From King’s Cross to Grenfell Tower

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2017

This is a guest post by Chris Brooke

I spend my life shuttling back and forth on the train between Oxford and Cambridge. That means that twice a week I walk past the plaque at King’s Cross that memorializes the thirty-one dead of the fire of 18 November 1987. And when I walk past that plaque, I’m reminded of a distinctive moment in my younger life—not just King’s Cross, but also the fifty-six dead of the Bradford stadium fire disaster (11 May 1985), the one hundred and ninety-three who died on the Herald of Free Enterprise (6 March 1987), the thirty-five who were killed at Clapham Junction (12 December 1988), the ninety-six who were crushed at Hillsborough (15 April 1989), or the fifty-one who drowned on the Marchioness (20 August 1989). Perhaps it was coincidence that these catastrophes happened cheek by jowl, in a way that they just haven’t since. Or perhaps much of it was something to do with the ascendant political ideology of the time, that starved vital infrastructure of much-needed investment, and that celebrated the quick search for profit. One of the good things about living in England over the last quarter century is that this run of disasters came to an end, and things became quite a bit safer. But of course the predictable consequence of the politicians’ collective choice to embrace the economics of austerity over the last seven years—and even more so when it is conjoined with the Tory fondness for the execrable landlord class, a widespread dislike of safety regulations, the cuts in legal aid, and the politics of the majority on Kensington & Chelsea Council, especially when it comes to housing—is that we would regress in some measure to this second-half-of-the-1980s world, and everything that is coming out now about the Grenfell Tower saga suggests that we have so regressed.

Back in those 1980s days, there was a running joke that Margaret Thatcher would always pop up at the bedside of the victims, doing a somewhat ghoulish Lady of the Lamp act, and Private Eye printed a Thatch Card, on the pattern of the then-popular NHS Donor Cards, that said that in the event of being involved in a major disaster, the holder of the card in no circumstances wanted to be visited by Mrs Thatcher in hospital. Compared to the behaviour of her successor, however, Mrs Thatcher comes across as a paragon of democratic responsibility. Mrs May didn’t have to do much yesterday, but she did have to visit Grenfell Tower, talk to the residents—the survivors—and tell them that from henceforwards things were going to be OK. And she didn’t even do that. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised. Her authority was destroyed by the vote of 8 June, and she’s been in shell-shock since, starting to count down the days until she leaves office, insofar as it is practically inconceivable that she will lead the Conservative Party into the next general election and no-one is afraid of her anymore. But a zombie government is still the government, the Spiderman principle applies, and Theresa May is a coward and a disgrace.



Gareth Wilson 06.16.17 at 10:31 am

“and even more so when it is conjoined with the Tory fondness for the execrable landlord class”

Could you remind us who the landlord is who made money from renting out the tower?


casmilus 06.16.17 at 10:34 am

I went to look at Grenfell Tower 2 years ago, because there was a banner in a window “RBKC DESPISES POOR PEOPLE” half way, visible from the Hammersmith&City line nearby. I went there to take a picture (completely useless as I was using a crappy old Nokia phone in bad light) and also one of the development work by the Rydon company nearby. Because of the sign I did a Google and found the GrenfellActionGroup blog. When I heard the news early in the morning 2 days ago I went to look at the blog again, but the rest of the UK media were quickly discovering it.

It’s not important, but I’d be very surprised if no one else has a picture of that banner, as the Latimer Road area is in advanced gentrification, one of several “new Shoreditch” type places around the capital (see also Bermondsey Rd in Southwark). I expect one of the residents would remember it but they have more important things to think about right now. Like the fact that nobody important took any bloody notice.


Maria 06.16.17 at 12:31 pm

When the Tories speak wistfully of returning to old-fashioned values, this sort of thing is exactly what they mean.


Nick Barnes 06.16.17 at 12:42 pm

As well as the Thatch Cards, which were really just a joke, there were little stickers, handy for adding to standard organ donor cards. We all carried them, and it was only half a joke.


Dave 06.16.17 at 10:57 pm

I’ve been an avid CT reader for years, but I can no longer countenance the intellectual rot of this this institution. It’s “Spider-Man.” With a hyphen. For shame. For shame!


Manta 06.16.17 at 11:06 pm

“Mrs May didn’t have to do much yesterday, but she did have to visit Grenfell Tower, talk to the residents—the survivors—and tell them that from henceforwards things were going to be OK.”

You are complaining that May did not lie to the survivors on their face?


rea 06.17.17 at 12:56 am

The queen, 91 years old, could manage to go comfort the survivors, but not the prime minister.


nick s 06.17.17 at 2:08 am

The name “Tenant Management Organisation” feels like it sums up not just seven years of austerity but 30+ years of post-right-to-buy politics, especially in London. There are tenants, and they need to be managed, therefore we have created an organisation to manage them. Like, y’know, floods or sewage.


basil 06.17.17 at 4:35 am


J-D 06.17.17 at 4:57 am

The attitude may not be universally shared, but I think many people would agree that if somebody is going to treat you badly, and if ‘a is going to deploy bullshit justifications, then it makes it even worse if ‘a is not prepared to do it to your face.


Tabasco 06.17.17 at 6:37 am

If the Maybot had gone to talk to the residents she would have appeared as cold, wooden, completely lacking in empathy and utterly bereft of emotional intelligence. This is because she is cold, wooden, completely lacking in empathy and utterly bereft of emotional intelligence.

It is inconceivable that she could have said anything that would have been of any comfort to anybody. She did the right thing by staying clear of the survivors.


Manta 06.17.17 at 9:05 am

Tabasco, if you want someone warm and full of emotional intelligence, go to your friends and family.
If you expect comfort from a politician, you will get hypocrisy.


basil 06.17.17 at 10:13 am

nick s,
Exactly. All too easy to pretend that this is just about the Tories.


Neville Morley 06.17.17 at 10:25 am

Of course May turning up would be no *comfort* to anyone; it’s about the symbolic gesture of showing concern and taking responsibility, and allowing people to express their anger at you and what you represent, even if that feels unfair. And perhaps a sense that promises to “do whatever’s necessary” are less easy to weasel out of when made to people’s faces, especially when said promises may be more difficult and costly than, say, promising ever more draconian security measures after another terrorist atrocity which she’d have been delighted to do anyway…


nick s 06.17.17 at 11:00 am

I found this history useful.

I think that’s a fair piece — Private Eye has been consistently okay in covering this — but I think something’s changed in the public mood since the election. Somebody quoted Callaghan yesterday: “There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.” He was talking about the ascent of Thatcher; I think there’s now a sense that austerity piled on top of public-private partnership piled on top of Thatcherism was a set of choices, and that other choices are available.

The Tory press pretty clearly wants riots so it can confine the anger to a police kettling operation and dismiss it.


Pro Bono 06.17.17 at 1:01 pm

nick s:

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation Limited is a company limited by guarantee which any K&C tenant is entitled to be a member of – it’s supposed to be management by tenants, not of them.

Evidently it’s done a murderously poor job, but I can’t see that the structure of the company itself is malign.


nick s 06.17.17 at 3:58 pm

I can’t see that the structure of the company itself is malign.

Point taken on the structure, but I’m talking about the choice of language. The ambiguity in who is doing the managing and who is being managed seems indicative of a long cross-party trend to give social services free-market cladding.


Gareth Wilson 06.17.17 at 9:22 pm

If the name was in Russian, the meaning would be totally clear.


Val 06.17.17 at 11:49 pm

It’s hard to say anything about this because it’s so horrific, even though the image of the people in the tower and the people outside helplessly watching them keeps coming in to my mind. I’m glad the fire brigade members went in and did what they could to get people out.

The other image that keeps coming in to my mind is Boris Johnson scoffing at EU regulations. Mocking is like bullying – many people would rather be on the side of the mocker rather than the mockee, so it’s a useful political weapon for the unscrupulous.

In the case of the similar tower fire in Melbourne though, it appears that regulation is what saved lives – the regulation to have sprinklers in modern buildings.

Johnson and his ilk scoff at ‘red tape’ as meaningless and as getting in the way of growth (ie getting in the way of cost cutting and profit taking). And, probably because they are brought up in privilege and have great confidence and self-belief, they persuade a lot of miguided people that it’s better to be on their side than against them.

If there are criminal charges in the Grenfell Tower case, it won’t be people like Johnson who are charged, but it ought to be.


Stephen 06.18.17 at 7:51 am

Guardian, Thursday 15th June:

“The government’s building safety experts warned last year that the drive for greater energy efficiency meant more and more buildings are being wrapped in materials that could go up in flames.

In a report compiled before the Grenfell Tower disaster on Wednesday, the Building Research Establishment, which works for the Department of Communities and Local Government on fire investigations, said attempts to innovate with insulation were leading to an “increase in the volume of potentially combustible materials being applied” to buildings.

Construction and fire experts increasingly fear that the cladding system applied to Grenfell Tower may have been instrumental in spreading the fire. The system was installed to improve the thermal efficiency of the building and improve its appearance.”

Proverbially, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


Stephen 06.18.17 at 7:32 pm

Val: “it won’t be people like Johnson who are charged, but it ought to be.”

I trust you will agree that nobody should face criminal charges who has not broken some defined law. What law do you think should be enacted that would make people like Johnson prosecutable?


Val 06.19.17 at 12:20 am

‘Conduct endangering human life’ perhaps. Be difficult because you would have to prove that he and others like him created a climate of reckless disregard of health and safety regulations, which is what I’m suggesting they’ve done.

But ‘creating a climate’ is a difficult thing to prove or sheet back to individuals. ‘Common sense’ would say Johnson ridiculing regulations about the shape of bananas or whatever has not got anything to do with regulations about fire safety on high rise buildings. However I’m suggesting that all the rhetoric about getting rid of red tape actually contributes to this kind of situation. Hard case to prove obviously.


Val 06.19.17 at 12:24 am

Ok so 30 second google found that Johnson hasn’t just ridiculed (supposed) regulations about bananas, he has mocked health and safety regulations


Tabasco 06.19.17 at 1:00 am

Stephen 21

Johnson is a Tory neo-liberal one-percenter Brexiter ex editor of the Spectator who can’t or won’t comb his hair. There’s six capital crimes right there.


derrida derider 06.19.17 at 6:28 am

Fair go – Theresa May couldn’t visit the people there and try and comfort them because if she had there would have been a lynching. That’s not so for Corbyn or dear old HMQ.

Nick s. @15 is right – the zeitgeist has changed markedly in the UK in the last few years, and the politicians have not caught on to that yet. A younger and savvier leader than Corbyn (think, say, Trudeau) with similar policies, perhaps dressed up in less Old Labour language, would have easily won that election – though of course then May would not have called it.

I think the public reaction to Grenfell is a manifestation of buyer’s remorse for that election; people now realise that the BoJos have been thoroughly screwing them for a long time and this is just one more screw.


Dipper 06.19.17 at 9:23 am

Just some thoughts on a Post-fire regulatory environment. I had a ring-side seat for the banking crisis and and worked in the post-crash banking world as the new regulations came into force, so I am here doing a straight read-across.

It may be that investigation will show the web of personal responsibility, corporate responsibility, responsibilities and accountabilities of contractors, councillors, inspectors, is shot through with holes, lack of clarity, and that overall accountability lands on no-one persons desk. What regulation has done post-crash in banking has put accountability on everyone’s desk. Individual attestation of responsibility, demonstration that people have had the required training, committees with responsibility to highlight issues, a heavy reliance on audit (e.g. regulators will use bank audit teams to monitor delivery of mandated changes) and a clearly defined tree of accountability that enables drill-down of decisions to every desk. There is also an enhanced whistleblowing role, and my experience was this was getting heavily used largely for reasons of “arse-covering” but nevertheless was prominent.

I am a fan of this regime. It sounds onerous, and onlookers may think it prevents banks doing anything, but my experience was not that. It is a framework you can work within and in my opinion drives high quality decisions.

If an outcome of this fire were to be a thorough overhaul of public safety, along the lines of establishing an equivalent of financial regulators – e.g. a Public Safety Regulatory Authority, that drove personal and corporate accountability for safety into every local authority, health authority, education authority, transport authority, so that every employee felt empowered to raise a safety issue and whistleblow if they felt it was getting ignored, that could remove people from bodies if they felt they did not have the right values, that could force take-over of bodies that were not properly discharging their accountabilities, that could take any issue and pull every meeting, report, email and see how the issue unfolded, then personally I think that would be a good thing. Just an absolute tragedy that it takes something like this to drive that overhaul.


Layman 06.19.17 at 12:23 pm

Manta: “Tabasco, if you want someone warm and full of emotional intelligence, go to your friends and family. If you expect comfort from a politician, you will get hypocrisy.”

Are no politicians also friends or family members? Or is there a sort of divorce one must undergo in order to become a politician? That would be strange indeed.


Moz of Yarramulla 06.21.17 at 1:22 am

Are no politicians also friends or family members?

Yes, and it’s weird. On the one hand politicians are selected for high EQ and sociability, but on the other they get warped by spending so much time dealing with similar people, and the specific subset of such people who are drawn to power and willing to pay a high price to get it. The effect is a bit hard to describe, perhaps a combination of genuine warmth overlaid by a defensive facade with fake warmth over the top.

At high levels, there’s the oddness of having both private and official “background” investigations of people you become friends with. Or in the worst case, having quiet “baby sitters” accompany family members everywhere. In that sense I pity the children of US presidents etc, because what did they ever do to deserve that sort of treatment? And yet one thing we definitely don’t want to do is make it impossible for politicians to have kids. The “solution” of only having politicians who are so old their kids have left home doesn’t strike me as a good one. I’d rather have more 20 year old MPs and 40 year old leaders than a gerontocracy, even (especially!) if it means breast feeding in parliament.

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