Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As terror attacks and disasters meet political instability, London really is reeling this time.
Last night, an attacker drove a van into a crowd of worshippers leaving prayers at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, killing one person and injuring 10 others. Early reports suggest that the attacker shouted “I want to kill all Muslims,” then drove his van into a small crowd who had gathered on the sidewalk to help an elderly man taken suddenly ill, who died at the scene.
The horrific attack could have proved much deadlier if not for the actions of the crowd, who pinned the attacker down, and an imam from the nearby Muslim Welfare Center, who protected the attacker until police arrived to arrest him. The violence is nonetheless a terrible blow, one that falls especially hard because it comes at a time when London is having one of its toughest summers in living memory. The city is crackling with electric tension, temperatures are pushing 90 degrees, the political order is wobbling. And it’s only June.
London’s trials have come thick and fast recently. It’s less than a week since West London’s Grenfell Tower burnt almost to a cinder, causing a death toll that has so far reached 79 and may rise further. Likely to have been caused by recently applied flammable exterior cladding, the Grenfell fire’s devastation has been an all-too-belated wake-up call to many in power of the dysfunction, cynicism and neglect with which lower-income Londoners of the type who lived in the tower were treated. Its terrible effect continues—subway services along the surface line that runs past it have been partly cancelled for fear the tower’s 24 burnt-out floors might scatter the tracks with debris.
Sunday’s terror attack in Finsbury Park also comes scarcely more than two weeks after a terrorist attack killed eight people at London Bridge, after ISIS adherents drove into a night-time crowd before launching a knife rampage. It comes less than a month after 22 people were killed following a bomb attack on a concert in Manchester. It is, in fact, the fourth terror attack on the U.K. in three months.
It’s not just these horrors in themselves that are taking a toll. Keep Calm and Carry On may have become a terrible cliché, but when trouble comes, it’s what people do here (and everywhere else, when you come to think of it). But after Grenfell, it’s also the failure of the government’s response, both national and local, that is making people sick to the stomach.
While Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn spent time at the fire scene talking at length to survivors and volunteers, Prime Minister Theresa May made only a short visit where she talked to emergency services but avoided victims and media, apparently afraid of being heckled or looking awkward. This evasion has seen a fierce backlash against her. It has raised question marks over her political future, ones that private meetings with survivors at Downing Street days afterwards have failed to dispel. But while the evasion and chaos of her response has seen the Grenfell Tower disaster dubbed “Theresa May’s Hurricane Katrina” in its irrevocable damage to her public standing, she isn’t the only political figure in the firing line.
May’s chief of staff is also under scrutiny for having sat on a report on the fire safety of towers. Locally, the generally wealthy Conservative-held borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell Tower is located, has been excoriated for what is seen as its toxic blend of incompetence, indifference and inaction. Desperately needed offers of help, such as emergency accommodation for victims, were apparently turned down by a council that has long been been the target of complaints over its apparent lack of concern for poorer residents. This has left local volunteers to soldier on almost alone with a passionate but unco-ordinated relief effort. Meanwhile, the agonizingly slow trickle of actual confirmed casualties has been seen by many as an attempt to stifle public outrage in the interests of the authorities. Such anger came to a head on Friday when locals massed outside Kensington Town Hall to protest what they saw as the council’s evasions and contempt over Grenfell, with some protesters forcing their way into the building.
While London and Manchester have been hit especially hard in recent months, this air of crisis and tension is spread across the country. To truly understand how the U.K. feels, you need to zoom out a little to see the backdrop. This moment is one of almost unprecedented political turmoil. May’s Conservatives unexpectedly failed to gain a majority in the June 8 election, forcing it to seek an electoral partner to prop up a minority government. Its only choice was Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, a Protestant fundamentalist grouping with a history of paramilitary associations and values that are completely out of step with modern Britain (if not Northern Ireland). This alliance is so shaky that May has postponed the Queen’s speech that traditionally launches a new government and, in an attempt to stave off risks of a future vote of no-confidence, canceled next year’s speech altogether.
Meanwhile, today is the first day of Britain’s Brexit negotiations intended to broker a deal managing the country’s exit from the E.U. May’s government had hoped to present itself as a strong and stable force with a rock-solid mandate from the British people. From where we are now, it’s difficult to imagine a weaker position from which the U.K. could begin.
Even now in London, however, there is a lot of hope. Kensington’s newly elected MP suggests that the Grenfell Fire is tentatively starting closer relations between the rich and poor of Kensington. This short clip of a bishop, an imam and a rabbi—all communities with a presence in Finsbury Park—standing together in solidarity reminds me of why people might want to live in London in the first place, and of how people will ultimately work together to manage any number of shocks.
All these fresh blows are still a lot to take on board. When the New York Times stated after the London Bridge attack that London was “reeling”, the headline got people laughing in disbelief, given that actual mood in the city was a defiant flippancy that Londoners default to in a crisis. Two weeks later, it’s fair to say (I may be risking local wrath here) that Londoners genuinely are reeling now. Everyone has their limits. Is there more coming?