Following the disaster, the battle for the truth of Grenfell has started. The focus is now on the nature of the inquiry with concerns being raised over its leadership and conduct. As a direct result of his actions as part of the judiciary the Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is viewed with deep suspicion and the initial meeting with residents was fractious. Centre stage is an apprehension that the scope of the inquiry will be limited to just the local circumstances of North Kensington and not wider issues of social housing.
In previous blogs (here and here) I have suggested why Government and media will want a strictly limited inquiry based on a woeful deficit of democratic accountability. But there is another reason for scepticism. Any comprehensive investigation must surely highlight the role of the media in using immigrants as a tool to drive their regressive agenda of slashing public servicess while giving tax cuts to the wealthy.
The Murdoch (The Sun and The Times) and Rothermere (Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday) owned press are the obvious culprits, but we must not ignore the role of the BBC in giving continuing prominence to UKIP and its erstwhile (and future?) leader Nigel Farage despite fast fading support and no Parliamentary representation. The focus has been on how immigrants are responsible for everything from an inability for people to get GP appointments, through jumping social hosing queues, to being responsible for clogging up motorways!
But the aim of papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph goes beyond simple populist xenophobic demonisation for its own sake and is really a tool for undermining public services. Services, by the way, used by ALL of us. These papers are implicitly, but effectively, promoting the idea that the populations of weldare states do not want to share their prosperity with others who they perceive as not ‘being like them’ The argument is essentially: if the immigrants get all the public goodies then why should we pay for public services? Consequently, support for redistribution of wealth withers as ethnic diversity, driven by migration, grows. As support for public services and a willingness to defend them wanes so the argument for cutting taxes for the rich, even in a time of austerity, can prosper. Here in a nutshell is the aim of the oligarchical press. More inequality, more wealth for the 1% and the less well-off, indigenous and immigrants alike suffer. All built on a perception of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, NOT the facts!
The Grenfell Tower catastophe is where the overt xenophobic element of the media agenda converged with with the associated undermining of support for public services. Regulation influenced by corporations, cheap materials, outsourced safety checks and an attitude of anything goes The reports of other councils such as Camden has revealed the true extent of the crisis, but it extends well beyond hosuing. For example, why should I support an NHS if immigrants clog it up and I cannot access the service I paid for? So the case for a privatised service is advanced with the wealthy able to affors care and associated big profits for the peers of the paper owners.
A former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Nick Pearce examined the issue in an article entitled Diversity vesus Solidarity: A Progressive Dilemma!. He stated:
Attention to the drivers of public perception on race and migration. the role of the media in shaping public opinion on race, immigration and ethnic diversity is well documented but relatively poorly researched (particularly in relation to specific groups such as asylum seekers).
How many more Grenfells must there be before the real aim of the media agenda is understood and exposed?
That the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound human tragedy is beyond dispute. Likewise, by general consent, the response of the non-emergency authorities was far from acceptable. A remote and out-of-touch local council which suppressed opposition by disregarding it or actively mocking the attempt of representatives to challenge decisions. An inability to fully grasp the enormity of the problem and slapping away offers of help was mirrored by a central Government slow to react and seemingly incapable of displaying any understanding for the plight of homeless and bereaved citizens.
Now that a period of reflection is setting in, many officials are still in denial, repeating the mantra that we need to wait for a full inquiry before we know the cause of the blaze. Within a narrow remit of the local conditions in Kensington and wider building regulations there is some sense in this, but you cannot escape the feeling that the aim is to delay and hope that by the time an inquiry reports back someone else will be in charge.
Representative democracy alone is failing us.
In an earlier post I pointed out that we need a complete rethink of rights and resources which can be wielded by citizens and civil organisations. But the possibility of such a review was immediately cast into doubt by the actions of Theresa May. A few days after the disaster and clearly feeling the weight of public anger and resentment she agreed to meet with representatives of the victims. But where was the meeting held? In the privacy of Downing Street, which presumably left May in her comfort zone but must have been at least a little daunting to the representatives. So why not at a neutral venue? There is no doubt that neighbouring local authorities would have been willing to have hosted such a meeting at short notice given the enormity of the disaster. But I think there is something deeper at work here than just another example of the lack of insensitivity to citizens by the Prime Minister. It displays a fundamental fear by politicians of losing power or control; an inability to share authority where it really matters most.
If the Windsors were quoted on the stock market then the past few weeks would have been what the analysts term a ‘rollercoater’ Firstly, Elizabeth Windsor visits the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the WinDaq rises rapidly as she is reported as ‘showing Theresa May how sympathy is done’. But then it all spins hopelessly downwards.
In a series of interviews Harry Windsor paints the Royals as victims of a grotesque system ‘enduring’ privilege while not wanting the responsibility which comes with it. In a twist of fate, that argument is actually similar to the one Republicans such as myself deploy, that the archaic monarchy really benefits no-one. So the WinDaq falls. Last week it hit rock bottom as it was revealed that the royals share of the Crown Estates profits will net them a very healthy revenue increase. This is in the same week as the Conservative/DUP deal highlights the dire state of public service funding.
But lets focus on one single moment, courtesy of Harry in an interview reported in the Daily Mail which actually reveals something fundamental. He muses on the point of the yoyals, concluding
‘We don’t want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good.’
It is difficult to see whether this comes from a place of ignorance or naivety. Harry seems blissfully unaware that what is ‘good’ has been the hottset of political hot potatoes for centuries (maybe millennia). He is effectively saying he wants the Windsors to be overtly involved in politics (as if they weren’t already). Straight away there is a problem. For me the monarchy is bad because it represents a fundamental inequality, a secretive and manipulative private interest which distorts the heart of our Government. So ‘good’ for me is a constitutional Head of State accountable to the people.
For centuries the battle lines over what is good has been framed in terms of the balance of individual and state. Libertarians would argue that what is good is few laws and low taxes with a small state since only the people themselves truly know what is best for them. A socialist may argue that what is best is a larger state with higher taxes falling on the wealthiest in order that a redistribution of wealth gives even the poorest a better chance of the good life. There are many other possibilities besides, especially involving the definition of freedom as I have argued elsewhere in my blog. Harry must appreciate he is in a most precarious of positions being afforded a huge level of personal privilege and freedom while being funded by the state. If he doubts this he just need to consider the freedom of action available to people using foodbanks!
It seems the approach Harry wants to take is that of Charles Windsor who pontificates on what is ‘good’ while suppressing debate and dodging accountability. He does this in a number of ways but most commonly by making interviewers sign a 15-page contract effectively handing editorial control to Clarence House. Nowhere is this more focused than on climate change. Charles Windsor calls for allocation of resources to Green projects without the difficulty of saying where those resources will come from who will be the ‘losers’.
If Harry Windsor really wants to ‘do good’ as he says then as the campaign group Republic urges, he must, give up his royal status and argue for what he believes in. But he will find the court of public contestability and accountability a harsher arena than the one to which he is accostomed. Just as it should be!
The deal the Conservative Party struck with the Democratic Unionists to retain their Commons majority raised some interesting issues about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.
In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservatives since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May. In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May. You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.
Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government. Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover. Neo-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it. Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexit for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American right wing politics, David Brooks. A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (the Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May). To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make an effective impact. As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.
The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame. Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks. But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.
The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country. During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.
Firstly the terrorist attacks. As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers appeared in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough. Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities. The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers. Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.
Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions. Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed. But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change. What is needed is a nationwide culture shift
So again, it is an issue of resources. The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things done. The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost. Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell. Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.
The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).
Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies. Time for true methods of contestability in this country.
Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…
John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)
Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionary I find particularly useful:
…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.
From Milton to Shelley….
Some writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:
I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..
Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)
Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later. Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post. Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant. II started with England in 1819 a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.