The catastrophic fire that killed at least 80 in London was the inevitable byproduct of an ideology that vilified the poor.
Two months have now passed since the horrifying Grenfell fire. At the time of this writing, the death toll stands at 80, but authorities say the true figure is almost certainly higher and may never be known. Most of the bodies are too badly incinerated to be identified. In the aftermath, the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council resigned in disgrace. Amid ongoing speculation that the fire was exacerbated by flammable cladding installed during a recent renovation, the British Prime Minister Theresa May announced an official inquiry to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against culpable parties.
For those looking on from abroad, it may not be immediately apparent why the fire became so instantly charged with political import. London, to the outsider, has long appeared a paragon of functioning multiculturalism. However, in order to understand how this impression was shattered by that night in June, it is necessary to understand what Grenfell was, and how it came to be.
Remaking the city
London was never supposed to be like this. At the end of the First World War, as servicemen returned to Britain from the continent demanding a fairer society in return for their sacrifice, the state provision of housing—what Lloyd George promised would be “homes fit for heroes”—became a key pledge of the post-war settlement. Three decades later, as Britain recovered from another world war, social housing was a key component of the country’s pioneering welfare state, alongside the free universal healthcare of the National Health Service.
In industrial centers throughout the country, acres of slum tenements were razed and replaced with social housing, often high-density blocks of flats, for those who couldn’t afford to buy a home. The idea was predicated on the egalitarian notion that shelter, like health, was an inviolable human right, and that rich and poor should, within reason, be encouraged to live cheek-by-jowl.
Grenfell was built in 1974, an austere concrete tower of 120 flats spread over 24 floors, its design in keeping with the Brutalist style of the day. Unprepossessing as it and many similar towers across Britain may have been, early residents were proud to live in these modern dwellings. Strong community bonds formed throughout their halls and stairwells.
The experiment began to disintegrate in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, who determined that ideas incubated by American right-wing intellectuals – ideas which fetishized privatization and small government as a means to maximize wealth—should be the guiding principles of her Conservative government’s economic policy. The Housing Act of 1980 introduced “Right-to-buy,” a scheme that actively incentivized social-housing tenants to buy their homes. Thousands did, and many subsequently moved on up the housing ladder, fulfilling that very British dream of pursuing social mobility via property ownership.
Meanwhile, in Grenfell itself, the residents’ complaints to the council’s management agency—of power-surges causing electrical appliances to explode, of inadequate fire safety standards across the estate—were often ignored. Grenfell, like similar blocks across Britain, had become an inconvenience, an eyesore taking up potentially prime real estate.
In January 2016, Jeremy Corbyn, then an embattled Leader of the Opposition, tabled an amendment in the U.K Parliament that would have required landlords to ensure that their homes were “fit for human habitation.” The Conservative majority, 72 landlords among them, voted it down. A few months later, the £8.6 million refurbishment of Grenfell, overseen by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), was completed. The sprinkler systems that could have helped to prevent the disaster to come were deemed superfluous. But money was found to improve the building’s aesthetics. The now infamous cladding, white and grey polyethylene panels which were already banned in the Germany and America, were chosen instead of the fire-resistant alternative, for a total saving of under £300,000.
Grenfell was no solitary oversight: Earlier this month, the government admitted that 181 other high-rise buildings clad in similar material have failed fire safety tests. Where on earth did the accountability go? Why did no one in a position of power ring the alarm? And why were the residents’ warnings ignored?
One part of the answer involves the death of the regional newspapers that once held local councils to account. The fact that London-centrism has become politically anathema since Brexit, itself a rebuke to metropolitan elites, has no doubt drawn media scrutiny from London issues, too. The statistical reality that the British capital is home to many of the country’s poorest residents has been occluded by the less-nuanced assumption that the city is richer than is fair.
But in the weeks that have followed there has been a growing sense that Grenfell says something more profound and more damning about the culture of London, and of the political and economic forces that shape it. From the moment the country awoke to images of the blazing tower, people started murmuring what John McDonnell, the current Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, subsequently made explicit—that the victims of Grenfell “were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades.”
Over the last few decades (and since the 2008 crash in particular), Britain has been increasingly in thrall to an ideology. Chances are, whatever country you’re reading this in, your public sphere has its vocal adherents —politicians, media companies, and business leaders who valorize wealth creation, abhor market regulation and display a tendency to parse society into good economic foot soldiers (“strivers”) and unproductive freeloaders (“skivers”). It is a creed that may feel familiar to readers in America, where it informs the politics of Randian Republicans like Paul Ryan. It also provides the ideological justification behind Trumpcare, and the dogma of Silicon Valley libertarians looking to automate the workforce into extinction.
In Britain, nominal conservative parties don’t have a monopoly on this worldview—versions of it have pervaded both major parties for some years. So-called New Labour, which held power in Britain for 13 years under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was wedded to a vision of London as the beating heart of the global financial services industry, a less-regulated alternative to Wall Street.
You could hear its promulgation in David Cameron expressing a desire to “kill off health and safety culture for good” in 2012, and in the Brexiteers promising “a bonfire of regulations.” You could hear it in the hypocrisy of those who cheered the heroism of the London firefighters battling their way up the smoking tower even though they had condemned their right to protest for fairer fire service pensions three years before. And now you can see it looming over North London, a soot-strewn edifice in the sky.
A city’s shame
A yet more troubling subtext to the Grenfell disaster lies in what it says about Britain’s fissile national conversation. When the Nigerian writer Ben Okri wrote a poem attempting to capture the ghastly symbolism of Grenfell, the result didn’t just lay the blame at the feet of politicians peddling this deregulatory mythology. Instead, the responsibility belonged to “the nation”—anyone, essentially, who has turned a blind eye while Britain becomes the sort of place where such a thing as Grenfell could occur.
Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation
From its secret shame. And here it is every name
Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room,
Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed.
These words speak to anxieties that have been gathering for some time. In the minds of many who live in London, there is a clear line to be drawn between the Darwinian ethos of right-wing Tories and a broader hostility towards the poor.
As Tanya Gold explained in a scathing editorial in the New Statesman, free-market dogma relies for its spread on the politics of division: “To implement austerity in a democracy,” she wrote, “it is essential to invoke prosperity theology: to the good everything, to the bad—who cares?” In other words, if the public can be convinced that the poor and dispossessed are culpable for their own degradation—that poverty is a moral failing—we will accede to their maltreatment.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Coming as it did in the wake of an unexpectedly strong showing for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the recent General Election, Grenfell has provided a salient emblem of how unfettered capitalism can unstitch a city’s fabric at a time when austerity apologias are running out of steam. The precept underpinning the Corbyn movement—that a degree of safety and dignity for all should not be too much to ask of a rich democracy—is starting to sound ever more like a vociferous demand. People have called it a reckoning. Too late for Grenfell, it must be.
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