Grenfell - All Fall Down

There are moments in the life of a nation when a sudden event illuminates with stunning clarity an essential part of its character. The effect is most powerful when the trait exposed is at variance with the long established image. Such a moment has arrived in Britain with the Grenfell affair.

None can now avert their gaze from what post-Thatcher society has degenerated into.  It is a “so, this what we have become” moment. Less dramatic than the installing of Donald Trump in the White House, Grenfell has torn away the veil from an unbecoming national visage.

The revealing truth is portrayed in graphic pictures and shameful words.  A tower block going up in flames like a papier-mache construction; close to a hundred killed – and still counting; no assistance whatsoever from the responsible Kensington & Chelsea Council; an insulting absence of concern or commitment to redress failings by the same authorities; a curtain of secrecy on initial plans to scatter the survivors across the length and breadth of England;  offers  of supposed long-term relocation in basement apartments on heavily trafficked roads or other towers slated for demolition; many families split up and/or shuffled from one temporary accommodation to another; a self-absorbed Prime Minister refusing to meet them; revelations that the flammable cladding material installed in a refit just three years ago comes with warnings not to use in high-rise buildings, that the Council out-sourced management company and the outfit doing the work knowingly went ahead in order to save a few thousand pounds (K. & C. is the wealthiest council in the U.K. – with a cash reserve fund close to half a billion dollars).

 That there had been serial warnings from the London Fire Brigade authorities and parliamentary committees as well as the residents association about the imminent, high risk of existing practices in thousands of similar public-build blocks around the country (hundreds with the same cladding material have now failed belated inspections). They also lack sprinkler systems, alarms or fire doors, and a mandatory secondary route of egress. (By contrast, all these systems have been legally required in NYC since 1967 – and were de facto norms for decades previous, e.g. the ubiquitous external fire escapes).The Tory government buried them all. That negligent behavior conformed to their boastful commitment to removing burdensome regulations from an unduly constrained economy and society.    

Survivors were shut out of a special Council meeting scheduled to plot a strategy for handling the crisis – so, too, the press. When a judge ordered the Council to rescind the ban, it summarily cancelled the meeting. Victims’ relatives and Grenfell residents who escaped the fire also were denied an opportunity to ask questions in person at a coroner’s hearing.  Council member and official spokesperson Catherine Faulks told a BBC interviewer that the press demand was just a “stunt,” and that the residents clamoring to attend were professional agitators rather than Grenfell victims.

 This past Wednesday, the Council’s abject incompetence was officially confirmed when the Westminster government announced that key services will be taken over by a specialist “taskforce” made up of outside experts. Phased in gradually, this privitization of public services will not be charged to the K. & C.’s burgeoning account.  It is not known whether the specialist consultants will include a public relations adviser – perhaps  someone recommended by David Cameron from his old firm, Carlton Communications, where he honed his skills.

The deeper, self-evident truth is that the (relative) poor are viewed as a nuisance in the tony precincts of K. & C. Race has added to the distasteful mix. Many residents are of South Asian, Caribbean or African origin – although a large fraction from that background are British born. Those origins were played up in initial coverage. In fact, it seems that about a third are white – most of those Brits. Very few are on ‘welfare;’ many residents have purchased or pay quite high rents for their apartments (up to 2,000 pounds a month). They are ordinary working people. They do stand out in a posh district.

The statements of public officials etch these realities

There is Sir Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary under David Cameron, who received the parliamentary group’s urgent appeal in in March 2014: "Surely... when you already have credible evidence to justify updating... the guidance ... which will lead to the saving of lives, you don't need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?” He did nothing. Interviewed after the Grenfell tragedy, he unashamedly blustered that the government judged it a sounder policy to encourage manufacturers of safe cladding to promote the product more actively rather than go down the dangerous path of imposing state regulation. (No exaggeration).[1]

There is Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who was a government minister at the time (a result of Nicholas Clegg leading his party into the fateful Coalition with the Tories), received a warning that “without automatic sprinkler protection, we cannot ….afford to wait for another tragedy to occur to amend this weakness" (referencing a tragic 2015 fire in another tower block). He replied: "I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward."

There is the failure to make any acknowledgement of the Tories’ 40% cuts to local authorities since 2010.

There is David Cameron who pronounced just last week that those accusing the government of misplaced austerity budgets are “selfish” – unlike the rich and the corporate interests who at the same time have received substantial tax reductions and the financial wheeler-dealers who are welcomed to Britain’s ‘off-shore’ accommodating environment.

There is Sir Martin Moore-Bick,[2] the former High Court Judge, who has been appointed by May to head a board of inquiry. Fears of a protracted inquiry producing an anodyne report were aroused when Moore-Bick went out of his way to declare that the scope of the investigation would be severely limited to determining the immediate cause of the fire and why it spread so rapidly. Answers to both questions already are known. The point of origination was a Hotpoint refrigerator that apparently shorted; the rapid spread was due to the combustible cladding facilitated by the lack of sprinklers, fire doors, etc.

So a narrowly drawn inquiry should last less than a week. Even a glacial board of inquiry should be able to figure out in a few days time who in the apartment left the door of the fridge open overnight.  The many months foreseen are simply time to allow the public outrage to die down and plans made as to how far the cover-up should extend. Moore-Bick seems well suited to the task. He was the magistrate in a controversial case wherein he determined that is was entirely fair and proper that a displaced recipient of social assistance (handicapped) should be housed 60 miles from her previous residence, family, doctors and friends. She was black.  His ruling was overturned by an appeals court judge who found his reasoning without merit.

The Sir Inquisitor-to-be has given the game away in adding that “I do not expect everyone to be pleased by the conclusion of the inquiry” - yet to begin. Moore-Bick’s unprompted utterance shows just how pervasive is the Americanization of British political culture. Unnecessary, embarrassing ejaculations like this have become impulsive – defying the dictates of prudent restraint.

No one is confused as to who the “everyone” he has in mind refers to.  An impression reinforced by the denial of the residents’ right to ask questions in person as to the scope and form of the inquiry. The only open question is the exact tint that the whitewash will take (stitch-up in British dialect).

The first testimony will not be heard until mid-September when panel members, as yet unnamed, get back from their holidays.

Then, there is the K. & C. Tory Council – about which there is nothing at all to say in the way of excuse or amelioration. Two weeks after the immolation, the Council was still withdrawing rental checks from the residents’ bank accounts – living or dead. Ms Faulks told an interviewer that this was a “tiny” matter undeserving of attention. All the aggrieved party had to do was file an appeal either in person or on the Internet. Evidently, she is a devout believer in the afterlife.

This is an ugly picture. Why focus a sharp light on it – especially by a foreigner.  There are two reasons. First, this phenomena of unspeakable social callousness, undergirded by doctrines aggressively and successfully promoted across the Western world, is becoming pervasive. In addition, the Grenfell affair demonstrates that the United States is not alone in its tolerance for actions that should be a national disgrace but are slighted by a political class incapable of feeling shame.

The callous, off-hand treatment given the Grenfell victims is reminiscent of how colonial administrators dealt with expendable natives. If a proper criminal process were undertaken, a reasonable verdict would be Involuntary Manslaughter. Criminal negligence could be another charge both for the calculated failure to act on warnings of mortal risk – and for any harm as might be caused survivors of the fire who have been denied appropriate care. 

[1] This is an exact replica of the attitude taken by the yahoos who rule the state of Texas in the wake of the catastrophic explosion of a fertilizer plant in 2013 (killing 35 and destroying an entire section of the town of West). The company’s practices had violated already weak rules and no inspection had taken place for years. The Republican governor and legislature rejected calls for a tightening of regulation in arguing that the far greater danger to public welfare (Freedom and liberty) was setting a precedent that could favor a more active government role in regulation generally.

[2]Hyphenated names are fairly common in England. They formerly were limited to aristocratic families. They conveyed nobility of lineage and character. These days, quite common, one-syllable names are hyphenated. Example: Moore-Bick. Doubtless, we soon will be reading references to a Cecil Smith-Jones or a Neville Black-White. This plebian turn began with Mandy Rice-Davies, the partner in cabinetmaking of the famous Christine Keeler who was implicated in the notorious Profumo affair half a century ago.  Coincidentally, rumors were circulating in Whitehall just last year that Keeler’s posthumous autobiography was about to be published bearing the title My Three Years Under the Tories. That has proven apocryphal.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins.

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