John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for December, 2021

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Walking is a glorious, primal pastime – and a lot more radical than people think | John Harris

Monday, December 27th, 2021

Despite its reputation as a bourgeois hobby, walking has been a lifeline for millions past and present

If Christmas is often synonymous with hours spent indoors, the lure of the sofa and endless screentime, our second festive season spent under the shadow of Covid is presumably taking those things to their extremes. The world has shrunk: our lives are full of cautious friends and relatives, cancelled trips and the imperative to stay where we are. The cold and dark complete the picture. Once again, this threatens to be a season of seclusion.

To temporarily escape, millions of us will be going for walks – that inbuilt part of many people’s Christmases, which also chimes with how many of us have coped with the past two years. According to Sport England, between January and March this year, against the backdrop of another full national lockdown, 24.7 million people said they had recently engaged in “walking for leisure”, an increase of 5.2 million people compared with 12 months before. In September, the Department for Transport published research showing that in 2020 people in England walked an average of 220 miles (the highest figure since records began nearly 20 years ago) and that the number of walks of a mile or more had jumped by 26% in a single year. The Ramblers, the UK charity and membership organisation that does a huge amount of work around walking and access to open spaces, says that in the second half of 2020 it recruited 30% more new members than it had done a year earlier. These are all fascinating numbers: proof, perhaps, that when our leisure options are suddenly shut down, a lot of us instinctively seek solace in one of the most primal pastimes there is.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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The fatal weakness of the Conservatives is not seeing the kindness in most people | John Harris

Tuesday, December 21st, 2021

The Tories have spent years looking down on the rest of us, but the edifice is crumbling

Whatever political dramas are erupting on a seemingly daily basis – with the flouncing off of the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, just the latest – most people are now exhausted. After repeated lurches from pessimism to optimism and back again, the pandemic will soon enter its third year. The fact that everything has suddenly been upturned at the time of year when we get up in the dark hardly helps. Neither does being led by people who disregard the same rules they want the rest of us to follow. I have been party to enough recent conversations involving rolling eyes and mentions of the clowns in power to know that this is now a big part of the public mood; the astonishing North Shropshire byelection saw it being expressed via the ballot box.

If the government has now lost a constituency where 60% of voters backed leave and the last Tory majority was 23,000, where are we? The answer, it seems to me, goes beyond politics and into people’s collective sense of wellbeing, or the lack of it. I am not sure whether human beings need strong leaders, but the idea that the people in charge ought to be responsible grownups seems pretty ingrained in most of us.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Boris Johnson’s crises boil down to one thing: contempt for the rest of us | John Harris

Monday, December 13th, 2021

On everything from Covid to ‘levelling up’, the prime minister’s lies and empty promises drag the country deeper into the mire

The word contempt, I learned last week, is derived from the Latin contemptus, meaning scorn. My 2008 edition of the Oxford English dictionary defines it as “the feeling that someone or something is worthless or beyond consideration”; a more recent article in the magazine Psychology Today says that “empathy and contempt are polar opposites”, and warned that the latter always has a catastrophic effect on human relationships.

I was researching the word because of its increasingly regular use in headlines relating to the prime minister. Last Thursday, a column in the Financial Times was titled “Carelessness and contempt are at the root of every Boris Johnson crisis”. Over the previous few weeks, a writer in the Daily Telegraph has scolded Johnson for his “contempt for business”, while the Economist has accused him of treating “checks and balances with contempt”. Johnson has also been accused of having contempt for NHS staff, former coalmining communities, his fellow MPs and the population of Wales: it is rare that a week goes past without some or other story about this element of his personality and politics, and the C-word being used.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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The new Tory right is fanatical and dangerous – and should be Labour’s prime target | John Harris

Sunday, December 5th, 2021

They have Johnson’s ear on everything from face masks to net zero. But the public mood is against them, and Starmer needs to be too

The House of Commons rarely hears speeches about what it is to be human, the elements of life that give it meaning, and the sanctity of free will. But last Tuesday, as MPs spent three hours considering what measures England should adopt in response to the arrival of the Omicron variant, the Conservative MP Steve Baker gave a brief oration that dealt with these things and more.

The debate, he said, was not really about modest proposals for mandatory face coverings in most public spaces, and 10 days of self-isolation for anyone deemed to have been a contact of someone infected with the new variant. Even if they didn’t know it, MPs were fundamentally considering “the kind of nation and civilisation that we are creating in the context of this new disease”.

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