Horrors are exposing crisis of trust
Summer is reaching its height and yet it feels as if Britain can’t get out from beneath a cloud of tragedy.
The country has barely had the chance to contemplate the wounding implications of last week’s disaster at the Grenfell Tower before a whole new set of difficult questions were raised by the attack on worshippers at Finsbury Park mosque yesterday morning.
With each successive horror, those questions grow more profound and troubling. Why are there people amongst us who would do us such harm? How can we protect a free way of life from indiscriminate attack? In trying to defend ourselves, have we emboldened bigots and isolated innocent minorities?
And, worst of all in the wake of the devastating fire in West London, the wake-up call at the cost of at least six dozen lives over the divisions being perpetuated by the way our economy functions.
The barrage of doubts undeniably has a corrosive effect. There can’t have been a time when public confidence in the people and institutions that lead and guide society has been so low. Even when the questions posed by the tragic events of the past few months are answered, that in itself should be a cause for concern.
Every bit of anguish, betrayal and rage voiced by the victims and their loved ones at Grenfell was entirely justified. The community has a right to expect more from their leaders, local and national, than what has been on offer until far too late.
They have understandably been left feeling as if a similar disaster in another part of the world – let a lone a wealthier part of their own city – might have been dealt with differently.
But what was concerning to watch in the aftermath of recent events was just how alienated people felt from the institutions that were there to help them – the ones that turned up.
Conspiracy theories about the response of police and firefighters spread in the immediate area and more widely on social media suggests a more profound lack of trust than I thought possible.
And the level of anger that greeted journalists who rushed to report on what was happening – not just tabloid newspapers, but the major broadcasters, too – should give us pause, given we’re already alive to the risk of misinformation from disreputable sources.
I’m not trying to gainsay the reaction of those caught up in a waking nightmare on their doorstep. But the depth of their feeling of betrayal can’t be acceptable or sustainable.
Lack of public trust in politicians, government and public institutions isn’t new. It has been on the rise for years, if not decades. But that suggests that opportunities to change the way things are done are being missed with evergreater frequency. The shock of the Brexit referendum result a year ago this week was supposed to offer Britain’s media and politicians a chance to consider how well they serve their society. In the 12 months since, despite an encouraging speech about a need to challenge “burning injustices” from a new Prime Minister, we haven’t seen much more in the way of candour.
Yesterday Brexit talks began with the government sticking to its position more or less unchanged, despite losing the argument in a general election.
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, acknowledged yesterday that a no-deal Brexit would be “very, very bad” but he could not step back from the cliff edge that the government is standing on, insisting there was some other outcome from talks in Brussels that could somehow be worse.
Rather than responding to the calls for a rethink on strategy from Ruth Davidson, Leave radicals like Boris Johnson seem to have simply stolen her “Open Brexit” rhetoric without changing their views in any way.
And despite owing much of their surge in the polls to Remain voters, Labour’s stance continues to converge with the government’s, with only the refusal to countenance a no-deal Brexit as the real point of difference.
The public were told that a comprehensive trade deal can be negotiated alongside Brexit until almost the moment that claim came into contact with reality on the first day of Brexit talks yesterday.
The public continues to be told that a trade and customs deal will reproduce the conditions the UK currently enjoys, and that it will cost Britain little, if anything.
And while the government has given up trying to put any kind of timetable on it, ministers continue to argue that cutting net migration to 100,000 per year is desirable and achievable, and can be done without significant cost to the economy.
The most charitable description of these positions is that they are hopelessly optimistic and naive. What is most concerning about those holding them is that they have neglected to prepare the public for the possibility of failure on any front.
When the UK is asked to pay a considerable sum of money in a divorce settlement, or forced to remain under the ambit of the European Court of Justice, or ends up with a Norway-style Brexit that delivers little on the strong borders rhetoric that many in the Leave campaign embraced, what then?
What will the consequences of that betrayal be, not just for whoever is in 10 Downing Street when the failure becomes evident, but for the whole political establishment that will have brought us to that point?
It is a question that will have to be confronted in a relatively short timescale, but perhaps the turbulent years ahead for the UK won’t offer the best opportunity to reflect on the lessons of the past year.
But it is difficult to see from our current vantage point how the country will arrive at the end of the period feeling more compassionately and ably led; better and more honestly informed; and more trusting of the structures and institutions that make up British society.
Maybe it’s just that the view is obscured by that cloud.
Victims of terrible recent events question whether institutions have their interests at heart, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
0 The despair and alienation felt by many affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster mirrors a wider disaffection