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12 June 2020updated 28 Jul 2020 10:25am

Why has Emmanuel Macron responded to Black Lives Matter better than Boris Johnson?

The United Kingdom and France's different reactions to the protests are a lesson in the importance of leadership.

By Stephen Bush

In France, the government of Emmanuel Macron is prohibiting the use of the chokehold – the restraint of suspects by grabbing or holding them by the throat – in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in that nation. In the United Kingdom, we are having a row about statues. 

In both countries, you have existing grievances over criminal justice and policing, with a round of protests triggered by the killing of an African-American. The aims of the protests are broad and in some cases contradictory. Yet in France, a clear policy lever has been identified and pulled, while the British government puts Winston Churchill’s statue in a box. 

What’s gone wrong? One argument is that the United Kingdom is having a stupid row now because of progress it made earlier down the line. France consistently has the highest number of deaths per capita following police custody in Europe; the United Kingdom is consistently among the lowest.

As I wrote in my i column last week, abuses of power and unavoidable human error are an inevitable part of any workplace, but when they come into contact with border enforcement and the criminal justice system, they can become deadly.

The United Kingdom has managed to eliminate one of the biggest causes of lethality in most other police forces simply through our long-term achievement of keeping guns off our streets, and therefore being able to keep police unarmed. Reforms under Theresa May at the Home Office have curbed and helped to reduce the racial disparity in stop and search, as have internal reforms in the police. It may be that the change in regulations under Priti Patel will unpick that achievement, but, for the moment, we just don’t know.

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The United Kingdom still has big and serious problems – whether you think (as I do) that these problems are primarily ones of class, with racism as a co-morbidity rather than a cause – but they are knottier and trickier ones than those faced in many countries. So one argument is that the reason why we are arguing about statues is that, broadly, the United Kingdom has done a lot of the easy stuff.

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I’m not convinced, however. May also commissioned a big and serious report into deaths in police custody in the United Kingdom, in addition to a review into social and racial inequalities chaired by David Lammy. Very few of the recommendations of the latter have made into law, and even fewer of the former have done.

Boris Johnson’s government has consciously set out to unpick some of May’s policing reforms – but there’s an opportunity to build an alliance spanning parts of the right, including the previous Prime Minister and to at least secure a broad alliance for some of those recommendations. Look at schools reformers, who were able to enjoy an incredibly successful decade by constructing a cross-party alliance in parliament and across what you might call the “wonk elite”, spanning from the centre-left through to the right, which –from the passages of the Learning and Skills Act in 2000 through to the passage of the Academies Act  in 2011 – remade much of the English schools system.

Just as there was a clear and pre-existing set of political demands in French political culture that the international wave of revulsion about the killing of George Floyd helped to push over the edge, there is a clear and existing set of political demands around the British criminal justice system – yet instead, a row about statues has been triggered.

I think there are a variety of reasons for that. One reason is that our media ecosystem is dominated by one broadcaster, the BBC, whose approach to balance is, particularly in its prime time slots to find the shrillest, angriest voices on either side – the less complex the wedge issue the better. On the whole, there’s a focus on: “Here are two positions, having a fight” rather than: “What are the issues around this?”

There’s a lot in, say, Nick Timothy’s latest column on the criminal justice system and racial inequality generally that I agree with. There’s a lot that I disagree with, but crucially, it’s complex. There are a lot of acronyms! It’s a lot easier to just have a very reductive debate with two people who are getting numbers on Twitter talking about how Winston Churchill was a bad guy. The sinking of Edward Colston’s statue is a gift to that approach of talking about and discussing politics.

That speaks to the second problem – Black Lives Matter lacks a clear leader, whether officially or unofficially in parliament. If BLM were a political party, its communications director would be on the phone to political editors and to TV producers asking why the hell we were talking about statues and not the substance of their proposals. 

What school reformers benefited from is that they were able to congregate, first around Tony Blair and then later around Michael Gove. Leaders can arise semi-spontaneously: in France, they have benefited from the fact that the energy and political demands taken up have been listened to and crucially thought about by Christophe Castaner, the interior minister.

Without clear leaders, the row becomes sensationalised, driven by the actions of a few protesters and the need to move the story on with a hot take or a clear dividing line. And unless or until one emerges, the United Kingdom will continue to row about statues – while France bans chokeholds.