After a man-made disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire, the rush to judgment can be contagious. On the day of the fire, when acrid smoke filled the skies of west London, Jeremy Corbyn said that “if you cut local authority expenditure then a price is paid somewhere”. He was applauded for his frankness. But to me, such a nakedly political statement seemed premature. In fact, I was stunned by it. It was a repeat of his opportunistic attack over cuts to the armed police after the London Bridge atrocity. As it happens, I was on the bridge that awful night with my wife: police officers wielding machine guns came to our rescue within minutes. His criticism was beside the point.
Labour supporters also noticed that the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had been a housing minister for a year until the general election. Soon the mob charged off in his direction. Had Barwell delayed a crucial safety report? Maybe, but in brutal political terms it would be awfully convenient, wouldn’t it, if the Grenfell horror was all No 10’s fault? Such glib answers to life-and-death questions are usually wrong.
And yet sometimes the caution can go too far. In the past week, I have heard fellow journalists telling each other that everyone should stop the ill-informed speculation about cladding, building regulations and so on. We aren’t experts, we don’t know why the fire spread – so let’s wait for a full inquiry.
That is a cop-out. After the Titanic sank, we did not need a judge-led inquiry to tell us that it had hit an iceberg. At Grenfell Tower, we know what went wrong because when we listen to the eyewitnesses, survivors and the experts, they tell us. Scores of people – the death toll is still rising – burnt to death in one of the worst fires in British history. (Even the Great Fire of London involved far fewer deaths.) They were killed because a 24-storey building went up like a tinderbox in minutes. And that – until recently – simply was not possible.
Post-war concrete tower blocks, though ugly, had a very good reputation for fire safety from the moment they were built, beginning in the 1950s. Domestic fires were reliably contained to one or two flats. As one eminent historian of architecture and housing told the Times, it’s the recent fashion for cladding these blocks’ exteriors that has made them unsafe, because it allows fire to spread up the exterior, whatever the original cause. Video footage shows that happening at Grenfell. It may not have been austerity, in other words, that killed these poor Londoners, but the wrong sort of spending: an £8.7 million refurbishment that turned the tower into a death trap.
Anger at this is more than justified – it’s necessary. The victims were among the poorest and most needy people in the capital, illustrated by the fact that, in a cruel twist of fate, the first victim to be named was a Syrian refugee. Some of his fellow residents had said repeatedly that there was a serious problem in the block. A blog post by them published just last November said: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord…” Their fears were ignored and the catastrophe came true.
This is why I have a perverse hope at the moment. I hope that at some point in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, a law was broken or a regulation ignored, perhaps to do with the cladding. I hope that evidence emerges of criminality; and that those responsible face the full force of our justice system. Imagine if it emerges that everything was done perfectly legally and in accordance with all the rules. How utterly damning that would be. The survivors and local residents would feel even more let down than now. First the bankers get away with the financial crisis, then the local politicians and landlords with this.
At the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire last week, one of my Spectator colleagues heard a surprising plea. More than once, people told him that the blackened tower should be kept where it is as a monument to those who died, and as a rebuke to those in power who had failed them. That is emotionally where the locals are: they’re not even convinced that this is a moment of change.
I pray that it is – and that Catholics, as well as Conservatives, recognise it as such. If we don’t look out for the poorest in society, and offer them our support and protection, what exactly are we for?
Will Heaven is the managing editor of the Spectator