In 2006, when residents of New Orleans who had lost everything tried to sleep in the crammed, humid Superdome, veteran journalists compared the scene to a third world country. Already, some commentators have dubbed the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 30 people died and many more are missing, and survivors are displaced and afraid, Theresa May’s Hurricane Katrina.
The term third world is dated, but this tragedy does seem like the latest piece of evidence that Britain is becoming an undeveloping country. Consider how we’d report this if it happened in China.
The powers-that-be in west London, dazzled by international money, help to create a millionaire’s playground. They ship out families who can’t pay the rent. They try to get rid of an awkward carnival in which the common man, bearing his can of Red Stripe, dares to enter the palatial streets in which his grandparents once lived. They cover up one of the last remaining blocks of affordable housing with cladding. Fatally, they choose the cheaper, flammable covering.
Grenfell Tower is situated in the UK’s richest constituency, which makes the comparison all the more stark. But there is little reason to believe that high density housing is safer elsewhere, not least because much of it is hidden behind closed doors.
A 2014 report from the housing charity Shelter noted that nearly one in five households in England now lived in private rented accommodation, and “conditions are significantly worse in the private rented sector than all other tenures” (tower blocks like Grenfell tend to include more social housing).
Six in ten tenants surveyed reported mould or damp, leaking roofs or windows, electrical hazards, animal infestations or a gas leak in the previous 12 months. In London, where the housing crisis is most acute, “beds in sheds” have migrated to the waterways, where boats are subdivided and rented out for hundreds of pounds a month. In Manchester, locals were confronted by a “tent city” of rough sleepers. The most common reason for homelessness is simply a private rental contract coming to an end.
But leave aside housing, and Britain’s status still looks precarious. One of the hallmarks of a developing country is the use of cheap labour – the factories, the servants performing menial tasks, the underpaid waiters.
In January, the bed-making firm Kozee Sleep, which supplied high street retailers like John Lewis and Next, was found to have used Hungarian men as slaves. The men worked up to seven days a week, for up to 16 hours a day. Up to 42 of them shared a two-bed flat. As Hsiao-Hung Pai observed in her 2007 book Chinese Whispers about the undocumented Chinese workers powering the nation’s restaurants, cheap labour is not an exception, but an integral part of how the UK’s economy is structured.
Sophie McBain reported in the New Statesman that the Home Office decided, despite reports of exploitation, not to scrap a domestic servant visa because it might deter “wealthy visitors” from settling here.
Then there is politics. We are used to tutting at foreign parliamentarians coming to blows or playing dog whistle politics. Our politicians have spent the last year declaring we are “at breaking point”, promising the electorate millions of pounds for the NHS without any intention of delivering it, and railing against “citizens of nowhere”.
At the point of writing, the government is likely to be led by the author of this latter phrase, propped up by an unabashedly sectarian party, at the expense, perhaps, of peace in one part of the state. The idea, incidentally, of a snap election to consolidate power is one also tried by Indira Gandhi, in 1977, as a means of legitimising her “Emergency” (thanks to Indian voters, it failed).
Finally, there are the consequences of financial inequality. The average chief executive of a FTSE100 company earned 144 times the average salary in 2016, compared to 47 times in the late 1990s. Thanks to cuts to in-work benefits and pay freezes, low-paid workers have seen their income stagnate.
Inequality, in turn, leads to a hallmark of developing countries – the parallel society. The wealthiest in this country enjoy private healthcare, send their children to private schools, live in neighbourhoods increasingly unaffordable to the average worker and feel very little pressure from the Conservative-led government to do otherwise.
The London financial elites travel by taxi; the professionals by tube and Uber; the poor drive Ubers and get the bus. Indeed, when I visited South Africa as a financial journalist in 2014, I was struck by the fact that the fund managers in Cape Town had far more awareness of inequality than some of those I met back home.
Of course, Britain is not a developing country. Children do not stand at dangerous junctions in the rain, and knock on your car window to sell you flowers. Tragedies like Grenfell Tower are shocking because they are rare, not the norm.
Although trade unions are increasingly restricted, workers made precious gains in their rights during the 20th century, and continue to do so with policies such as shared parental leave.
Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that development is a one-way street. In the years since the financial crash, while British workers’ wages were stagnating and the government introduced austerity, China has built the world’s largest bullet-train network. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have invested in super-fast internet. The world is not staying still.
There isn’t an easy answer to Britain’s undeveloping economy. To fall back – as many have this year – on Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader warned in 2013 that: “Britain can’t win a race for the fewest rights at work against the sweat shops of the world and the more we try, the worse things will get for you… Britain cannot and should not win that race.”
One thing is for sure. If we saw foreign politicians blaming immigrants for being exploited, or media coverage of a tower block fire singling out the man who had a faulty fridge, we would see it for what it is – an abdication of responsibility.