Had the Grenfell Tower tragedy befallen one of the millionaire high-rises built along the Thames recently, it would still be a catastrophe that shocked the country and the world. But what makes this disaster so numbing and sickening is to see, in the faces of the dead, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. People who were, in effect, in the care of the state – that is to say, in our collective care. If we pay taxes and vote, we’re part of a system that’s supposed to devote the greatest attention to those in greatest need of government help. And on Tuesday night, dozens of them were killed – through, it seems, near-contemptuous neglect from various layers of government.
Yes, the inquiry must take its course – but that doesn’t give anyone an excuse to dodge questions now. When the inquiry has been completed I suspect we’ll find a simple fact. That the poor and isolated died precisely because they were poor and isolated – and, ergo, voiceless. They had complained, they warned about a major tragedy, they were ignored by a system supposed to be dedicated to them. And I can see why they turned on the media when Jon Snow showed up last night: they had been warning, blogging, begging people to notice that they were the victims of a bad and unresponsive system. But the cameras only turn up when it’s too late.
Those who think this should not be politicised are deluding themselves: you can’t get more political than social housing. The high-rise towers that started to be built in the 1950s had an enviable fire safety record until just a few years ago. One of the great scandals of the post-war years is how this accommodation, that was seen as such a blessing when families like my father’s were first moved into it, decayed so quickly. How the schemes (as they’re known in Scotland) ended up incubating the world’s most expensive poverty. How the people who were counting on government, more than anyone else, ended up being ushered into a world of economic exclusion. How the welfare state had served to imprison rather than help. This always has been a scandal* but to see people killed as a result of the dysfunction of government takes this, the multi-layered failure of government, to a horrific new low.
The Conservatives might complain that Jeremy Corbyn is exploiting this ruthlessly, but he’s an opposition leader, that’s his job. He’s reacting, he’s actually talking to residents – unlike Theresa May. Even the Queen, who has never forgiven herself for turning up too late to speak to those bereaved in the 1966 Aberfan primary school disaster, was on the scene and able to talk to residents without the 'security concerns' that apparently stopped the Prime Minister from doing the same. If the Tories misjudge this and are somehow forced on to the defensive – and defend the utterly indefensible – then this could be terminal for them. In my Daily Telegraph column, I recall how Michael Gove said two years ago that the Tories should position themselves as ‘warriors for the dispossessed’. But they became warriors for Brexit instead. They underestimate the severity of this at their peril because, faced with such a disaster, there is only one question: which side are you on? The Conservatives had better be ready with their answer.
* I made a documentary elaborating on this point for Channel 4 two years ago, now online: