It has not been a good month for the United Kingdom.
First came a terrorist attack in Manchester that killed 23 and injured scores more. A short time later came another attack in central London, killing eight. The general election less than a week after that resulted in a hung parliament, plunging politics into chaos and revealing the emergence of deep, intractable divides in a once-stable political system. And then, this week, the worst tragedy of all: a fire in an apartment tower in west London that has killed at least 30, with the death toll expected to rise substantially once emergency personnel finish searching the wreckage.
It is tempting to see the burning of the tower and the deaths of dozens of its inhabitants as an essentially inexplicable action, the expression of some unknowable cosmic force. But we need not turn to the divine to understand what happened; the palpable failings of lay authorities are quite enough.
The story throughout is one not of incompetence but of negligent disregard for the people — largely poor and minority, many of them immigrants — who lived in the housing block. Residents had raised complaints for years; they were concerned, they said, that the building had only one stairwell down which to escape, that building infrastructure seemed to create a fire hazard, and that no satisfactory system existed for stopping a blaze once it had begun to burn. Their complaints were “brushed away.” The people in power forgot they existed, and have now been reminded in the cruelest way imaginable.
The most damning indictment of the conduct of those in charge is that the tragedy might have been avoided had it not been for cost-cutting. The Guardian reports that a company working on the recent refurbishment of the building had been asked to provide non-fire-resistant exterior cladding slightly cheaper than the fire-resistant alternative. In the United States and Germany, the use of such cladding on buildings of Grenfell’s height is prohibited. In Britain, it is not, which may explain why the fire was able to engulf the entire block within a mere 15 minutes.
Of all those figures in public life whose standing will justifiably suffer from the tragedy, it seems unlikely that any shall be as affected as Theresa May. Her popularity had already fallen dramatically since the election, which exposed her as a haughty, disdainful politician who struggles even to fake concern for others. In the aftermath of the fire, she has seemed similarly uncomfortable in public. Almost all of the nation’s most prominent leaders took the time to meet with survivors, to empathize with their plight, to promise to ensure that such an event never happens again. Jeremy Corbyn and Queen Elizabeth paid their respects to the dead and spoke with the living. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, endured the victims’ fury on live television.
The story throughout is not one of incompetence, but of negligent disregard for the people — largely poor and minority, many of them immigrants — who lived in the housing block.
But May was nowhere to be found.
Sure, she visited the site of the fire, meeting with firefighters and surveying the damage, but she declined to meet with the victims. Politics is as much about symbols as it is about policy, and at a critical moment, May offered nothing. It was an astonishing expression of disconnection and contempt: a leader unwilling to speak to those who have endured unimaginable loss on her watch. She did eventually meet with survivors, after public outcry, but by then the damage had been done.
Nor did the bad news end there for May. After the resignation of her two top aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, in the wake of the Tories’ disappointing electoral performance, May appointed Gavin Barwell as her new chief of staff. Before losing his seat in Parliament just over a week ago, Barwell had served as housing minister, in which capacity, it is alleged, he largely ignored a government report warning that large apartment towers such as Grenfell were at a high risk of deadly fires.
May, then, appears to have hit the nadir of her public life. Though not quite Anthony Eden after Suez, she seems very much a beaten, broken figure, fallen precipitously from the heights of only two months ago.
One need look no further than the recent adulation of Corbyn for a sign of just how far May has tumbled. In the aftermath of the fire, Corbyn has insisted that the now-homeless be housed within the West London neighborhood of Kensington and Chelsea in which the tower is located. True to his Trotskyist bona fides, he has proposed that the vacant homes of the super-rich in Kensington — buying houses and then leaving them empty has become something of a cottage industry in London — should be requisitioned for that purpose. This is, of course, an obviously absurd and illiberal proposition, but it meets the spirit of the times: populist, radical, disruptive, brimming with emotion and anger. Once, Corbyn would have been mocked for suggesting such a thing; now he is fêted. A more savvy political actor than many had anticipated, he has successfully placed the fire within an anti-austerity framework, allowing him to pin blame on the Tories’ recent penny-pinching. It might seem cynical, but it surely doesn’t feel that way to British voters.
There are some events in a nation’s history that precipitate moments of great change, of introspection and careful accounting for past mistakes, of anger against the existing system and a patent desire to correct its injustices. These events stand as emblems of failure and deceit on the part of the governing and of reawakening on the part of the governed. The burning of Grenfell Tower — coming in the midst of this turbulent time when all that once seemed stolid and stable is being challenged — may well be one such turning point.