As always when a terrible tragedy occurs, we feel compelled to urgently seek out the causes. And all too often, in the emotionally charged moment, we do not effectively trace them to their root and chances to effect real change are missed.
In order to seek out the deep underlying causes of the Grenfell fire, we must track back nearly forty years, to the election of the first Thatcher government in 1979. Thatcher came to power with the ambition put profit before people, reversing the post-war consensus focused upon human needs, which sought to ensure the social provision of services to meet the health, education and housing needs of its population. Two years into her premiership, Thatcher openly outlined this strategy in an interview with the Sunday Times in which she commented that she was 'after the heart and soul of the nation...economics is the method'.
The generation born in the late nineteenth century told stories of dangerous accommodation, exploitative rents and unscrupulous landlords, of unaffordable health care and of Dickensian education practices. This was ancient history for children such as myself in the swinging London of the 1960s; bad old days which would never come again. But slowly, surely, under the new order that the Thatcherists gradually introduced, and which was never repealed by Blair's New Labour government, history began to repeat itself.
One of the first strategies underlying Thatcher's so-called economic miracle was the selling off of state-owned social housing to property developers, particularly in London, where the greatest profits were to be made. Through so doing, Conservative Local Authorities reaped enormous sums of money, as did the companies who then renovated the properties as cheaply as possible, and offered them to tenants at vastly inflated, privatised rents.
This strategy was sold to the general public as 'Building Stable Communities', but became in the words of Andrew Arden QC, counsel for a group of ratepayers who challenged the selling off process in the early 1990s 'the greatest act of political corruption in the history of local government'. And even though small collectives of ordinary Londoners fought this system over the years that followed, for example the squatters of Oval Mansions and the tenants of the New Era Estate, they were ultimately unable to turn the tide.
Londoners from non-privileged backgrounds were the first to be priced out of their local housing market. In the mid 1980s, I joined one of the first waves of what Matthew Engel refers to as the 'cockney diaspora', moving out of London in order to find housing that was adequate to house a growing family. The housing scandal we left behind continued to grow, and was most recently publicly showcased by the BBC documentary The Estate We're In. The response of the Cameron/ May government was to further exacerbate the situation by the imposition of the bedroom tax, continuing to follow the Thatcherist principle of 'profit before people'.
This is the culture that lays beneath last week's tragic events, an abomination that has been at least forty years in the making; the product of a socio-political culture that views human beings as subservient to capital, which has not only re-birthed the super-salaried landlord, but the highly paid academy executive and the health service 'super manager'. And so, the bad old days that my grandmother told me about are back again; the oppression of the majority by a tiny, super-wealthy minority. Indeed, current projections suggest that income inequality will soon be higher than it has ever been since records began.
If we are determined to ensure that further tragedies on the Grenfell scale never happen again, it is the responsibility of us all to ensure that we root out the Thatcherist cancer that has been mushrooming at the heart of our society for the past three and a half decades, returning to a 'people first' approach.Suggest a correction