The Grenfell Tower fire in London is the most disruptive event in our national life for a very long time. It illustrates graphically what has gone wrong over recent decades: the entirely avoidable loss of life resulted directly from a managerial culture that did not regard the tower’s inhabitants as equal human beings in a wider community. Being poor, working-class, in many cases immigrants, they could not attract the attention of officials in the richest borough in the UK. Hundreds of people were lodged in a 24-storey tower block without fire alarms or sprinklers. For years, they petitioned, phoned, blogged and used any other means to protest the obvious danger in which they were living. Their complaints about the cold environment of their old draughty flats were assuaged by the application of low quality cladding that, when the inevitable happened, fanned the fury of the fire.
The anger they are now expressing, while infinitely more furious, resembles the emotion expressed by the many people in forgotten parts of the country who voted to leave Europe in last year’s referendum. The most common reason for their vote was to “take back control”. By a projection skilfully encouraged by the politicians and activists in the Leave campaign, immigration was blamed for poverty, unemployment, poor living conditions and a general sense of exclusion from the life and wealth of the UK. “Brussels” became the scapegoat for unnecessary, supranational regulation that was allegedly holding back British enterprise and restricting employment opportunities. On 7 April 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a letter to all government ministers on “cutting red tape”. One paragraph reads:
Our starting point is that regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non- government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for the government being involved. And even when there is a good case for this we must sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy and complexity, and gold-plating of EU directives, and challenge overzealous administration and enforcement.
Elsewhere, the document states: “Of course we need proper standards, for example in areas like fire safety and food safety.” But the tone and line of the argument is that government — which presumably includes local as well as national government — should take less responsibility for regulation. Further, the glib injunction to “sweep away” bureaucracy, and to end the “gold-plating of EU directives”, indicates that the writer has not actually taken account of the responsibility of government authorities in framing and enforcing appropriate regulations. It is this mindset that has resulted in the Grenfell fire.
The one good thing that could come out of this national disaster would be a sober rethinking of what we are doing as a country and where we are going. It is becoming clear to everybody (except a few ideologues) that the British political system, based for centuries (as Leave campaigners constantly reminded us) on the sovereignty of Parliament, should never have made radical changes to international economic policy on the basis of a referendum. The Grenfell fire makes clear where the problems of the UK lie. A future government should address these, and base international economic policy on a clear vision of the need for greater equality and better communication in our national life. In a word — to use the word condemned by Margaret Thatcher — we need to rediscover community, both national and international.