Henry Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Vice, Vox, and Time.
The catastrophic fire that killed at least 80 in London was the inevitable byproduct of an ideology that vilified the poor.
By the time the sun rose, Grenfell Tower was already a blackened shell. The fire had begun as the city slept on June 14, when a faulty refrigerator exploded in a flat on the fourth floor. Within minutes, it had spread out of control, sweeping up the building’s exterior and invading the corridors before any alarm could be raised.
As 200 firefighters descended on North Kensington to battle the inferno, witnesses report seeing their neighbors hanging from windows to escape the smoke. At least two are thought to have jumped from the 23rd floor. One mother wrapped her four-year-old in a blanket and dropped her from a ninth-floor window; she was caught by a bystander. Photos taken at 4 a.m. show the entire 70-meter-high tower engulfed in flames.
Two months have now passed since the horrifying Grenfell fire. At the time of this writing, the death toll stands at 80, but authorities say the true figure is almost certainly higher and may never be known. Most of the bodies are too badly incinerated to be identified. In the aftermath, the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council resigned in disgrace. Amid ongoing speculation that the fire was exacerbated by flammable cladding installed during a recent renovation, the British Prime Minister Theresa May announced an official inquiry to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against culpable parties.
In the meantime, each passing week seems to bring some new unsavory twist in the tale, some extension to the allegory of the fire as emblematic of national dysfunction and shame. The future for the neighbors and family of the missing remains uncertain, as demands for recompense and quick justice run up against the grinding bureaucracy of a painstaking investigation. The fallout from London’s worst fire disaster since the Blitz looks set to run and run.
But Grenfell is more than a story of negligence—a tragic coalescence of a dozen discrete moments of hubris and greed. It is also an awful fable of our time. Pundits often describe it as a “Hurricane Katrina moment,” a catastrophe that exposes a rich country’s contempt for its poor. “The charred remains of Grenfell Tower have become a shocking symbol of inequality at the heart of the capital itself,” the New York Times declared in a story on London's atomization earlier this week. “They have changed the national narrative.” Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
For those looking on from abroad, it may not be immediately apparent why the fire became so instantly charged with political import. London, to the outsider, has long appeared a paragon of functioning multiculturalism. However, in order to understand how this impression was shattered by that night in June, it is necessary to understand what Grenfell was, and how it came to be.
Remaking the city
London was never supposed to be like this. At the end of the First World War, as servicemen returned to Britain from the continent demanding a fairer society in return for their sacrifice, the state provision of housing—what Lloyd George promised would be “homes fit for heroes”—became a key pledge of the post-war settlement. Three decades later, as Britain recovered from another world war, social housing was a key component of the country’s pioneering welfare state, alongside the free universal healthcare of the National Health Service.
In industrial centers throughout the country, acres of slum tenements were razed and replaced with social housing, often high-density blocks of flats, for those who couldn’t afford to buy a home. The idea was predicated on the egalitarian notion that shelter, like health, was an inviolable human right, and that rich and poor should, within reason, be encouraged to live cheek-by-jowl.
Grenfell was built in 1974, an austere concrete tower of 120 flats spread over 24 floors, its design in keeping with the Brutalist style of the day. Unprepossessing as it and many similar towers across Britain may have been, early residents were proud to live in these modern dwellings. Strong community bonds formed throughout their halls and stairwells.
The experiment began to disintegrate in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, who determined that ideas incubated by American right-wing intellectuals – ideas which fetishized privatization and small government as a means to maximize wealth—should be the guiding principles of her Conservative government’s economic policy. The Housing Act of 1980 introduced “Right-to-buy,” a scheme that actively incentivized social-housing tenants to buy their homes. Thousands did, and many subsequently moved on up the housing ladder, fulfilling that very British dream of pursuing social mobility via property ownership.
Then came the global financial crisis of 2008, and with it London’s metamorphosis started to accelerate. Swept to power on a mandate that promised to reverse Labour profligacy, David Cameron’s Tory-led coalition government in 2010 announced a new age of austerity in Britain. Under the new agenda, London council budgets have been pared to the bone. This abrupt depletion of municipal coffers has encouraged councils to sell-off vast amounts of public land and property—libraries, leisure centers, and particularly social housing. Hundreds of estates across London, including many in the vicinity of Grenfell, have been “decanted” (that’s the word councils use for emptying a housing block) and demolished in recent years, their former inhabitants discarded to the four corners of Britain where rents are more affordable.
In London, almost all of the developments that have risen to replace these blocks have been high-end. Some such premises are occupied by the city’s wealthy; more controversially, they are also pitched to affluent overseas buyers who view London property as a safe place to park (or launder) their millions. These new-builds—popularly characterized as “safety-deposit boxes in the sky”—have traditionally been seen as a guaranteed investment, so certain to accrue in value that many owners don’t bother with the hassle of renting them out.
In a city where demand for homes massively outstrips supply, this commodification of London housing has created whole developments that are almost empty, glittering deserts of glass and steel. (A few scraps of social housing are sometimes bolted on—an irritating concession for developers—though the residents are often required to access the building through a separate entrance, or “poor-door.”) According to The Guardian, 1,652 properties in Kensington and Chelsea—many of them owned by foreign billionaires, oligarchs and royalty—are unoccupied.
As the moneyed enclave of Notting Hill, where the stucco-fronted terraces have long been a magnet for the great and the good, began to march west, the area surrounding the Lancaster West Estate, in which Grenfell Tower is situated, became a front line in the inexorable gentrification of central London. A three-bedroom townhouse in Portobello Square, not 200 meters from Grenfell, costs £2.1 million (around $2.7 million).
Meanwhile, in Grenfell itself, the residents’ complaints to the council’s management agency—of power-surges causing electrical appliances to explode, of inadequate fire safety standards across the estate—were often ignored. Grenfell, like similar blocks across Britain, had become an inconvenience, an eyesore taking up potentially prime real estate.
In January 2016, Jeremy Corbyn, then an embattled Leader of the Opposition, tabled an amendment in the U.K Parliament that would have required landlords to ensure that their homes were “fit for human habitation.” The Conservative majority, 72 landlords among them, voted it down. A few months later, the £8.6 million refurbishment of Grenfell, overseen by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), was completed. The sprinkler systems that could have helped to prevent the disaster to come were deemed superfluous. But money was found to improve the building’s aesthetics. The now infamous cladding, white and grey polyethylene panels which were already banned in the Germany and America, were chosen instead of the fire-resistant alternative, for a total saving of under £300,000.
Grenfell was no solitary oversight: Earlier this month, the government admitted that 181 other high-rise buildings clad in similar material have failed fire safety tests. Where on earth did the accountability go? Why did no one in a position of power ring the alarm? And why were the residents’ warnings ignored?
One part of the answer involves the death of the regional newspapers that once held local councils to account. The fact that London-centrism has become politically anathema since Brexit, itself a rebuke to metropolitan elites, has no doubt drawn media scrutiny from London issues, too. The statistical reality that the British capital is home to many of the country’s poorest residents has been occluded by the less-nuanced assumption that the city is richer than is fair.
But in the weeks that have followed there has been a growing sense that Grenfell says something more profound and more damning about the culture of London, and of the political and economic forces that shape it. From the moment the country awoke to images of the blazing tower, people started murmuring what John McDonnell, the current Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, subsequently made explicit—that the victims of Grenfell “were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades.”
Over the last few decades (and since the 2008 crash in particular), Britain has been increasingly in thrall to an ideology. Chances are, whatever country you’re reading this in, your public sphere has its vocal adherents —politicians, media companies, and business leaders who valorize wealth creation, abhor market regulation and display a tendency to parse society into good economic foot soldiers (“strivers”) and unproductive freeloaders (“skivers”). It is a creed that may feel familiar to readers in America, where it informs the politics of Randian Republicans like Paul Ryan. It also provides the ideological justification behind Trumpcare, and the dogma of Silicon Valley libertarians looking to automate the workforce into extinction.
In Britain, nominal conservative parties don’t have a monopoly on this worldview—versions of it have pervaded both major parties for some years. So-called New Labour, which held power in Britain for 13 years under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was wedded to a vision of London as the beating heart of the global financial services industry, a less-regulated alternative to Wall Street.
The same spirit also informed their Regulatory Reform Order of 2005, which delegated the responsibility for ensuring a building’s compliance to fire safety regulations from the local fire authority to a “responsible person.” This legislation has now been implicated in the perfect storm of circumstances behind Grenfell.
But the truest disciples of free-market orthodoxy in Britain tend to be found in the right wing of the Conservative Party, Thatcher’s children. Their decision to pursue austerity since 2010 was as much ideology as pragmatic parsimony (many Keynesian economists propounded spending on large capital projects as the best way to drag Britain out of the 2008 recession). Several of the most ardent supporters of Brexit—some of whom had been agitating for Britain to divorce from the EU for decades—are fanatical privateers, desperate to liberate the country from supranational red-tape. Political theorists might call their creed neoliberalism. In the shadow of Grenfell, it has come to look more and more like the economics of legitimized greed.
You could hear its promulgation in David Cameron expressing a desire to “kill off health and safety culture for good” in 2012, and in the Brexiteers promising “a bonfire of regulations.” You could hear it in the hypocrisy of those who cheered the heroism of the London firefighters battling their way up the smoking tower even though they had condemned their right to protest for fairer fire service pensions three years before. And now you can see it looming over North London, a soot-strewn edifice in the sky.
A city’s shame
A yet more troubling subtext to the Grenfell disaster lies in what it says about Britain’s fissile national conversation. When the Nigerian writer Ben Okri wrote a poem attempting to capture the ghastly symbolism of Grenfell, the result didn’t just lay the blame at the feet of politicians peddling this deregulatory mythology. Instead, the responsibility belonged to “the nation”—anyone, essentially, who has turned a blind eye while Britain becomes the sort of place where such a thing as Grenfell could occur.
Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation
From its secret shame. And here it is every name
Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room,
Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed.
These words speak to anxieties that have been gathering for some time. In the minds of many who live in London, there is a clear line to be drawn between the Darwinian ethos of right-wing Tories and a broader hostility towards the poor.
As Tanya Gold explained in a scathing editorial in the New Statesman, free-market dogma relies for its spread on the politics of division: “To implement austerity in a democracy,” she wrote, “it is essential to invoke prosperity theology: to the good everything, to the bad—who cares?” In other words, if the public can be convinced that the poor and dispossessed are culpable for their own degradation—that poverty is a moral failing—we will accede to their maltreatment.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.
Coming as it did in the wake of an unexpectedly strong showing for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the recent General Election, Grenfell has provided a salient emblem of how unfettered capitalism can unstitch a city’s fabric at a time when austerity apologias are running out of steam. The precept underpinning the Corbyn movement—that a degree of safety and dignity for all should not be too much to ask of a rich democracy—is starting to sound ever more like a vociferous demand. People have called it a reckoning. Too late for Grenfell, it must be.