The horrific Grenfell Tower fire has hammered a hole through the political commentariat’s wall of belief that Britons live in a meritocratic society; that the old divisions of wealth and poverty have been consigned to the grave of history and that our current political order is, by its nature, egalitarian. The tragic outcome of this fire is just another symptom of social organisation that has maintained the same authority that stretches back to a supposed long distant and supposed disappeared feudal state.
Since the forty years that Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK the public have been incessantly fed the line that she, her political class and their supporting articles of dogma were necessary to ‘save the country’ from the excesses of trade unionism. The media, and consequently a million bar-stool philosophers, have repeated this so frequently that it’s considered an unchallenged statement of fact and not clichéd, politicised opinion. This late seventies Thatcherite and Reaganite creed, underpinned by the supposed ‘scientific’ theorising and advice of the Chicago School economist Milton Friedman became the accepted credible, economical, political norm and has stayed with us since.
Over the last couple of days UK government ministers are watching the news coverage of the inferno and are wringing their hands and saying that such a thing should never happen in this day and age. But they have conveniently ignored that exactly the same ideological focus on the unchallenged rationalality of cost-cutting, efficiency-driven, free-market, trickle-down, laissez-faire political economy has inflicted exactly the same misery, death and grieving upon poor, voiceless communities elsewhere in the world. Well, for these professional politicians, now it’s on their doorstep and it’s now very unavoidable. To top that, it’s happened not just in the city of the place of government, but in the most affluent residential area of that city – The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. And to the new dawning awareness of the governing classes and established media the message is getting out and being widely circulated without their authority.
The tragic story of Grenfell Towers is not slowly unfolding through measured and authorised news releases via the television, radio and press, but spreading in an exponential explosion of angry, sad and chaotic personal stories created and delivered through mobile phones and home computers. We have seen citizen (social) media bringing a far more diverse range of not just critical opinion, but previously hidden facts to the table for the wider public to consider. It has not just been a sobering realisation of how forty years of Toryism (red and blue) has shredded any sense of broad social cohesion in the UK, but it has also been a very sobering realisation to the governing classes that they can no longer control the information that is reaching the governed.
Within hours of it happening the public are discovering that even in the midst of a crisis, as terrible as this, the machinations of state bureaucracy continue to manipulate the poor and powerless to the benefit of the powerful and wealthy. Stories are becoming common knowledge that survivors are being rehoused 200 miles away (despite official promises to the contrary) under threat of ‘making themselves homeless if they refuse the offer’. Others are being forced into residential elderly care against their will within hours of losing spouses. Survivors, who possess only the clothes on their backs, are being given derisory ten pound payments to buy food (and anything else they need), when public generosity has already donated hundreds of thousands of pounds. And particularly important for the residents in the area no civic official is releasing a credible estimation of the number of dead.
But the injustices in the treatment of the tenants of the block are not just as a result of the lamentable civic response to the fire. According to a senior government minister the cladding on the tower block that seemed so instrumental in accelerating the spread of the fire was banned for such use in the US, Europe and even the UK itself; and from other media reports, the decision on which cladding was chosen was made on the basis that it was £2 cheaper per panel than the top graded fire-resistant cladding required for such a building. For many years the residents of Grenfell Towers have been trying to bring the local council’s attention to their fears of the fire risks in their block. The council has not only ignored them but even threatened them with legal action if they did not desist in their campaign and demands. The residents were only stopped from taking further legal action against the borough council because the UK government has legislated away the previous entitlements to universal legal financial aid. As a tragic full-stop to that particular episode the two residents instrumental in leading that campaign are known to have died in the blaze; they won’t be making any more demands on the borough council.
The repeated demands made by professionals (coroners and firefighting experts) to retrofit existing social housing with sprinkler systems was watered down by government ministers and not pursued. This was primarily justified on the basis of the economics of such work. Recently government ministers have voted in favour of retrofitting a sprinkler system in their workplace the House of Commons. So it’s not just the economics that drive these decisions; it’s also the unstated consideration of who’s worthy of such expenditure. Clearly the working class, or poor, or ethnic minority residents, those considered reliant on social housing, are not considered economically significant enough to tip the scales in their favour.
I’m writing this three days after the fire was first reported; already there is enough information in the public domain to know that there must be a demand for a formal Inquest into the cause of this tragedy but again we witness the desperate scrabbling of the maintenance of the social order… The Prime Minister has declared that there must be a formal public enquiry into the fire at Grenfell Towers. This sounds very laudable, but what is really needed is a Coroner’s Inquest. Despite its title of public enquiry such an enquiry does not involve the public. If a public enquiry is held the survivors and other witnesses will not be entitled to speak, question, give evidence, or cross-examine those considered potentially responsible. A public enquiry is controlled by the government that instigates it; a Coroner’s Inquest is at least designed to be independent of government influence.
The political establishment, particularly those supportive of the neoliberal agenda (that’s the same one that drove the world to near economic collapse ten years ago) will not want their ideological sacred cows challenged. From their personal perspective they see the established order as beneficial to all because in general their personal perspective only takes in the view of others like themselves. The politicians will shy away from a fully open investigation and inquest because it will absolutely undermine their integrity, their philosophy, their ideology and their future authority.
This fire will be formally shown to be the combined result of failed housing policy (social and private), failed expectations of the benefits of public service privatisation, failure of adequate funding of the public sector at the expense of propping up a failed banking sector, failure in the belief of the benefits of deregulation in health and safety legislation etc etc… All central tenets of the dogmatic economic faith that is represented by neoliberalism. This doctrine has probably had the most damaging effect on the greater number of people on the planet, not to mention the planet itself, than any other previously discredited political philosophy; it’s time is up.
The formal end of feudalism in England is supposedly legally marked by the Tenures Abolition Act of 1660 but all this really did was to reinforce the power, wealth and landed status of the established aristocracy by removing their financial and military obligations to the monarch. It also laid the way for broader powers of tax collection levied against the general population. The current creed of neoliberalism is the modern maintenance of this system, The powerful rich entrench their privilege through their control of the media and its message to the public. It promotes their agenda as the only pragmatic political and economic solution to the problems that society is confronting – without realising that the problems society is confronting are generally of their ideology’s making.