View from abroad: The looming shadows of Grenfell Tower and Brexit

THE image of the burnt-out shell of London’s Grenfell Tower has been appearing on newspaper front pages and television screens for days as the terrifying inferno continues to haunt Britain. Apart from the personal tragedy involved, the fire has ignited dormant political and social differences.

The Royal Kensington and Chelsea Borough, where the ill-fated building is located, is the richest district in London, and is home to Kensington Palace; it also has hundreds of multi-million pound homes, smart shops and expensive restaurants within its boundaries. But this is also where dozens of high-rise council tower blocks were built in the Sixties and Seventies. Designed and constructed in the brutalist style of the period, and housing those in need of subsidised shelter, many of them have become breeding grounds for drugs, petty crime and violent teenage gangs.

There are over 4,000 of these architectural monstrosities across the country, and have been subjected to much criticism over the years for the squalor and anti-social behaviour they encourage. Of course there are many exceptions, and numerous families live perfectly respectable lives in these tall towers. Some flats have been bought by developers and private owners and gentrified. But Grenfell Tower appears to have housed a disproportionate number of migrants and refugees from conflict zones.

The economic and social divide in Kensington and Chelsea can best be judged by the fact that in the recent general election, Emma Dent Coad, the Labour candidate, defeated the incumbent Conservative MP by exactly 20 votes. Her victory was confirmed after three nail-biting recounts, and was probably the biggest upset of the election because the Tories have represented the borough for decades. Ms Coad pulled off her remarkable win by emphasising the economic inequality the residents could see around them every day of their lives.

Even as the tower continued to smoulder, loud and angry questions were being asked by distraught survivors about how the fire started and then spread with such incredible speed. With only one staircase, and even that route engulfed in flames, it is feared that scores of dead bodies are still in the building. And because of the weakened floors, firemen cannot enter the flats to check for incinerated victims.

Thus, many of the survivors still don’t know the fate of their loved ones, and are running from one hospital to the next. This lack of information, and the apparent incompetence of the local council, has infuriated residents who have been venting their anger at the council as well as the government. For some time now, Grenfell residents have been complaining about the lack of safety equipment like sprinklers and fire alarms to the council. But as the maintenance of the building had been outsourced to a private company, these warnings went unheeded.

As soon as the seriousness of the fire became apparent, hundreds of Londoners turned out to help. Within a day, volunteers had organised the supply of food, clothes and bedding for the survivors who had lost everything. Now, only cash gifts are being accepted. But what was lacking was empathy from the local council and the government. The day after the blaze, Jeremy Corbyn arrived, and showed genuine concern by hugging survivors and talking to them. Even the Queen turned up to show sympathy. But while Prime Minister Theresa May came, she only met the firefighters while surrounded by her security detail. The next day, she met some hospitalised residents at the hospital.

This seeming callousness has come in for some furious criticism from the media. When she finally went to a church near the tower on the third day after the fire, she was met with shouts of “coward!” Anger with the lack of coordination and care finally boiled over when a few hundred residents and supporters marched to the Kensington town hall where the council was having a meeting. Images of a riot in one of the poshest parts of London shocked many, with the Daily Telegraph, the right-wing daily, announcing that the protest had been high-jacked by hard-left elements.

One problem the authorities are having in giving any figures for the dead is that many of the residents had several relatives or friends staying with them. Thus, the total number in the tower at the time of the blaze is unknown, and until the damaged floors are propped up and the police or the fire brigade can enter flats, the real number of the dead will not be confirmed. However, the talk among survivors is that as many as 150 died in the flames, as against the current official death toll of 30.

Unsurprisingly, the ghastly accident has opened a bitter debate about the social and economic divide in Britain. Apart from the need for an enquiry, critics are calling for an urgent review of the thousands of similar towers across the country with a view to upgrade safety measures. But many local councils are already strapped for cash in these days of Tory-imposed austerity, and it remains to be seen if the government will honour its pledge to re-house the Grenfell survivors in the same borough.

Within a month, the government has gone through two terrorist attacks, a disastrous general election and now a fire that threatens to take on serious political overtones. All this under the looming shadow of the Brexit negotiations that have begun today. Battered by this succession of crises, May is looking increasing like a leader who is losing control. When asked in a BBC interview why she didn’t meet the Grenfell survivors, she looked distraught and almost incoherent as she tried to explain her reasons.

As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, this was a good election for Labour to lose.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017

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