While this fire could have happened almost anywhere in Britain, it seems that it could not have happened to anyone: Only the most-vulnerable members of British society could be treated with such contempt. Nor is it a coincidence that so many of the residents were of ethnic minority groups; many were Muslim. According to The Guardian, Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford, “has shown that black and minority-ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats.”
On Friday, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, aptly labeled the Grenfell story as “a tale of two cities”—a Dickensian tragedy played out in the 21st century, with all the modern flourishes: high-definition footage of the fire live-streamed, minute-by-minute media updates, occasional Facebook statuses from those trapped inside, and then crowd-funding initiatives set up to deal with the fall-out. New props for very old problems: poverty and inequality.
Indeed, the speed of the fire—within minutes, it had spread from the fourth floor to the top of the building, engulfing the entire structure in just a few hours—belied the creeping slowness with which its causes stacked up. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower goes beyond cladding, the contempt of the KCTMO, or the Conservative-run council. The ultimate responsibility lies with the British state, a succession of governing bodies that, over time, have imposed a political system that readily entrusts the safety of citizens to market mechanisms.
This ideology, maintained to various degrees over the past few decades, places austerity above all else. Many local authorities now view it as their duty to spend as little as possible on their residents, and in many cases have no choice. The borough of RBKC may fall more easily into the former bracket, with reports claiming it holds a £274 million contingency fund. But it did not come to embrace such parsimony on its own: It was endorsed by the highest echelons of Britain’s political class, Conservative and Labour alike.
Between 1979 and 1990, Margaret Thatcher spearheaded reductions in council funding and encouraged the outsourcing of local services like no one else before her. Tony Travers, the British academic and journalist, has called it an “11-year war” on local government. The New Labour years that followed, between 1997 and 2010, did not surrender any ground: “We are all Thatcherites now,” Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s trusted adviser, famously declared in 2002. Regulations and responsibilities traded hands, and by the 2000s, 85 percent of local government expenditures were being determined by the central government, up from 60 percent in the 1970s. Then, from 2010 on, Conservative prime minister David Cameron (a Kensington resident) took on the task with particular relish. Slashing the deficit became the overarching priority of his two governments, with local authorities charged with implementing the policy.