime minister who promised NHS test and trace would be a “world beating” operation. Next to him sits Matt Hancock, the health secretary whose record is now indelibly associated with the smartphone app that was meant to be integral to controlling the virus, but has yet to materialise. Other key actors include Serco, the multinational outsourcing company that has previously been contracted to run everything from prisons to air traffic control – and, at a cost of £108m, was recently put in charge of recruiting and training thousands of call centre workers to establish contact with infected people and ensure that anyone they had been close to went into self-isolation.

Related: NHS test and trace to cut 6,000 jobs but strengthen regional teams

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

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