All our thoughts and sympathies go out to those affected by the horrific fire in Grenfell Tower in London. In the aftermath of such a horrifying disaster, the priority must be the welfare of the living and the support of the bereaved while survivors are still traumatised and families are raw in grief and bodies remain uncollected amidst the ashes of a skyscraping tomb that sears the skyline of London. While it’s important not to prejudge the inquiry into what caused a densely inhabited tower block to go up in flames like a tinder dry forest, it is appropriate to talk about the responses of our political masters to the tragedy. It is appropriate to discuss some of the broader factors which might have led to the appalling events that have distressed the entire country.
This is a tragedy, an appalling accident, but it wouldn’t have happened if poor people weren’t crowded into a poorly maintained and underfunded tinderbox right next to luxury mansions that lie empty in tax avoidance schemes for the wealthy. Residents of the Grenfell Tower made complaint after complaint about conditions in the block, complaints that were ignored and dismissed. No fire sprinklers, reports that the cladding was chosen for its looks and not for its fire-retardant properties, only a single stairway, works that impeded exits. Residents had a litany of issues, and yet were consistently ignored. The expectation of the Conservative run council seemed to be that poor people should be grateful for whatever hovel they receive in social housing. There was no place for dignity in their spreadsheets, no place for compassion, no place for understanding. The attitudes formed at the top trickle down to the minor functionaries and officials who have to implement the politics of greed.
The council was seemingly more concerned about the tower’s aesthetics so it wouldn’t displease the eyes of the wealthy when they visit their empty properties nearby than they were concerned to provide dignified homes that are fit to live in for those who clean the big houses, who work in the hospitals, who repair the roads. This is a society which spends more on fire safety measures in empty blocks of luxury flats which are used as tax breaks for the rich than it spends to provide fire breaks in tower blocks that people actually live in. This is a society whose priorities are warped by the greed of those who have it all already.
This is a tragedy that was compounded because the low paid and people dependent on social security are neglected and sidelined by an authoritarian system which expects them to do as they’re told and to be grateful for the crumbs they’re tossed. Don’t complain, don’t demand improvements. You’ll get what you’re given and be grateful. Struggle in substandard housing, lucky to have any housing at all. Struggle to put food on the table, lucky to have any food at all. The rich pass by in their expensive cars on their way to their expensive houses living lives of opportunity and insist that people with nothing have it easy. The demonisation of the poor starts at the top, and it ends in the tears of the powerless in poverty.
In her immediate response to the disaster, Theresa May has shown why she’s unfit to be Prime Minister. All during the election campaign she refused to meet the people, appearing at Tory party events where cameras held a tight focus on the little group of Conservative activists behind her. After this terrible tragedy she visited the site, but descended on the area like an occupier with squads of police. She talked to senior police officers. She talked to senior fire brigade officers. And then she was gone. Her displays of humanity, compassion, and empathy were as empty and soulless as the luxury apartments in the posh parts of the borough. If she can’t demonstrate humanity and compassion after families have been destroyed, she’s never going to. If she can’t demonstrate understanding of suffering caused by something as raw and visceral as a horrific fire, she’s incapable of doing so for something more abstract like social security policy or the consequences of Brexit. She had to be told to visit the victims of the fire in hospital the next day. A person with a functioning sense of empathy wouldn’t need to be told.
Theresa May heads a party whose MPs scoffed when proposals came before parliament in 2016 to ensure that privately rented properties are fit for human habitation. The local government minister at the time said that the proposals would result in “unnecessary regulation and costs to landlords”. That’s where Conservative priorities lie, not in providing homes that allow human beings to live in a basic level of dignity that those MPs would insist on for themselves. Theresa May heads a party which wants to leave the EU in order to rip up regulations and the red tape that ensures that those with money and property have to abide by certain basic standards.
During the General Election campaign a triumphalist Ruth Davidson crowed that the Conservatives would make Britain great again. Most of us would settle for making Britain decent, for making it fit to live in, for making homes safe. But it will never be decent as long as Conservatives govern in the interests of the haves. It will never be fit to live in as long as job insecurity and low wages mean that it’s harder and harder to work your way out of poverty while you’re increasingly mired in debt. Homes will never be safe as long as housing is regarded primarily as an investment and not as a place to live in. We’ll continue to see luxury apartments that stand empty, bought up by shell companies as investment opportunities, while the poor and the low paid struggle with substandard housing, with housing benefit caps, with limited access to social housing and time limits on tenancies, and a burgeoning private rental sector that’s poorly regulated and poorly controlled.
The black and smoking ruins of Grenfell Tower are a monument to decades of neglect, of greed, of arrogance. It wouldn’t have happened in other countries where regulations are stricter and are understood as means to keep people safe, to preserve their dignity, to ensure a basic standard of decency. Here in the UK regulations are regarded by the Conservatives as an impedence on the ability of the rich to enrich themselves further. Let’s weep and grieve for those lost. Cry and mourn for the dead. Then the time of reckoning beckons, those who lost their lives cannot be allowed to have died in vain. This disaster was caused by greed and arrogance. This fire is the bonfire of austerity, the bonfire of Tory vanity, the bonfire of private greed.
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