Assailed by terrorism, grieving over Grenfell Tower, haunted by Brexit and sweltering in a heatwave, London is damaged but defiant
When a white van mounted a footpath near Finsbury Park Mosque early on Monday morning and drove at speed into a group of pedestrians, it was London’s third terrorist incident in as many months. The attack l eft one man, 51 year- old Makram Ali, dead and eight injured and it was front-page news – for just one day.
The fact that a suspect is in custody means that the media are constrained because they want to avoid prejudicing any future trial. But the main reason Finsbury Park was pushed off the front pages was that there is just so much else going on from the political crisis at Westminster following this month’s general election, to the still-unfolding tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
After the attack at London Bridge three weeks ago, the New York Times outraged Londoners by describing their city as “reeling” from terrorist violence. Novelists JK Rowling and Robert Harris accused the newspaper of doing the terrorists’ job, while others invoked the Blitz, tweeting pictures of women drinking tea amid the rubble of the wartime bombing campaign.
The emblematic image from London Bridge was of a man carefully carrying his pint as he was evacuated. Once again, London was seen to take terrorism in its stride, deploying its trademark cocktail of insouciance and bloody-mindedness in defiance of the attackers.
The security response has been more low-key than in other capitals, with armed soldiers on the streets for only a few days in a few locations after the Manchester Arena bombing. Last weekend, the annual Trooping the Colour went ahead in central London as usual, with Queen Elizabeth in an open carriage as she led her troops down the Mall.
The Palace of Westminster has more armed police on duty since the attack in March which killed PC Keith Palmer and four others as well as the attacker himself, but is otherwise unchanged. The bars, restaurants and high- end food stalls at Borough Market, near London Bridge, were back in business soon after the attack there. And Finsbury Park was bustling hours after this week’s attack.
But the attacks have left their mark, as parents worry a little more about their children coming home late, and everyone is a little more sensitive to loud bangs or sudden movements.
Spate of attacks
Above all, the spate of attacks has robbed London of its confidence that Britain’s world-class security services and exemplary community relations made the city safer from terrorism than other European capitals. After the co-ordinated suicide bombings on July 7th, 2005, which killed 52 people, London escaped large-scale terrorism until this year. When Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Nice were hit by Islamist violence, London was on alert too but it seemed to have been spared.
The British public tolerates state surveillance powers that would be regarded as intrusive in other European countries and is proud of the effectiveness of agencies such as MI5, the security service, and GCHQ, which is responsible for electronic surveillance. Community relations in London are incomparably better than in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam or even Berlin, and Muslims are not widely viewed with suspicion. London’s Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan is the most popular politician in the city and one of the most popular in the country.
But neither the security services nor these good community relations have been able to protect London from the latest attacks, two committed by radical Islamists and the third an attack on Muslims. London may not be “reeling” from terrorism but it is dazed and sweltering after the longest, most intense heatwave since 1976 pushed temperatures into the 30s for days.
Hot weather means long afternoons in Regent’s Park, Pimms on the terrace and pints on the street. It also brings scary delays on the Tube, sweaty suits, sleepless nights and short tempers.
It was during a hot night last week that Grenfell Tower started to burn, slowly at first but then at great speed, the flames apparently carried upwards by flammable cladding that surrounded the building.
A few hours later, the upper floors were still burning, pumping out thick clouds of smoke across west London. A wide area around the tower block was cordoned off, and inside the perimeter the police and fire service were doing their work with courage and efficiency.
Outside the cordon, nobody was in charge, as neighbours and other volunteers cared for survivors and evacuees in church halls, mosques and a local gym. For days after the fire, the state seemed to have abandoned the residents of Grenfell Tower, just as it had ignored their repeated warnings about the building’s safety.
I was reminded of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where I witnessed the same sense of abandonment and betrayal. In New Orleans, it was the poorest who were left most vulnerable when the levees broke and who were stranded in the Superdome for days without food and water as they waited for the government to rescue them.
At Grenfell Tower, an enclave of poverty in one of the richest boroughs in England, nobody doubted that their warnings about safety were more easily ignored be- cause the residents were relatively poor and powerless.
And although the response of the emergency services on the night of the fire was exemplary, the local council was invisible in the days that followed. In New Orleans, the distress was heightened by a lack of information about the fate of loved ones as families were separated and often dispersed to different parts of the country.
At Grenfell, the survivors’ anguish was compounded by the glacial pace at which information about the dead was released and the fact that the information was sometimes wrong, with the dead or missing marked on some lists as having been accounted for. Hurricane Katrina created the biggest crisis of George W Bush’s presidency as he faced criticism for remaining on holiday at his 1,600-acre estate in Texas while his government did little to help the victims in the days after the storm hit. When he finally decided to return to Washington to deal with the disaster, Bush was pictured looking out of the window of Air Force One at the flooded city of New Orleans below.
Theresa May visited Grenfell the day after the fire but she met only emergency workers, with Downing Street citing security concerns to explain why she met none of the residents of the tower block. A grainy, long- lens, still photograph of her talking to the emergency services became her Air Force One image, fuelling charges that she lacks empathy.
Soon after the prime minister left, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrived at Grenfell, meeting volunteers and residents and pictured hugging a woman who had lost a relative in the fire. The following day, Queen Elizabeth and Prince William were there, chatting to residents and torpedoing May’s excuse about security.
As criticism mounted, May scrambled to respond effectively to the disaster, taking control of the operation from Kensington and Chelsea council, promising a public inquiry and ensuring that all Grenfell’s residents had money and shelter.
Here too, the prime minister was following the Bush playbook, which saw him take decisive action eventually – but too late to expunge the first impression of official indifference.
Hurricane Katrina persuaded many Americans that, in the words of Kanye West, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Grenfell has reinforced the impression that the Conservatives don’t care enough about poor people.
The Conservative- controlled Kensington and Chelsea council has reserves of £209 million, £42 million more than projected, partly due to cost savings. Three years ago, the council gave those who paid council tax at the full rate a rebate of £100, explaining that careful management of resources meant there was money to spare. There was none, however, to install sprinkler systems in Grenfell Tower, as a resident of the borough wrote in a letter to the
Guardian last week.
“As the toxic ash of Grenfell Tower’s vanity cladding falls over the neighbouring streets, we are left with the acrid truth in our throats: regeneration in the Royal Borough is in fact a crime of greed and selfishness. I took the refund. At the time, I felt uncomfortable with this decision and the ways in which I justified it to myself. And then I forgot about it, until the smoke drifting into my flat in the early hours of Wednesday woke me up. Today, I gave it back. It wasn’t ever mine to keep. I handed it over in cash to a vicar running a refuge for the victims of the fire in a local church,” the letter said.
Terrorist attacks remind Londoners of what they like about the city – its diversity, robustness, good humour and sheer sang- froid. But Grenfell has highlighted the underside of a city fuelled by the internationalisation of capital with an acute housing crisis and spiralling inequality.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo has seen London give big victories to Labour, with Khan’s election as mayor last year and in this month’s general election, when the party won 39 of the city’s 73 seats, capturing three from the Conservatives.
London voted to remain in the European Union in last year’s referendum and although an economic study this week found that the capital will be less adversely affected than areas which voted Leave, the prospect of a hard Brexit is alarming, especially for the million EU nationals living in the city.
May’s proposal to EU leaders in Brussels this week would allow most EU nationals in Britain to become permanent residents but the status of that offer is uncertain if Brexit talks end without a deal.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people working in financial services in the City fear for their jobs as one company after another makes plans to move some operations from London to cities such as Frankfurt and Dublin.
Friday’s anniversary of the referendum passed almost unnoticed in London but Brexit haunts the city with fear of an economic downturn, a further depreciation of sterling and another squeeze on living standards.
As May struggles to put together a minority government propped up by the DUP, it’s not just the heatwave that brings back memories of the 1970s. There is an edge of anxiety in the air but the barrage of terrorist attacks and the Grenfell disaster have left London punch drunk, slightly stunned but still standing and waiting for the next blow to fall.
Main: the shell of the Grenfell Tower block as local residents look on in North Kensington; left, from top: London is sweltering after the longest, most intense heatwave since 1976; an anti-government protest on Wednesday; Friday’s anniversary of the Brexit vote passed almost unnoticed but the EU exit haunts the city.