In one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the world, the burned-out ruin of the Grenfell Tower stands as a bleak symbol of a divided country. How, amid such ostentatious wealth, the blackened edifice appears to ask, could such horror have been allowed to happen?
The fire, which killed at least 79 people, was not a natural disaster: the Grenfell Tower had been wrapped in flammable cladding but, for a mere £5,000 more, a non-flammable version could have been used, reports said.
Sprinklers, which could also have been retrofitted for a relatively small sum, were never put in place in the tower, which opened in 1974. Residents’ warnings about fire risks were ignored by the management company and the local authority. These failings and others must be examined forensically by the independent, judge-led inquiry.
In the immediate aftermath of the inferno, the anger and grief of residents was compounded by a listless response from the local council as well as the May government. Such was the ineptness of Kensington and Chelsea council – one of the wealthiest local authorities in the country – that it was stripped of responsibility for the relief effort. In the face of administrative neglect, local people came together to form a proxy welfare state, offering human and material support.
That Grenfell resonated far beyond its boundaries was not only because of the catastrophic loss of life. It was because it symbolised something rotten in the body politic. For too long, Britain has been defined by grotesque inequality and a political culture that venerates deregulation, deep cuts to public spending, a shrinking state and untrammelled free markets.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the way our people are housed. Since the Thatcherite 1980s, affordable housing of all kinds has been neglected even as the population has risen markedly. Between 2004 and 2014, housing stock in Kensington and Chelsea grew by just 1 per cent: only two councils in the whole of England performed worse. As the pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss knew, services for the poor become poor services.
The fraying of Britain’s public realm risks further tragedies. Home Office figures show that there are nearly 7,000 fewer firefighters in England than there were five years ago, which has led to longer response times and a 25 per cent fall in the number of fire prevention visits. The 18,991 reduction in police numbers, including 1,377 armed officers, is being questioned after the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Where austerity does not threaten life, it impairs its quality: unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries, gyms and children’s centres. Private wealth, and public squalor.
Like past tragedies – Hillsborough, the Bradford City stadium fire, the King’s Cross fire, the Paddington rail crash – the Grenfell Tower inferno must be a spur to public action. Britain is a resilient country, yet during this long, hot summer of woe it is one increasingly ill at ease with itself.
Many of the people who lived in the tower were first- or second-generation migrants. Some of them came to Britain as asylum-seekers from war-ravaged countries – Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia – in the hope of finding a better life in Europe. To honour them is not merely to avoid similar tragedies but to build a society defined not by small-state market dogmas, but a philosophy of the common good.
The noble imam
On the night of 18 June, a van was driven into a crowd of Muslims as they were leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London. The driver of the vehicle shouted that he wanted to kill Muslims. (He has since been arrested.)
After an angry group restrained the assailant, the mosque’s imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, intervened. “No one touch him – no one! No one!” he said. His command was obeyed. The police arrived and the van driver was taken away.
The relationship between Islam and the secular West is too often caricatured as being a clash of civilisations: a clash (or conflict) between our light and their darkness. This is nonsense. In spite of the terrible attack on his fellow Muslims, the noble imam of Finsbury Park had only one thought: to uphold the rule of law. “Our mosques are incredibly peaceful,” he said. “I can assure you we will do our utmost to calm down ill intentions.” His was the voice of moderation: indeed, the voice of civilisation.
This article appears in the 21 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM