The Gren­fell tragedy was all about class – don’t let any­one tell you dif­fer­ent

The Scotsman - - Perspective - Dar­ren Mc­gar­vey

If the tragedy at Gren­fell Tower has re­vealed any­thing other than in­dus­trial scale in­com­pe­tence, it’s the deep so­cial di­vide at the heart of Bri­tish so­ci­ety. Un­sur­pris­ingly, in the days that fol­lowed, the de­bate opened along class lines. Some came down on the side of the com­mu­nity, ar­gu­ing they had been ig­nored, dis­missed and placed at risk be­cause they were poor. Oth­ers, on the side of the state, urged calm un­til the ex­perts had cast their ob­jec­tive eye over the events and dis­cov­ered the facts.

Re­gard­less of the prox­i­mate cause of the Gren­fell fire, we can say with ab­so­lute cer­tainty that the con­flu­ence of neg­li­gence that pre­ceded this tragedy is a di­rect re­sult of po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion – a cen­tral tenet of so­cial depri­va­tion. This is to say, peo­ple liv­ing in con­di­tions of poverty find it harder to par­tic­i­pate in the po­lit­i­cal process, for myr­iad rea­sons, and when they do, they are much eas­ier to ig­nore.

This was typ­i­fied in the chill­ingly pre­scient words, writ­ten in Novem­ber 2016, of the same in­trepid blog­ger the coun­cil threat­ened with le­gal ac­tion, which read: ‘It is a truly ter­ri­fy­ing thought, but the Gren­fell Ac­tion Group firmly be­lieve that only a cat­a­strophic event will ex­pose the in­ep­ti­tude and in­com­pe­tence of our land­lord.’

Not only that, but the same blog re­peat­edly warned about the risk pre­sented by spe­cific is­sues like the lack of fire es­capes, the pre­car­i­ous stair­well and the ‘stay put’ in­struc­tion which ap­pears to have played a fa­tal role in why peo­ple were not evac­u­ated sooner.

What’s been go­ing on in Gren­fell was a scan­dal be­fore the fire even kin­dled and it’s the same story up and down the coun­try. For those of you so ap­par­ently con­cerned with ra­tio­nal­ity, doesn’t it seem a tad ir­ra­tional to con­tinue to ig­nore the peo­ple who cor­rectly pre­dicted the fire? As for facts and ex­perts, the count­less warn­ings in pre­vi­ous years, about the gen­er­ally un­fit state of high-rise hous­ing stock as well as the risk posed by cuts to fire ser­vices, all seem per­ti­nent to me.

I think what the de­bate in the af­ter­math re­veals is that many well-mean­ing con­ser­va­tive-minded peo­ple ap­pear to mis­un­der­stand poverty – and the poor – at a fun­da­men­tal level. To them, the idea of po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion is hi­lar­i­ously naive. To them, democ­racy is about swan­ning into a polling booth ev­ery few years and vot­ing for which­ever party has most slav­ishly at­tempted to ac­com­mo­date their per­sonal con­cerns.

But for the Gren­fell Ac­tion Group, who re­peat­edly gave de­tailed warn­ings about safety risks in the build­ing over a pe­riod of years, it took a wee bit more ef­fort than that. Nearly a decade, in fact, and they were still ig­nored. Not only that, but they con­tinue to be ig­nored and spo­ken over de­spite be­ing ut­terly vin­di­cated – at the ex­pense of their own friends and fam­ily.

That’s why the Gren­fell fire is about po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion. These peo­ple were try­ing to get their most ba­sic safety needs on to some­one’s to-do list, only to be dis­missed, ig­nored and in­tim­i­dated. Had they been of higher so­cial stand­ing, it’s al­most cer­tain this would not have hap­pened – that’s why this is about poverty and don’t let any­body tell you any dif­fer­ent.

Poverty is about more than money. Poverty is like a grav­i­ta­tional field, com­pris­ing so­cial, eco­nomic, emo­tional and phys­i­o­log­i­cal forces. Ev­ery per­son’s es­cape ve­loc­ity is dif­fer­ent, rel­a­tive to their cir­cum­stances, but re­gard­less of how those in­di­vid­ual fac­tors, such as fam­ily or ed­u­ca­tion, may dif­fer be­tween in­di­vid­u­als, the forces that poverty brings to bear on a per­son will sub­tly di­rect the course of their life. That’s why we can ac­cu­rately de­ter­mine a child’s so­cial mo­bil­ity and life ex­pectancy based solely on their birth­weight and where they were born.

There is a grow­ing body of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that sug­gests poverty is more than an eco­nomic prob­lem. A re­cent study con­ducted by the Crit­ten­ton Women’s Union showed chronic stress, of the sort ex­pe­ri­enced by peo­ple liv­ing in daily poverty, “has im­pacts far be­yond diminu­tion of per­sonal agency, self­aware­ness, or un­der­stand­ing of oth­ers. It causes phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes in brain de­vel­op­ment that deeply af­fect the ways peo­ple re­act to the world around them”. The au­thor of

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