THE SATURDAY ESSAY: Political opportunism and the Grenfell Disaster


The cynical politics of Grenfell Tower are getting in the way of calm analysis. In this special, The Slog tries to highlight what really went wrong five weeks ago, and why political football will only make it easier for the guilty to escape.

As he ascended the tree on his way to the top of the emigré Bolsheviks during the First World War, the soon-to-be Russian leader Lenin made it clear in his speeches and writing what sort of government Communists would form. The word coined eventually was ‘totalitarian’, but the Lenin version that preceded it made its intentions obvious:

“It is true that liberty is a precious commodity….so precious, in fact, that it must be rationed. Personal liberty is a privilege no political revolution can accept, because every liberty is in the end political”.

Here – and in hundreds of other utterances in his life – Comrade Ulyanov was rendering more specific the original Marxist dictum, “all things are by definition political”.
Had Marxist-Leninist thought contained even the slightest thread of liberal opportunity and personal freedom in its coat of many colours, then it would have immediately rejected the idea of universally political “things”. That it didn’t do so should lead every sane student of history to an obvious conclusion: Communism is about maximising the leverage of political opportunism, not maximising the fulfilment of the individual.

It is certainly true that all things can be made political if you are minded so to do; but this is merely a case of getting one’s ducks in a row before shooting them. Sexual orientation has been rendered political by LibLefts hellbent on creating sympathy via vulnerability, but it should be a personal issue of no interest to the State beyond the protecting their rights as citizens – without turning it into a question of identity.

Over the last forty years – accelerating during the 21st century – the harder Left has used such opportunism to disguise its branding, and distract from one overriding reality: with it’s multicoloured coat stripped away, Communism remains an ideology obsessed with the ‘need’ to subordinate the individual, family and community to the State. As such, it has very limited appeal at the ballot box.

This exercise in repackaging to hide what’s inside has taken many forms, and they are easy to list: gender, sexual orientation, climate, internationalism, multiculturalism, education…..the list goes on and on. During the recent British general election, bringing these essentially opportunistic issues out to maximise voter sympathy became almost an art form – led by Momentum, and focused upon the alleged reality of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personality’: that of a “nice” man who is completely genuine, and concerned only to right wrongs against those trampled underfoot by capitalism.

In promoting that idealised image and agenda, the hard left that supports Corbyn was extremely fortunate in the Government it took on….a government riddled with equally petrified socio-economic views, and just as determined as the Corbynistas to present itself as wanting an egalitarian Britain. On a range of issues – fiscal management, use of taxation funds, balancing the economy, genuine employment growth, foreign policy, arms sales and the utterly unjustified bullying of society’s most vulnerable in the name of pointless austerity – the Conservatives were the side of a rickety barn facing well organised sharpshooters armed to the teeth, and Labour’s exploitation of such arrogant weakness rightly left the Bad Ship Mayflower drifting aimlessly with a mutinous crew on board.

This has enabled many soi-disant “thinkers” on the Left (like the largely risible Owen Jones, professional gruff northerner Paul Mason and Momentum fuhrer John Lansman) to peddle the myth – largely accepted by The Guardian – that “capitalism has failed the world”. This is nonsense: what has actually become apparent is the failure of globalist corporate imperialism to deliver fulfilment to anybody much beyond the astonishingly consistent 3% on every continent who end up owning everything.

This is economic élitism gone mad, but it is not capitalism: any system that reduces mass consumption through austerity, crushes entrepreneural competition and offers almost nobody any earnings on their capital is glaringly obviously not capitalism. It may well be a kind of suicidal zombie banana republic writ large, but is not capitalism as we or any other genuinely objective group might know it, Jim.

What we are really seeing in the United Kingdom at the moment is young/naive/desperate/habitual/decent/old/Leftist citizens coming together in the hope that they can improve their lot by replacing a track record of deaf élite greed with a track record of deaf totalitarian incompetence. I welcomed Corbyn’s arrival on the scene, because I saw it as a necessary democratic check upon an increasingly antediluvian, deranged Tory Party. But now we have the measure of the bloke and his army, the threat is as bad on the Left as it is on the Right.

To suggest otherwise seems to me to ignore the obvious past in favour of a spun present. Jeremy is for more democracy, say his entourage: but Corbyn’s position at the head of the Labour Party is based on a concerted Momentum strategy of exploiting Labour’s leadership electorate by flooding it with fellow-travelling recruits. Jeremy wants to hear all sides of opinion, he insists: but his supporters cannot contain their relish for deselection of soft Left MPs at the earliest opportunity. People buying into this image of The Great Democrat should ask Mr Corbyn what his position on proportional representation is. What they shouldn’t do is hold their breath in expectation of a positive declaration about it.

Jeremy is not good, in fact, at saying what he thinks: the prospect of power does that to politicians. He is supposed to be a man immune to the siren calls of political opportunism: but he denied his long-held distaste for the EU throughout both the referendum and the General Election. In the same way, he has serially evaded the question of Britain’s nuclear defence policy.

It simply won’t do to blame all the evidence of Corbyn’s illustrious Hard Left past as media smears. He supported and befriended the IRA, an organisation dedicated to the profession of violence and creation of terror. His claims to have brought them to the negotiating table are beyond silly: the IRA caved in because US support dried up after 9/11. He was an unrepentent supporter of Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro, as well as the PLO, Hamas and indiscriminate Arab violence against Israeli citizens over the decades. I hold no candle for Israeli settlers or Benjamin Netanyahu; I merely point out that Jesus Corbyn’s support for undemocratic and violent State takeovers is second to none. To ignore it is to ignore a whopping great hairy mammoth in the understairs loo.

Late last year, for example, Momentum quietly dumped its commitment to non-violent political action. Did we hear any condemnation from the Labour leader? We did not.

Britain needs a cultural, ethical, moral and communitarian rebore at the very earliest opportunity. It is clearly never going to get that from the Conservative Party. I doubt if any Establishment organisation would ever do it, to be honest: the oligarchs at national level have far too much to lose. The question for voters at the next election is whether they really think they’re going to get it from Momentum Corbyn Labour.

My answer to that is that they will never find opportunity and fulfilment from a radically socialist Government, because such governments always – without historical exception – produce no freedom to think, write, choose, criticise or lampoon the ideologues who come to the fore. They lower living standards, reduce productivity, dilute the rule of law, and (as Solzhenytsin so cryptically observed) they neither stint their own privilege nor admit their mistakes.

And in the current UK context, that sounds to me uncannily like “Meet the new Boss – same as the old boss”.

As the foregoing might smack of being nothing more than macro sermonising, I’d like for the rest of this essay to focus on the leading micro-example of opportunism we see before us in Britain: the Grenfell Tower disaster.

I realise only too well that the position I’ve taken on the Tower fire is at odds with the feelings of most people in relation to the incident. I make no apology for that: I have been involved in and researched infinitely more government SNAFUs than “most people”, and I have dealt both privately and professionally with Whitehall and Westminster for nearly 30 years. My conclusion from this experience is that it is the culture of British government (far more than the politics) that usually lies behind cockups. It is important to remember that (a) Ministers rely upon the advice of so-called expert advice from civil servants and other consultants most of the time and (b) this advice, far too often, is the result of ignorance, incompetent analysis and corruption involving both officials and suppliers.
This past week I have devoted several hours to reconstructing and then analysing all the questions being asked by the media and others about the Grenfell Tower tragedy. That process raises a number of damning unknowns. The bad news for political opportunists is that the signs mainly suggest, as usual, malign administrative factors rather than those resulting from political policy.

The starting point, odd as it may seem, is who was in the building and why were they there. Grenfell Tower was a form of social housing built in 1974 to house council tenants, but over time the wellbeing of the tenants was passed to a management company. On the night of the disaster, 350 people were there, of which 255 survived and 14 were out or away.

The agreements signed by tenants expressly forbid subletting, but it has now emerged that over 25% of all the flats there were in fact sublet. In an extraordinary announcement two weeks ago, the Government made it clear that nobody involved in those practices would be held to account for their actions.

This is a bizarre decision – very clearly ‘media tactical’ in nature – given that the sublettings took place with the connivance of old tenants, new tenants and several prominent estate agents – and had gone unnoticed by the management company. Before any formal enquiry has even been started, four groups involved in bad behaviour are thus to be exonerated.

This is more germain than some commentators are prepared to admit. The fire started inside a flat (not in the communal areas) and so the nature of its residents becomes an issue.

The flat fire was caused by a faulty fridge-freezer. The government has ordered immediate testing of the Hotpoint model involved, but we already know it was at least nine years old. All electrical durables in private lettings must be tested annually: was this model tested? Did the management company know who the tenants were? Were they sub-lettees?

The Left made much play in the early days of Council/Management company deafness in relation to residents’ concerns about fire safety, but those concerns were about communal areas and overall design/escape exits, not electrical durables. None of those concerns (even though the chances are they were well-founded) was relevant to the actual fire when it happened.

Another immediate conclusion-jump was to start hounding Boris Johnson on the subject of fire service cuts. While I would gladly deport Johnson permanently to Elba, there is little or no evidence that his policies exacerbated the situation. The fire brigade was called early (just before 1 am) and arrived in under 15 minutes. The fire was already out of control when they got there, but despite this the crews’ bravery saved 65 lives – some of them on the 12th floor, a mission that bordered on the suicidal. The entire building was engulfed within 90 minutes, but the fire brigade’s arrival was extremely prompt and in massive numbers.

The brigade’s ladders did not go beyond the 12th floor. That is a crucial reason why more people were not saved and the fire took over 24 hours to control. But it is mainly rising smoke that kills in such a fire: very few people above the 12th floor stood a chance of survival if they weren’t out within 45 minutes.

Why tower blocks rise to that level while fire brigade ladders don’t is an issue that has been with us since the 1960s. The suggestion that one political Party bears responsibilty is ridiculous: planning approvals, building regs and lack of governing class responses to umpteen public enquires over the years are clearly culpable….as are the architects and engineers who declared them safe.

Other problems cited by crews included low water pressure, radio problems and equipment that was either lacking or did not arrive before the fire got out of control. The war in Iraq demonstrated clearly that Whitehall (not Westminster) took idiotic weapons and supply decisions that resulted in British soldiers dying from landmines and “friendly fire”, and that poor US/UK military liaison was a compounding factor. The jury must remain out on those allegations: but I can confidently predict that poor commissioning of equipment will turn out to be at the root of it, because it always is. 95% of that is a civil service bloomer, not a Ministerial one.

I turn now to the cladding issue. Again, the Left insisted that the cladding was purely aesthetic and designed to mollify the concerns of nearby private residents – ie, middle class Tory voters inclined to get snooty about working class amenities. But the Department for Communities and Local Government has since discovered that 14 residential high-rise buildings in 9 local authority areas have the same insufficient cladding. And this is early days yet: one local authority source told me she expected “upwards of 70 structures” to be in the same or similar condition as regards insulation materials.

The aesthetics claim was a myth: the outer product involved is an extremely efficient heat loss controller, and behind it in Grenfell Tower sat a thick layer of insulating material.

This insulating material has been fingered by the police already as far more flammable than the outer cover. Even more relevant (and damning) however is the reality that the combo itself was woefully insufficient for the needs of a tower block.

Go to the producer’s website, and you will see – clearly stated – a rating for it of 2a. The fire resistance requirement for such buildings is either 1a or 1b – that is to say, completely non-flammable.

Documents leaked to the BBC show that the zinc cladding originally proposed was replaced with a final aluminium type, saving nearly £300,000. This does suggest very strongly that penny-pinching was a contributory factor in the rapid spread of the fire. But that is potential private sector greed, not a direct political issue. There is no evidence whatsoever that any political  pressure was brought to bear upon the contractors.
Rather, the questions raised by this finding are apolitical and obvious:

1. What did the fire regs specify, and were they obeyed?
2. Was the switch made with or without the knowledge of the planning office involved?
3. If it was done with their knowledge, why was it passed as OK?
4. Did the product supplier know what the cladding was to be used for? If yes, did they raise the alarm? If not, why not?

Remove the political conclusion-jumping from this media event (for that is what it quickly became) and a much sharper focus for the enquiry emerges, viz:

* Was the surveillance of proper tenant procedures at Grenfell Tower inadequate?
* Should tower blocks above a certain height be banned and/or should fire crews be issued with and trained in the use of far taller ladders?
* Is there evidence of corruption between management company, developer, product supplier and local authority staff?
* Are the building regs on tall buildings tough enough, and are the processes for ensuring their fulfilment at all times adequate?

For myself, these represent near-rhetorical questions. They’re based on the things likely to have been causal factors….not a witch hunt designed to nail a political policy, a Minister, a Mayor, or an architect of austerity.

Just as I deplore and detest the use of child images as propaganda in the Middle East and on the subject of European migration, I find the use of a community distaster to further blatantly political aims disgusting. It is sub judice trial by media of the kind that is bad enough when gargoyles like Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan are involved, but utterly unpalateable when hypocritical, opportunistic activists start fanning the flames.

Nobody should doubt my concerted and consistent opposition to this Government’s ludicrous primary school economics and ill-formed opinions on fiscal management. Their pointless and cruel effect on the sick, poor, disabled and aged is an outcome for which there is no excuse.

But just as there was no excuse for the police State designed to protect Tsarism, there was no excuse for Lenin to create a revolution whose sole purpose at times seemed to be revenge. Lenin used what he called “useful bourgeois idiots” to get his way. My feeling is that Corbyn and Momentum are using a loose alliance of the decent, vulnerable and naive to promote themselves now.

It may have come too late for the General Election, but Grenfell Tower has been used by the contemporary Left to score points, rather than place the blame where it belongs: on our culture of business and government.

To place blame fairly and then change practices is a far more difficult process than the pursuance of political agendas. To provide real justice for those who deserve it is a task for considered philosophy, not ideologically driven opportunism.

I predict with justified confidence that blind eyes will be employed to protect the privileged as the enquiry into Grenfell Tower proceeds. I am equally sure that further propagandised accusations will be made by the media. Such things too are part of the culture we inhabit. That culture will not be reformed effectively by either of our major political Parties, for the simple reason that their dogma will always shit on our dolma*.

*Dolma is a form of minced beef, as in ‘dolmades’