At least 30 people have died in the Grenfell Tower fire. That is the highest number of deaths in a single incident in the UK since the 7/7 attacks (55), a number it seems likely to surpass over the coming days. That would leave only Hillsborough (96), the Aberfan Disaster (144), and the Lockerbie bombing (270) as higher totals in the last half century.
The premise of the Daily Mail’s article overlooks the fact that the fire would have remained small in scale had there not been more systemic issues, and risked turning residents’ anger towards an ordinary man who will probably be suffering with extraordinary trauma.The story will have had to pass through a number of editorial and legal staff, there is no way that none of them know how a fusebox works.
The Grenfell Action Group – residents trying to pressure their landlord to improve the standard of the building – had previously written that they “firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders”. The blogger had been threatened with legal action by the local council for publicising these concerns.
Although there’s a lot to be angry about, it’s vital that anger remains rational and evidence-based.
One piece of news which was widely shared on social media was that last year Tory MPs defeated legislation to force landlords to make their property “fit for human habitation”. Although outrageous, it appears to have had no practical effect on Grenfell.
During the week BBC’s Newsnight aired a segment in which a solicitor argued that a public inquiry rather than an inquest will allow the government to gloss over failings. The human rights barrister Adam Wagner – who has served on both inquiries and inquests – argues that it’s not as simple as one being good and the other bad, which seems to be the majority legal view in our limited perspective.
Following a crush in the crowd at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final held at Hillsborough, the Sun printed a serious of infamous slanders – including that fans robbed the dead – under the heading of ‘The Truth’. It took 27 years for it to be officially established that this was nothing more than propaganda by a police force looking to absolve themselves, and that nothing the supporters did contributed to the disaster. In 2014 an investigation into allegations of child abuse by MPs, held by Theresa May’s Home Office, went missing, fueling accusations of a cover-up. It’s also vital to remember the context of ideological cuts to the state.
There is a wider context which has given British people cause to distrust authority.
The Tory Party response to Grenfell has been terrible. If reports are correct, Theresa May visited the scene only for twenty minutes on Thursday, and didn’t speak to any residents. One of the key aspects of leadership is the requirement to step up, offer reassurance to the vulnerable and desperate that they will be looked after, which is often not the case.
Barwell – who last week lost his Parliamentary seat and was appointed to the role of Theresa May’s Chief of Staff – has so far not commented on his part in the disaster, and blanked journalists when asked. The speed at which £5m has been pledged to assist victims should be praised, but backing out of her own guarantee to rehouse all residents in the same borough is frustrating. Whatever message the government puts out, it needs to be clear and consistent, to allow the victims as much certainty as possible.
Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has described a “shocking lack of presence, organisation and authority in N Kensington today [Friday] from local and national Govt.”
To an extent Tory inaction is understandable given how toxic the issue is for them politically, and it’s likely that Barwell’s silence is the result of legal advice. But it’s vital that victims and working class people currently living in similar circumstances to the victim feel that people in authority are on their side. The accusation that the left and Labour in particular have ‘politicised’ the tragedy has been made repeatedly. But politics is about understanding and controlling why things happen. There is evidence that Grenfell happened to a large extent because of Tory policy – both the under-regulation of housing and the underfunding of councils, making it harder to enforce existing legislation.
While it should be noted that Andrea Leadsom attended Grenfell in May’s place, the response from other parties has been better.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has offered a consoling arm to residents and promised to pursue the issue vigorously. David Lammy, a Labour MP who lost a friend in the fire, has described Grenfell as “corporate manslaughter” – an accusation which appears to be self-evident.
The Green Party’s Sian Berry, whose 2016 mayoral campaign leaned heavily on a housing platform, has demanded that legislation be changed so that “residents have a final say in all changes to their housing”.
There has been public anger over the last few days. Kensington and Chelsea Council buildings have been stormed by protestors. Screeches of “murderer” are unfair on May, who has no personal responsibility for the event.
But conservative commentators referring to this anger as a mob are also being unfair. For the most part the anger seems relatively restrained, not going past shouting and shoving. The danger of rioting should not be understated – for example the 2011 riots resulted in the deaths of five people.
But the likelihood of rioting should not be overstated either, nor should righteous anger be dismissed. Given that dozens of people are dead and thousands more have reason to believe their homes are unsafe, this is remarkably peaceful. Rather than being a wild mob, protestors have shown incredible, superhuman restraint.
The 1966 Aberfan Disaster is a useful parallel to Grenfell.
Waste from a mining operation was piled high without adequate restraining equipment, on a hillside overlooking a school. The National Coal Board had been repeatedly warned that the practice was unsafe, and there had been two minor slides in Aberfan itself. The coal waste gave way during the school day, crushing the school, killing 28 teachers and 116 students.
This kind of extreme negligence seems unbelievable, incomprehensible. But it only seems that way because we have learned from the tragedy, refused to allow it to happen again. To reach that point, public anger is necessary to sustain campaigners through the bureaucracy and inertia that will come. It’s also vital to keep our anger focused on the right targets and at the correct causes, but also important that honest missteps be forgiven.
Hopefully, half a century from now the actions leading to the Grenfell Fire will be as difficult to comprehend as Aberfan.