What’s it like to live in a strong, stable country? I don’t know. In wibbly, wobbly Britain, it’s all just cock-up, chaos and catastrophe. I fully expect the next leader of the Conservative Party to be Mr. Bean. Because when politically and economically we are in the midst of an unprecedented omnishambles, you can always rely on the Tories to do the wrong thing.
A week ago we had an election in which, in our wisdom, we did not elect a government. So the PM we didn’t elect, and her bunch of comedy characters known as The Cabinet, is planning to rule us on a programme we rejected, or some variant of it that is approved by the charming god-botherers of the UUP, and which will be read out in a Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament – though we’re not entirely sure when that will be.
Before that, in the absence of a sitting legislature, the “PM” will despatch David Davis and his inspiring team of nobodies to Brussels, where they will attempt to negotiate what they characterise ‘a deal’, but which is, in reality, merely an attempt at staving off or ameliorating the inevitable shock and chaos of severing the treaty upon which our economy and the stability, even viability, of many institutions is based. Good luck with that, chaps, though, as you always say, “judge us on our record.” That’s what’s worrying us.
And all of this is now illuminated by the terrible light of a giant, vertical funeral pyre in the heart of rich London.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy is an event saturated in layers of significance, of deep meaning, for this country. It is as if a judgement; the outstretched finger of a vengeful deity shooting thunderbolts and lightening. The Guardian editorial today calls it this government’s Hurricane Katrina moment. But Katrina was a natural disaster. It was made worse, admittedly, by poor government, cost-cutting, careless administration, and other political failings, but the hurricane itself was not preventable. Grenfell Tower, by contrast, ought not, need not have happened.
The long project, not halted, still less reversed by New Labour’s thirteen years in office, was one of divesting government of as many functions as possible. The market alone was what mattered.
This was no mere matter of rhetoric. It was a conscious political goal, meticulously applied in every sphere of policy possible. Government – or local government – was to be reduced to using taxes to procure services from agencies other than the state. The image was of a family subscribing to Sky TV, or ordering in a take-away from Deliveroo. Like all these analogies, it is tempting, but profoundly misleading.
The reality, or at least the political aspiration, was to distance politicians from the services they used to administer. Your rubbish collection is rubbish? Tell Veolia. Your kid’s school is a set of portacabins? Have a word with the academy chain. Locked up for a crime you didn’t commit because the forensic science lab botched the tests? The cops were obliged to use the cheapest private lab they could find. Fragmentation is the neoliberal politicians’s friend. It aims to disempower and atomise the electorate, breaking bonds of social solidarity, and elevating individual – not collective – responsibility. Your life is shit? Your fault, mate. Vote for me!
Not a great slogan, is it? ‘You are on your own.’ The wonder is it wasn’t called out sooner.
For that is how it feels now. The political experiment is out in the open. We, the lab monkeys, are working out why we’re in the cages. Some of us have even crawled out, and donned the white coats. We’ve looked in the mirror and thought, it doesn’t have to be like this.
There will be Tories who look at the community response to the Grenfell Tower conflagration, and see Cameron’s Big Society. The faith groups, and the crowd-sourced information exchanges, and the acts of charity, are seen as things which are better than, more moral than, the state stepping in to take charge. They are wrong, and they must not be permitted that narrative.
That people organise, using the tools and resources available, when there is need, is a powerful, human thing to do. But creating emergency shelters, and communal kitchens, and distributing clothes and toiletries in one thing. What those people can’t do is make their homes safe. A priest, an imam, and a rabbi, with the best will in the world, are not going to install DIY cladding on a 24 storey tower block.
It is the role of the state, of politicians, to listen to experts, to frame laws, to set safety standards, building regulations, and to ensure the implementation and enforcement of those rules. ‘Red tape’, say the Tories, is a drag on business. What they really mean is, ‘profit before people.’ So the real way to make homes safer is to mark an X in the box next to the candidate or the party who will do their job properly, and accept their responsibilities – or even for the individual to become that candidate, and serve their neighbours.
That idea – of politics as a good thing, as public service – is coming back, as we look around and see how ‘efficiency’, ‘markets’, ‘competition’, and all the other guff have let us down. They have made our country squalid, cheap (in a very costly way), and ugly.
If we are to be ‘strong’ again, and stable, we are going to have to have a kind of revolution. A revolution in thought and deed. A ballot box revolution that mobilises the cynical, empowers those who feel powerless, and acts to change all our lives for the better.
And as the old British Rail slogan used to have it, “We’re Getting There!” I do hope so. But there is still much work to do.