Can Europe Make It?

Threats to social innovation

In which the author, personally hurt, is forced to re-open the dustbin of history.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
23 September 2020, 10.21am
Reni Eddo-Lodge, journalist and author, 2017.
Screenshot. YouTube.

Suddenly, France’s Covid excuses are all about national character. Or rather the stereotypes, the prejudices they hold about others. The Germans, dour, disciplined types as we all know, are handling SARS-Cov-2 so much better than we flamboyant French with our joie de vivre, our “French touch”, as what I am amused to call français moderne would have it. The British? Well, don’t even talk about them. If they will elect a prime minister whose shirt hangs out of his trousers, splashes good French wine all over the place and wants to steal our Coquilles Saint-Jacques, what can you expect?

That a positive self-evaluation for the French needs to be expressed in English is just one of those twists of fate that proves the idiocy of all stereotypes. For all the blather about defending French from the invasion of English, even the most cursory perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary will show that most of the words in it are either directly, or indirectly, French. The highest calculation I have seen puts the proportion at over 60 per cent. It is a bit ridiculous for some in France to complain about getting their own language back.

One of the mechanics of prejudices, of course, is that they help us to avoid properly looking at ourselves, developing that capacity for self-criticism so necessary if we want to resolve our own problems. Worryingly, this is a particular process that has been travelling in the wrong direction over the past decade. Racist prejudices are more widespread, more entrenched and given greater official endorsement now than for some 30 years.

One of the mechanics of prejudices, of course, is that they help us to avoid properly looking at ourselves.

That a book should need to be written with the title Why I am no longer talking to white people about race makes the point in a personally hurtful way.

There it was this summer, at the entrance to a Welsh Valleys supermarket with a remaindered price low enough to mean I could just toss it into the trolley without a worry about facing a bank robber style bill at the checkout, the kind of price one usually faces when trying to buy the academic equivalent. Which is good, because this is a text intended to be read by the many.

Acts of commission

Someone like me might feel that the only thing Reni Eddo-Lodge gets wrong in her head-down, full-pelt charge at continuing prejudice and discrimination is that she largely ignores what struggles and achievements went before. Which would be to make a profound mistake. The real question is different: Why did what went before leave so little of a mark that a new generation, faced with the same barriers, fails to spot that they are following in the footprints of all those predecessors who also charged, head-down, full-pelt at them, weakening many, pushing aside a few, but never able to do more than just start the job?

The understandable sense of hurt that what I have done since a first lobby of Parliament in support of Fenner Brockway’s Race Discrimination Bill at the start of the ‘60s is being parked in the dustbin of history, has no comparison with the continuing hurt experienced by those trapped in structures of discrimination and prejudice. “The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account,” she writes. “You can’t spot it as easily as a bare belly at an EDL march. It’s much more respectable than that.”

Her determination to use the words “structure” and “structural” has real meaning. For what we are dealing with is structures of power, that is to say the imbalance of power in society and the way that imbalance is sedulously recreated every second of every day not by some abstract physical law of stasis but by conscious decisions by thinking human beings. That can be by careful acts of omission as much as by constant acts of commission. And as the acts of omission accumulate across the years, the studious turning of a blind eye to the evidence becomes more and more an act of commission.

Being white “affords an unearned power”, Reni Eddo-Lodge neatly argues, adding: “The onus is not on me to change. Instead, it’s the world around me.”


I queued at St Stephen’s Entrance to the Commons in 1961, that is 59 years before I am typing out these paragraphs and three years before Boris Johnson first bellowed at the world. During that lifetime of his, I have read, and in one or two cases helped to write, a whole legion of reports exposing the reality of racial inequality and discrimination. Yet this prime minister, who declares repeatedly that the great barriers before Britain can easily be swept away if only we believe in him, now wants a further investigation into what he terms “disparities”.

The same neutral-sounding term was used by Theresa May before him when she commissioned her own audit of race disparities and by David Cameron when he started this contemporary fashion walk for Tory Premiers in 2016. Taking an axe to the roots of structural power is the last thing they want. A repeated chorus of “Oh, what a surprise, there is still a disparity”, mixed with sneers about “victimhood”, is much more à la mode at No. 10.

With Boris leading the charge, Britain can break international law without a qualm, but can’t bring itself to butt aside even the weakest of discriminatory structures.

With Boris leading the charge, Britain can break international law without a qualm, but can’t bring itself to butt aside even the weakest of discriminatory structures.

Control over place

Geoff Mulgan – worldchanger, Young Foundation, 2010. | Flickr/Kristin Wolff. Some rights reserved.

Someone else who should read Reni Eddo-Lodge with care, attention and a goodly dash of self-criticism is the former advisor to Tony Blair in No 10, Geoff Mulgan whose current 305-page magnum opus Social Innovation: How societies find the power to change contains the following sentences:

“Many people feel that they have no control over migration, that their communities and places have been taken away from them … Democracy means a community having control over who is welcomed in and on what terms … All humans are well designed to read the feedback messages from their environment about whether they are at home or not. We can spot whether the labour market can offer jobs to people like us. Whether politics speaks our language, whether public culture reflects our values and interests or whether policing and other public services reflect our needs. When the messages are negative people feel insecure and that they don’t belong. That’s what happens to many new minorities. But it has also increasingly been the experience of older working class communities, which consequently feel a sense of loss and rejection … Control over place is so important to feelings of empowerment.”

Geoff ought to know a thing or two about power and how it is structured as he headed the strategy unit in Downing Street under Tony Blair before ending up as CEO of the foundation Nesta. Its website announces that “We bring bold ideas to life to change the world for good”.

The sentences quoted above are not founded on a “bold idea”. They are a sotto voce repetition of the mantra offered by the Daily Mail, Boris, Farage, et al. that has been subverting the white British political subconscious since the mid-nineties. You need to read the sentences carefully as there appears to an assumption hidden in them that only “new minorities” and “older working class communities” have problems.

There is fantastic energy, a source of great potential strength and inventiveness, in every population across the world. The reason why it does not systematically triumph is not because it is yet to be touched by Geoff’s super-confident wand.

The eager rhetoric of Geoff Mulgan’s presentation has not changed since the writings of Robin Murray introduced us to the theme of “social innovation” some two decades ago. Now, the “deeper re-imagining of democracy” that he talks of rings hollow in a Britain run by Boris Johnson, twice sacked as a journalist for purveying untruths in his copy, and Dominic Cummings, a backstairs advisor who has not purged his contempt of Parliament. They practice raw power in every sense of the term.

Turning the tables

There are many small-scale, inventive attempts to turn the tables on regimes like theirs. We are eloquently introduced to some of them by Geoff Mulgan. I finished the two books just in time to watch a late night French TV documentary on a small workers’ co-op near Marseilles producing tea. If you have read my pieces in the past you know I have mentioned them before. Their products are visible in many a supermarket. They represent the hopes of millions. But it has only some 50 staff. Uniliver, from whom they wrested the plant, employs how many?

Bridgestone tyres in Bethune in the north of France is now the centre of multiple campaigns to stop the Japanese owners sacking all the workers and closing the place down. Everyone in France knows of the struggles over the past decade around Continental and Goodyear tyre plants. They were fine examples of trade union “social innovation” in action. But vast tyre plants operating in a difficult market are not as easy to transform into workers’ co-ops as a place processing tea.

It is “multiple campaigns” around Bridgestone because as well as the unions and the left, the local regional council boss, Xavier Bertrand, who hopes to be the candidate for the traditional right against Macron in the 2022 presidential election, has tried to put himself at the head of the protests, a move which has prompted more ministerial activity around a closure than we have seen for many a year.

Forms of struggle come before, not after, new institutions. The logic of that causality is clear. The trade unions and the left in France have been trying to find what form of struggle and campaigning will now give them the chance to generate the movement, the confidence and the political majority needed if the country is to secure a new, more democratic, structure of power. So far it has been check mate in favour of Macron.

Forms of struggle come before, not after, new institutions.

Citizens’Convention on the Environment

One activity that has been much favoured of late among Geoff Mulgan’s equivalents in France is the citizens’ assembly chosen by lot and tasked with coming up with a programme for reform on one theme or another. It was the idea seized on by Macron to round off the Grand National Debate in 2019 he used to head off the Gilets jaunes uprising. As the environment came to the fore in popular concerns, he kicked it into touch by the expedient of a Citizens’ Convention on the Environment.

Reporting in June, the 150 members of the Convention included in their proposals for action a moratorium on building a 5G network in France. It was not among the handful of its recommendations that Macron rejected from the off.

As the Left and Greens in France became more vocal and united in their demand for a moratorium, Macron hit back in mid September denouncing that idea as the “Amish model” of an economy and was like “a return to the oil lamp”. 5G was vital for the future prosperity of France’s businesses. This, just 80 days after he had given the convention members assembled in the Elysée Palace garden a promise that their package, shorn of a small tax on dividends and proposals to cut speeding and revise the constitution, would be implemented “without any filter”.

Like Jules Verne’s hero, Macron demonstrate that, when it is a matter of showing who is in power and how to betray those who are not, 80 days is plenty of time to get all the way round from heroic green to soggy grey. The 150 protested, but they only get into the Elysée for a moment or two when Macron thinks they can play a bit part in caressing his poll ratings.

Of course, the call for a 5G moratorium has nothing to do with an American religious sect or lights from The Life of Brian. As with the diesel tax that triggered the Gilets jaunes, so with 5G: the issue in France is a government action that amplifies the effect of the structural inequality and disadvantage that has been growing over the past four decades.

The one would have catastrophically left the less well off in rural and small town France facing impossible expenses when travelling to work. The other will advantage those who already have a strong internet presence, or the businesses that exploit them, while doing nothing for those still largely on the outside of the world wide web.

Record abstention

A slew of parliamentary by-elections have just delivered record abstention rates. True, the candidates for Macron’s En Marche! were obliterated and his organisation is in deep trouble. But presidential power in France is highly personalised and the predictions are still for a contest between Macron and the racist Marine Le Pen in 2022. No one on the left can be anything other than terrified by the prospect of left candidates elected on a turnout that in one constituency plunged to a mere 13 per cent - that in an area where there have been Communist and left-run councils since the 1930s.

No one on the left can be anything other than terrified by the prospect of left candidates elected on a turnout that in one constituency plunged to a mere 13 per cent.

Geoff Mulgan at one point recognises the danger presented by Le Pen. She has, he says, “eagerly exploited the tension between the rooted and the mobile” which “has become one of the biggest threats to social innovation”. His answer to this problem? “The new synthesis will have to include more overt democratic control over the terms of migration.”

What on earth does he mean by that? Thinking about this while finding my place in a queue at our local social security and health assurance office and seeing that I was the only white person among the 34 standing in line and among the under-paid and harassed staff trying to handle our cases, that phrase chanted by Le Pen’s supporters, On est chez nous, This is our home, kept repeating itself. You will never erode that ideology of hate and prejudice by conceding its core demand, however carefully you may try to disguise it as a “social innovation”.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData