The people directly affected by the Grenfell Tower fire – those who lost loved ones, those who lost their homes and their property – need help at present, not commentary. The good news is that help is available. If you wish to donate, one way to do so is via the website of the Archdiocese of Westminster which will pass on donations to various Catholic charities helping those who are most affected.
While help flows in, commentary flows out. Thanks to the General Election result, which was certainly not what she was hoping for or expecting, Mrs May looks like a weakened Prime Minister, and her enemies are perhaps scenting blood and moving in for the kill. This is, it seems to me, unfair and unjust. The causes of the fire and the high loss of life are still to be determined. In these circumstances we are usually warned of “knee jerk” reactions. But this rush to blame the Prime Minister is exactly that.
In addition the Prime Minister is being castigated for not showing sympathy for the victims. While I am sure that she has felt sympathy for the victims – it would be strange person who did not – it may well be that she has not shown her sympathy in the public forum of television. In other words she has not delivered a speech analogous to Tony Blair’s “people’s princess” effusion after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, almost twenty years ago. Theresa May is now being castigated in the same way as the Queen was then; ironically, the Queen, in her visit to the victims, has come out of this well, perhaps having learned from the mistakes made after the death of Diana.
But is it really the role of the Prime Minister to channel public grief? She is the head of the government, and it is her job to do things like ensure there is an enquiry, which, as far as we can tell, is exactly what she is doing. The person who leads us in mourning is the head of state, the Queen, who has fulfilled her duty in that regard perfectly – as one would expect, as she has been bred to the job since her teens. Mrs May is perhaps rather shy and awkward: but I prefer her over Tony Blair and his cheap emotionalism any day. Let us all remember where Tony’s sense of mission led us.
Mrs May is a party leader, but in her role as Prime Minister she is often called upon to transcend the party role and unite the nation. This is such a time. However, this task is impossible given the politicisation of the Grenfell Tower fire. And it was not Mrs May who politicised it. The demonstrators, some of whom may be people directly affected by the fire, others of whom are certainly not, show every sign of being led by professional political agitators. Their printed posters give their allegiance away.
That the Grenfell disaster should so swiftly morph into an anti-Tory hatefest, should not surprise us. There are historical precedents for disasters like this one being used for political purposes to bring down governments. The common thread in these precedents is the idea, usually but not always baseless, that the government of the day “has blood on its hands” or is planning a massacre of the people. This was the spark that lit the Russian Revolution of 1917, based on the actual events of Bloody Sunday in 1905. This was the motivation that stirred up the mob who took part in the highly organised taking of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. It was also used in reverse, so to speak, with the Reichstag fire of 1933, an event that allowed Hitler to blame the Jews and Communists and destroy democracy.
The Grenfell tragedy needs to be addressed in a rational way. There are plenty of questions that need answering, and whose answers will not be available any time soon, but only after careful examination of the facts. Was it arson? Was it an accident? Were the usual safety checks neglected? Do these safety checks need to be revisited throughout the country? Do we need to look at other tower blocks? Do we need to overhaul our housing policy, and if so, how? That last question, which is perhaps the most important of all, may well take years to determine.
The last time London had a terrible fire was in the reign of Charles II. Wikipedia puts what happened then rather well: “Suspicions rose to panic and collective paranoia on Monday, and both the Trained Bands and the Coldstream Guards focused less on fire fighting and more on rounding up foreigners, Catholics, and any odd-looking people, arresting them or rescuing them from mobs, or both together.”
Luckily the collective hysteria did not last long, and the enduring legacy of the Great Fire was a spate of reforms which led to a cleaner, brighter and safer city.
It is also worthwhile to remember the unspeakably awful Aberfan tragedy which eventually led to important reforms designed to ensure such an accident could never happen again.
The Grenfell Tower, like Aberfan, will long live in the collective memory; but let us hope that we can all learn from this catastrophe, so that something similar never happens again, and that the living conditions of all are improved in the future. But that will not happen if the tragedy is used as a stick to beat the government. Politicising the fire detracts from its true significance, and delays our ability to learn from it.