The latest Paris riots as I write this in late 2018 are a terrible affront on normal society. I generally have a high regard for the French attitude to authority. And I am amazed that President Macron hasn’t seen this coming. The world is changing and with it, society’s willingness to have punitive and disconnected legislation inflicted upon them.
The French have a historic disregard for authority. They’re quite happy to close an entire motorway system, set up a few burning tyres and wait for the government to revert back to the negotiating table. They strike a deal, back to normal. It seems to have served them well over the years, however in today’s world, things are radically different. And I am amazed that President Macron hasn’t seen this coming. Read on to see what I mean.
In 2017, I happened purely by chance to catch a presentation by Matthew Taylor of The RSA. In his presentation, he talked about why Government policy fails and how it might succeed. You can read a transcript of the presentation at the link. It makes fascinating reading when you consider it.
He explains, quite simply, how if you wish to make a change in society, then you can no longer simply impose it upon people, either by changes to law or by taxation. Punishing people into changing their behaviour won’t work. They need to buy into it before it becomes law. That way, when the change comes, it’s so obvious to everyone that making it a new law is simple, the obvious thing to do and attracts a majority of support.
I’m quoting him here in his presentation:
“Too often, ministers and civil servants – and all of us who urge them to act – view the levers of central Government as the best way to change society. But new laws and regulations tend to be cumbersome and blunt and the record of failure is long and depressing. It’s not just the big disasters like the poll tax, Child Support Agency, rail privatisation and now Universal Credit, after forty years of almost continuous reform of public services, social inequality, low productivity and economic marginalisation remain intractable. Traditional policy struggles in an ever-more complex and fast-changing world, comprised of citizens who are unwilling to believe or do what they are told.
Major policy shifts can only succeed if they go with the grain of public opinion. To take two very different examples, the smoking ban and Scottish devolution were smoothly implemented, and are now overwhelmingly supported, because the ground work before legislation had been done, respectively by public health campaigns and the Scottish Constitutional Convention.”
In his talk, which was an abbreviated version of the full transcript in the link above, he describes how he was part of the Government that enacted the smoking ban. He struggled with ministers who were terrified that they would lose votes over the perceived infringement of civil liberties. However, once the public began to understand the dangers of passive smoking, it became the obvious thing to do.
When the smoking ban came into effect, it was completely accepted by society.
So how does that relate to the Yellow Jacket protesters in France?
Taxing the fuel that people put into their cars in the hope that they will use them less is remarkably naive. The average person, both in France and most developed countries in Europe and elsewhere simply need to use their cars to travel in their daily lives. They have no alternative, they need to get about.
Punishing them for something that you’ve spent a lifetime promoting – the car industry, motorway network etc – is simply going to make people angry. There is no correlation between the increased fuel prices and the need to reduce fossil fuel dependency. People simply don’t get it.
Macron’s claimed objective to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels really needs a big rethink, though I doubt it will happen. Here in the UK, fuel taxation has traditionally been the blunt instrument that every government has turned to for a variety of reasons. Principally, it’s the simple lever they can pull when they need extra revenue.
They’re fully aware of the UK motorist’s addiction and dependence on petrol and diesel. We have no choice. So a few pence per litre every now and again is not going to create large scale rioting. We may hate you more than usual but we have little choice other than to suck it up.
What is the alternative?
There’s a lot of interesting work being published at The RSA right now. As a species we are undergoing a huge change in the way we live, as we automate many manual tasks, struggle to come to terms with what we have done to our environment and work out how on earth everyone is going to make a living in years to come. There are a lot of interesting articles on The RSA website that go into the details of this.
One thing that shines through as a common theme in all of these issues is that people don’t need to be punished into changing their habits. we simply need to create a set of circumstances where it is the obvious thing to do.
And make the changes affordable and easier to come to terms with.
Of course, these things take time, which is the one thing that a politician doesn’t have. Political agenda and policy revolves around the cycle of re-election in whatever country you are in. The need to keep the job, stay in power, very often overrides common sense decisions that are going to take effect after you have left power.
Shifting society away from fossil fuels can be done. The technologies exist and are advancing rapidly. And if you were to ask, the majority of people will want to do it willingly. Government policy on it’s own simply isn’t the answer.
I’ll quote Matthew Taylor again:
“To achieve a new social equilibrium we need to think systemically about the context for change and the factors involved in success. There is a set of minimum success requirements for major social policy: yes, it must be robust, but it also needs to align sufficiently with existing or emerging social values and offer the prospect of tangible gains that help people achieve their own goals in life. But we also need to be pragmatic, responsive and creative. We have to build to the social moment when the right policy can expand possibilities not close them down.”
Right now, with the combination of a set of politicians who need to be seen to be doing something, coupled with our own natural desire to have simple solutions to everything, we are forgetting the obvious over and over again:
Create a set of circumstances whereby leaving fossil fuels behind is a simple, and cost effective thing to be doing and you won’t need to run the risk of the streets of Paris being trashed once again. With the exception of a small number of political dinosaurs, we all want to leave carbon based transport behind.
So let’s hope that the governments of this planet wake up, realise that we all actually want to do this and create the circumstances to trigger the changes we all know we need to make.
Who’s taking the first step?