The ‘Condition of England Question’ 2017
The Grenfell Tower fire in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea which broke out in June, claiming some 80 lives, brought to the fore the whole question of the social condition of Britain. Jeremy Seabrook considers anew a question first raised in 1839 by the English historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle.
WHEN Emma Dent Coad won for the Labour Party the constituency of Kensington in the election of June 2017, this seemed a fitting symbol of divided Britain.
That one of the richest boroughs in London should tilt narrowly towards Labour was unparalleled, and revealed why Prime Minister Theresa May’s calling of an election (to make Britain ‘strong and stable’, and to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations) had been a grievous error. Her political ineptitude, her indifference to those she had championed as the ‘just about managing’ and her refusal to take part in televised debates, left the field open for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – almost universally declared to be ‘unelectable’ by commentators, opinion-formers and other licensors of public opinion – to increase Labour’s share of the vote to within 2% of that of the Conservatives.
Within a few days of the election, one of the greatest social catastrophes to strike Britain in decades illuminated the extent of inequality in Britain: in the richest borough in one of the richest countries on earth, Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block of ‘social housing’, burned, and an unknown number of people died. The fire spread upwards in minutes, in part because of combustible ‘cladding’, designed to modernise the 1974 structure but, according to residents, to make it easier on the eye to rich neighbours, for whom it was a distasteful reminder of the poverty in their midst. Despite the efforts of firefighters to bring out the trapped and injured, at least 80 people were killed: in the absence of precise information, people in the community estimate the toll to be far higher than official figures show.
No sooner had the flames been extinguished than another storm arose, namely, about the significance of the event and what it showed – or did not show – about the ‘condition of England’; a question that has rarely been raised since Thomas Carlyle first posed it in 1839.
The Right have blamed the Left for ‘politicising the tragedy’ of Grenfell Tower. The Spectator accused Corbyn of ‘trying to turn the tragedy into a morality play about rich and poor’. Naturally, the Right would prefer to see it as tragedy since this is impersonal, a cruel blow of fate, even a visitation of God. What ill-willed persons would want to turn such natural phenomena into ‘a political football’? This is why the media have dwelt upon harrowing personal stories: individuals who escaped the burnt-out structure draw attention away from the decaying social structure of which it is an emblem, and in which many millions are trapped without hope of rescue.
The first official response, after an indolent show of compassion, was an attempt by those in power to take control of the narrative. After May’s initial reluctance to meet people who had escaped the fire (she met only with senior managers of firefighters and didn’t even deign to speak to those who had actually confronted the blaze), the Queen and Prince William made a swift appearance in the Westway Sports Centre to offer sympathy and support to those whose lives had been devastated: the elect stepped in where the merely elected feared to tread.
The appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick to head the inquiry (the terms of reference of which he said would be unlikely to satisfy residents of Grenfell Tower) would ensure that the story told focussed principally on the cause of the fire and how it spread so quickly. He would ‘gather evidence and establish the facts’; even though evidence and facts (however indispensable) are not what traumatised and anguished people want when their wounds are so raw.
That kindness, compassion and protection were in such short supply only confirmed the insentience of rulers anxious to tell their own version of events that threatened to run out of their control. There will be no ‘inquiries’ into the neglect of those who live in social housing: this would demand a searching scrutiny from which even the most eminent judges would flinch.
When the head of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation ‘stepped down’ – as such luminaries usually do, in their elegant footwear – his resignation was followed by that of council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown and his deputy, the aristocratic Rock Feilding-Mellen. They were replaced by Elizabeth Campbell, another Conservative member of the council, and no doubt a person as thoroughly committed to safeguarding the interests of the poor as the imperturbable Paget-Brown (who withdrew because of ‘perceived’ failings by the council, which suggested the faulty vision of others). Ms Campbell admitted she had never been in a high-rise flat; not surprising, dwelling, as she does, in a £4.5 million house in a borough which contains 12 of the 20 most expensive streets in Britain.
There was much stress on ‘discovering the truth’, ‘getting to the bottom of it’, as though government and its appointees were confronted by a dark mystery, in the solution of which they vowed they would ‘leave no stone unturned’ – an unfortunate image in view of the charred rubble of the tower block. Social injustice scarcely requires the work of detectives.
The second element in the effort to keep custody of the story was deployment of the language of warfare – perhaps only natural, given the number of military barracks in the borough. The police referred to those ‘missing presumed dead’. Bulletins on ‘casualties’, ‘survivors’, ‘victims’ and ‘evacuation’ eerily evoked escapees of a devastated Middle Eastern city. The government announced it would send an ‘independent recovery task force’. Wasn’t a ‘task force’ what Margaret Thatcher sent to the Falklands more than 30 years ago? Firefighters said the scene resembled ‘a war zone’. A 12-month ‘amnesty’ was to be offered to undocumented migrants and to those ‘living under the radar’. The blackened slab of the tower recalled a long history of wrecked cityscapes, from Warsaw to Dresden to Beirut to Aleppo.
Echoes of World War II were also rekindled in the tribute paid by officialdom to ‘the community’, those who, in the absence of any visible help from their national or local government, stood together and shared their depleted resources with one another. The people were indeed heroic in the face of the shirking of responsibility by their nominal leaders. Politicians, commentators and observers gushed with admiration for the humanity and fellow-feeling of residents; a poor consolation prize to those who had indeed ‘lost everything’, including lives, loves and their very reason for existing.
It is not by chance that the Grenfell Action Group had earlier referred to the council’s redevelop-ment policy as a ‘scorched earth’ enterprise. The people understood that war had long ago been declared upon them. Indeed, struggle for possession of the narrative shows that we are indeed in a form of not-so-low-level class warfare. And, contrary to all that we knew – or thought we knew – about social conflict, the most committed class warriors are not the poor and oppressed, but those who drive the great juggernaut of ‘development’ into the heart of where people live and work and call it ‘regeneration’.
If London has returned once more to its radical roots, this is because we can now see the real meaning of the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’, ‘progress’, the ‘world-class city’ and ‘destination of choice’ for the victors of globalisation – that Third World War, in which cleansing of the poor from Britain’s cities is simply one local skirmish. The rich of the earth see the London property market as a ‘safe’ haven for their wealth, whether merited or ill-gotten. In the process, it is of course necessary that ‘clearances’ should occur – another word with a long history, where spaces occupied by others are required for more lucrative purposes. As a consequence, ‘enclosures’ are once more on the agenda, fortified enclaves where the overlords of humanity may enjoy in tranquillity the fruits of their onerous labour; and if this means large-scale removals, so be it, although money, and not fire, is the usual instrument for removing people from sites they lawfully occupy.
‘Demand’ for housing comes, not from those without shelter, but from construction companies and development consortia, in the service of a global property market. ‘Luxury’ is now the inescapable preface to any poky and jerry-built apartment block; ‘affordable housing’ the euphemism for accommodation out of reach of the majority, while government-funded social housing has fallen by 97% since 2010.
Beyond the official pieties, avowals of ‘never again’ and the ritual ‘learning of lessons’, the interests of class are inescapable. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ model of class was clear in the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, but so was the hierarchical model. Monarchy set the example by gracing the blighted area with its healing touch, and elite castes quickly repossessed (as with a property on which the mortgage is unpaid) the narrative of what happened. Some local residents offered generous material assistance, including accommodation for the houseless; others, within days of the horror, were tweeting that ‘these people’ had been offered money, food, clothing, housing and full support, yet they still complain. One Conservative councillor suggested they should not forget ‘they actually came out of it alive’. A more kindly majority were busy collecting charitable donations and bringing help to those in need, while long-suffering and ill-treated public servants – firefighters, police, nurses and doctors – proved that their worth was greater than anything that the financial services sector could put together in all its showy aggregate. The humiliated and injured of Grenfell sought to comfort one another, tend the bereaved, the grieving and the disoriented as best they could, consoling each other in a way reminiscent of an older working-class tradition; while ‘community leaders’ were sought out by Authority after the example of an archaic imperial order – a metaphor supported by the ethnic composition of the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower.
Here were made manifest some of the far-from-hidden injuries of class. The class system may have been reconfigured by the demands of modernity – the richest people in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are a mixture of the traditional landowning and aristocratic classes, bankers and financiers as well as those who ‘came up from nowhere’, including popular entertainers and entrepreneurs – but it represents a return to Disraeli’s ‘two nations’, where wealth and poverty bear no relation to any conceivable human worth; a state of affairs we are asked to bless as the natural embodiment of ‘the nation’.
This event – even more than the election – offered bitter confirmation of inequality in Britain; a rift between rich and poor which demands more than shallow piety and easy pity, and cannot be remedied by the politics of passing penitence. If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party grasp this, there is no reason why a socialist should not, for the first time in Britain, become Prime Minister when Theresa May’s tottering regime falls apart; as it has done in a borough where people in its rich areas can expect to live 16 years longer than those in its poorest neighbourhoods.
Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).
*Third World Resurgence No. 321, May 2017, pp 38-40