By Jonathan Freedland (for the Guardian)
You walk around and it might be Westminster or the Manchester Arena or London Bridge, or even New York in the days after 9/11. In the shadow of Grenfell Tower, the trappings of grief: the signs pleading for the safe return of the missing, the vigil candles, the notes and messages left for the dead. People stand in stunned clusters, talking to each other, to police, to reporters, telling of the horror they’ve witnessed, recalling the pain of a friend’s final message or a father whose phone rang and rang but was never answered.
You recognise the bravery of the emergency services; the solidarity of the community; the heartening humanity of the volunteer effort. But something else hovers in the air in this poor, crammed, diverse part of west London that was not palpable after those terror attacks. It is pure, righteous fury.
“We’re angry, we’re all angry,” Mercy Banda told me, as she stood on the steps of Notting Hill methodist church - now transformed into a pop-up distribution centre, handing out food, drink and masks to guard against the acrid smoke. Her target was not unexpected, especially given Friday’s dramatic protest at Kensington town hall. “We blame the council,” Mercy said. “I don’t think they’ve ever listened to us.”
It wasn’t just Kensington and Chelsea’s culpability for the way the tower was reclad in flammable material, or the repeated warnings from residents that were either ignored or, astonishingly, greeted by threats of legal action.
It was the council’s absence, even now, in the face of this calamity. It was the fact that it had fallen to volunteers to gather nappies, milk and bedding; a great and lifesaving duty descending on those armed with deep wells of sympathy but no experience or expertise in coping with disaster.
Few wanted to talk about Theresa May, whose first non-visit had just occurred. But her initial failure to meet survivors and relatives may well prove terminal, damaging her in the way George W Bush’s flight over New Orleans - viewing the suffering inflicted by Hurricane Katrina from 30,000 ft - hobbled his presidency till the very end.
For what were the two impressions of May that surfaced so fatefully during the general election campaign? That she was a coward, ducking tough questions, and that she was the Maybot, unable to demonstrate empathy or emotional intelligence. Her initial avoidance of the community around the stricken tower confirmed her as both. That first image of her, conferring with officials at a safe distance from the angry and grieving, and especially its contrast with pictures of Jeremy Corbyn hugging people in distress, will etch itself into the public memory.
May’s defenders tried to blame security concerns, yet somehow they did not stop the 91-year-old Queen heading down to face those who were hurting. True, on her return to the area on Friday May faced a barracking (unlike Corbyn or the Queen). But that’s one of the jobs of a national leader, to provide a focus in moments of collective anguish, to console the nation and, yes, to address its fears head-on. May is no leader. And this week proved it.
Still, that is only the most visible, most trivial aspect of the politics of this disaster. You can ignore those who say it’s wrong, or too soon, to politicise Grenfell Tower. That’s always the refrain of those who understand that a raw moment such as this brings great clarity, suddenly exposing in vivid colour a reality that, for many, may have been abstract. Such people want the moment to pass, for the national gaze to move on, so that they can return to business as usual. Which is why now is exactly the time to talk about what this blaze has illuminated.
Make no mistake, the other side has not hesitated to press its agendas. “Were green targets to blame for fire tragedy?” asked the Daily Mail on its front page. “Did EU regulation mean deadly cladding was used on Grenfell Tower?” inquired the Express. (Answer: no, that same cladding is banned in Germany.)
These are desperate efforts from people who know they are on the wrong side of an epochal argument. It’s clear to those who lived in that building that what menaced their lives was not Brussels, or action on climate change, but a local authority and its arm’s length management company that decided to save a grand total of #4,750 by opting for the cheaper and more flammable version of cladding for this tower.
And they did that even though the risk was plain to see to anyone paying attention. The management company RMS, for example, which specialises in modelling catastrophes risk, has detailed a recent spate of fires in China involving similar cladding acting as an accelerant, engulfing entire skyscrapers in flames within three or four minutes.
A blaze in Melbourne in 2014, started by a single discarded cigarette on a second-floor balcony, spread to the 20th storey in 15 minutes.
So Grenfell Tower threatens to stand forever as a warning against four of the defining features of our era. First, deregulation - elevated to an ideal by the free marketeers of Thatcherism and pursued ever since. Protections for consumers or workers or residents have long been recast and despised as “red tape”, choking plucky entrepreneurs. A favourite slogan of the right was the promise of “a bonfire of regulations”. Well, they got their bonfire all right.
Second, and related, is privatisation, an animating ideal for the right since the mid-1980s. Grenfell Tower will surely endure as proof that there are some aspects of our lives that do not belong in the realm of profit. The outrage I saw was fuelled by years of frustration felt by people who found their homes managed by an unresponsive company, rather than by elected officials they could throw out.
Third comes austerity, which has depleted the ranks of housing officers and safety inspectors across the country. Hardly an excuse in the Royal Borough, mind you, which is said to have #300m sitting in a contingency fund.
But most obviously, Grenfell Tower is a story of inequality, of the poor herded into a cramped building made unsafe because it was prettified to improve the view of the nearby rich. One woman I met wondered if the fire had been started “deliberately, to get rid of us all”. She instantly withdrew that allegation, ashamed of herself for saying it. “But that’s what people feel,” she said.
Grenfell Tower should mark a point of no return. No return to the frenzied deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality of the last four decades. These are not new evils. They have been lurking for many years. But it took the light of a burning building for the whole nation to see them.