Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the austerity of May-Cameron-Osborne era than North Kensington’s ghastly tomb
That tomb in the sky will be forever Theresa May’s monument. Grenfellmarks the spot and her visit marks the moment the last vestiges of her career were finally rubbed out. She made it her own yesterday by that fateful “visit” to a handful of senior fire officers, guarding her from any contaminating contact with the bereaved and newly homeless. Dead to emotion or empathy, she sealed her fate.
Precise blame comes later in the public inquiry: we are all overnight experts in cladding and sprinklers now. But political blame spreads right through the Conservative party, with no escape on offer. This goes far beyond the precise shockers – the Tory MPs who mockingly rejected housing regulation; the cuts to funding to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; the disregard of coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and even the plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council allegedly blocking its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxiety is just the immediate scandal. But this event reaches far deeper, to the very sinews of its party’s policy.
That tower is austerity in ruins. Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the May-Cameron-Osborne era that stripped bare the state and its social and physical protection of citizens. The horror of poor people burned alive within feet of the country’s grandest mansions, many of them empty, moth-balled investments, perfectly captures the politics of the last seven years. The Cameron, Osborne, Gove Notting Hill set live just up the road.
From the 40% cuts to local councils, to the bedroom tax and the housing benefit cap banishing people hundreds of miles from family and schools, the people spilling out on to the street, sheltered by churches and mosques, are the unwilling emblems of deliberate Conservative attacks.
Just remember how personally people have been abused by George Osborne – those idlers with the blinds down while hard workers set off at dawn. Or Iain Duncan Smith’s: “This is not an easy life any more, chum.” Together with their poisonous press, they hardened public hearts against those struggling and working hard on low incomes: how else could they make this April’s £12bn benefit cuts politically palatable? Here’s the moment public hearts soften and the idea of social security regains its meaning.
George W Bush was similarly exposed by his clueless reaction to Hurricane Katrina, leaving the poor vulnerable to the state’s refusal to invest in flood defences. This government can’t redeem itself, but it can limit the damage by quickly obeying its promise to rehouse every family nearby, one that was only dragged out of ministers reluctantly under fierce questioning by Labour MPs.
The government needs to pay the private rents to rehouse all these families locally. I know of at least one block of luxury flats in Kensington with the lights out permanently in most of them: the council should requisition the housing it needs, with plenty available. What of rehousing all the other tower block residents now horrified to find their homes too are potential fire-traps?
The danger is that once this drama is over and news moves on, people get forgotten. Not this time. What a contrast was Jeremy Corbyn’s visit, hugging and embracing victims, promising to guarantee that never happens. No one could have devised a better parable to convey the difference between the two parties than those two leaders’ visits. No doubt Grenfell residents would have shouted at the prime minister – but after her hermetically sealed election campaign, this confirms that a leader who dare never meet her people is truly done for.
Source: The Guardian