Grenfell wasn’t just a tragedy: it was a scandal. And it still is

Lighting Downing Street green is an empty gesture if the government aren’t acting to make sure it can never happen again.

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Every tragedy is political, whether a hurricane, a terror attack, or fire.

A natural disaster may seem like an entirely random sequence of destruction, but who lives and who dies becomes a matter of politics and economics: poorly-built houses from cheap materials collapse in an earthquake; low-income families are forced to live in the path of potential mudslides; lack of healthcare and emergency resources leads to survivors dying of disease.

The aftermath of the hurricane in Puerto Rico is a stark example of that. Not only did thousands die because of inadequate medical and sanitation facilities, but, after death, they suffered the added insult of not being included in the government’s official toll of the disaster.

Similarly, there are questions to ask after any terror attack, whether lone wolf or not: did police and security agencies have enough resources to deal with it? Were the balances of powers right so that they could have had the best chance to prevent it? Is the government doing enough – and acting in the right ways – to try to prevent people being radicalised in the first place?

Our need to find out why tragedies occurred, and what can be done to prevent them happening again is one that requires us to pursue an unsentimental campaign to get at the truth and hold power to account.

That needs to be balanced with another basic human need after tragedy: to unite against the horror, to show our solidarity with relatives and survivors, and – where relevant – our defiance against the perpetrators.

In the case of Grenfell Tower – a tragedy even more political than most – some gestures of solidarity and symbolism appear like efforts to de-politicise the incident, to make it another horror from which we all express our common humanity and move on.

Number 10 was tinted green, as was the tower itself, in a show of support for the families. The Evening Standard modified the TfL logo into a heart to show its love for the tower’s dead, survivors, and their families. But neither of these are gestures like that of the tube driver, who stopped his train to show his green flag at a crowd on the street below – an outbreak of support from one Londoner to others.

We don’t yet know exactly what contributed to the Grenfell fire being as horrific and deadly as it was – but we know a lot of the questions that need answering.

To what extent did weakened fire safety standards, and industry-led testing, contribute to an unsafe cladding system being fitted to the tower? Did contractors take shortcuts when installing the tower’s various upgrades? Did shrinking council budgets contribute to a desire to reduce costings for the project? Would residents’ warnings have saved lives if they had been listened to sooner? Did cuts to the emergency services – and changes to the area – hamper the emergency response? Has enough been done to support the families since?

None of these are questions to ask of a vengeful God, or to the world in general: each is the result of a series of political and administrative decisions that should now be placed under the microscope. That will not happen as a result of solidarity and fellow-feeling – and so for Number 10 to blanket itself in a spirit of support feels hokey and disingenuous. Similarly, for a newspaper edited by the man who was in charge of public finances for six years – and who cheered on a project relaxing regulations and “cutting red tape” – to wrap itself in a heart feels wrong.

If we want to make sure nothing like Grenfell Tower can ever happen again, we can’t allow it to be depoliticised. We need to answer the immediate questions on how we make sure people live in safe housing that is safe from fires, and ask the broader questions about how we make sure everyone has a voice that can be heard – and has enough stake in society that the anger and mistrust that arose from the disaster becomes a thing of the past.

For the community itself to come together and mark the tragedy is one thing, and hopefully a part of healing. Politicians should not be a part of that: they can best support the Grenfell families not with green floodlights, but by getting answers – and making sure it never happens again.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk