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So much has been written in praise of Andrew O’Hagan’s epic investigation/essay on Grenfell, published last week in the London Review of Books, that there is a danger of repetition and journalistic over indulgence. Having read it – The Tower – over the weekend, I will say only that it as impressive and arresting a piece of writing as the reviews suggest. Clear the time, turn off your phone, and read it.
But it is more than a gripping read on a terrible tragedy. Occasionally, a piece of journalism appears packing such a punch that it alters the narrative and changes political perceptions. The Tower is so measured and considered in its verdicts on terrified politicians and the main players that when the condemnations come they are all the more damning.
Indeed, anyone interested in the public realm and the condition of our politics, in the ghastliness of our celebrity culture, our harried media’s inability to handle complexity and nuance, and the way in which social media supercharges dark, ancient mob justice instincts, should read it and reflect.
The council made mistakes, of course. On the cladding it was the same mistake made by many other councils, and the scandal over why it happened will be unravelled fully, one suspects, only in years of court cases after the public inquiry.
On the night, individual fire officers performed with bravery, but the account makes clear that serious operational failings cost many of the lives. The building should and could have been evacuated shortly after it was clear the initial fire was out of control. At the public inquiry today it was confirmed this should have happened within 46 minutes of the initial 999 call.
But the real power of the piece – beyond the stories of the dead and the survivors – lies in the way O’Hagan shows that the established narrative about the uselessness of the council and its staff was plain wrong. Dedicated staff in departments such as social work and housing were there in large numbers from the start. Rather than being aided by national government, the centre – Whitehall and Westminster – seemed more worried about protecting their own reputations.
Here’s a description of a conference call with senior council figures and central government:
“Holgate was due to take part in a telephone meeting with the prime minister, Sajid Javid and other ministers that Friday at 3 p.m. It had been arranged by Number 10. Just before it began, Barradell warned Holgate that one of the ministers, probably the prime minister, was going to suggest in the course of the call that the Grenfell survivors be promised that they would be rehoused within the next two or three weeks. Holgate was gobsmacked: it wasn’t possible for any council anywhere to find homes for so many people in that time. ‘You can’t reject this,’ Barradell said. According to my sources, the telephone conversation – May and Javid speaking, Holgate assumed, from a cabinet briefing room; Holgate and Barradell gathered around a box on a table in the town hall – was about what could practicably be offered to the victims. The prime minister was keen that action should be decisive; it was put to the two town clerks that people should be told they would be rehoused in either two or three weeks. Laura Johnson, the borough’s head of housing, had made the point elsewhere that day that victims would not feel ready to make a decision about housing for some time yet. It was too big a decision and many of them were very traumatised. She had decades of experience with tenants. Rock Feilding-Mellen said that experienced housing officers had told him the same thing, ‘that the people who’d lost their flats would quite rightly need time before reaching such an important decision, and they had every right to have that time.’ But the ministers insisted.”
On to the band wagon jumped activists. Journalists, as we do, gave airtime to the loudest and most passionate voices. The public sector worker who says in The Tower that they will never vote again having experienced the Crucible-like atmosphere, poor reporting in the weeks after the fire and political cowardice has a point.
In the story of the aftermath there are uncomfortable truths for all of us allegedly sophisticated Westminster watchers and hacks like me. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid is a rising star right now and he emerges badly from the account. As does the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who is thought of in some circles as a potential Labour leader.
Anyone – anyone – thinking of running for high office would do well to spend half a day uninterrupted reading and pondering The Tower.
They will find that, least surprisingly, a clearly shell-shocked post-election Prime Minister seems to have been adrift. As a shy person with limited emotional intelligence, May clearly struggled mid-emergency to sift the chancers from the real victims. Those who present themselves as “the community” often aren’t, or they are only part of it and no vote was taken giving them special status to speak with authority.
Corbyn has a walk on part and just comes across as a twit.
This disaster was difficult to deal with, of course. The atmosphere post-Grenfell was toxic. Seventy two people had lost their lives. Yet that meant – or should have done – that anyone intervening had a moral duty, a moral responsibility, to ensure that they proceeded calmly with reference to the established facts at all times.
Instead, there was the spectacle of virtue-signalling celebrity muppetry that even by the standards of these weird times was muppetry on a grand scale, set against a deadly serious backdrop. Pop stars such as Lily Allen and Mr Stormzy (where’s the money for Grenfell? being dispersed, actually) piled in.
Worse, some MPs who should have known better should read the account and reflect. Here is O’Hagan on David Lammy MP.
“David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham and a family friend of the artist Khadija Saye, accused the authorities of covering up the ‘true’ number of the dead in order to prevent a riot. ‘Trust is at rock bottom in the community,’ he said. ‘Failure to provide updates of the true number that died is feeding suspicion of a cover-up.’ ‘Residents saw dozens of people jumping out of windows to escape the fire.’ ‘Bodies piled up in stairwells and corridors.’ When Emily Maitlis of Newsnightasked Lammy to justify these comments, he retreated in a welter of compassion for those who ‘witnessed it’. ‘I wasn’t there,’ he said.”
And on Emma Dent Coad, the local MP and former councillor who had sat on the TMO.
“But something strange began to happen. A feeling turned into a slogan, and suddenly the ‘narrative’ the social workers talked about later was in place: the council was on a mission to neglect. At one level, the narrative was connected with something both the public and the media wanted: a story of our austere times, a totemic unfairness myth. Then, as one of the housing officers put it, Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington, ‘starts saying to the press “the council isn’t here,” and it was absurd.’ Council workers on the ground felt she was treating the whole thing as if it were a political game. They say they’d brought in everybody they had and were working with all departments to provide support. ‘We were going from rest centre to rest centre, and we started to worry that people weren’t coming down anymore because of what Dent Coad and others were saying’.”
The Tower will, I assume, be turned into a book. It should be. In fact, the government should send a copy to every home in the country. It would constitute a much better use of public money than that Brexit booklet they sent during the referendum.