World questions British ‘crisis of trust’

Great fire: More people died in the Grenfell Tower fire than in the Fire of London of 1666.

In the wake of the hellish blaze that killed dozens in London, the UK began allocating blame. But foreign media pondered what the tragedy tells about deeper problems in British society.

The remains of Grenfell Tower continued to smoulder in west London yesterday. Police announced the confirmed death toll had risen to 17. And blame was starting to be apportioned.

Fingers were pointed at the council and housing association, who seem to have ignored residents’ warnings about fire safety. London MP David Lammy angrily called for justice.

“It is corporate manslaughter. That’s what it is,” he told BBC radio. “And there should be arrests made, frankly. It is an outrage.”

The opposition Labour Party criticised the government, which it said had “sat on” a report about fire safety in tower blocks, following two similar incidents. The prime minister, Theresa May, ordered a full public inquiry into the disaster.

But while this debate raged in the UK, newspapers outside Britain wondered what the fire said about the state of British society in the wake of last week’s shock election result, seen as a rejection of the status quo.

The Washington Post asked what the London fire tells us about the crisis in Western democracy. The New York Times said that the fire “shows why Britons don’t trust the system.”

The Post highlighted the comments of a Kensington pastor, Danny Vance. “The disparity in this country between rich and poor is disgusting,” he told the i newspaper. “This would not have happened in those £2m, £5m flats around the corner.”

There is a huge contrast between the poor council estates of North Kensington, where Grenfell Tower is located, and the surrounding luxury flats and houses. As Lammy also pointed out, Kensington is the richest borough in the UK.

And yet it seems that money could not be found to remedy residents’ safety concerns, while there are claims that controversial cladding was added to the building in part to improve the view from nearby, more expensive properties.

As The New York Times points out, the residents found those in charge “unresponsive”. The issue is not just one of income inequality, but also of unequal access to power, it says.

Are these papers right? Is the Grenfell fire really part of a wider story about inequality?

Raking the ashes

Absolutely, say some. It is no coincidence that the people who lived there were poor. They lacked money and they lacked influence; and the local — and perhaps national — government did not care as much about them as it did about their wealthy neighbours. This tragic event has exposed systemic inequality.

Calm down, argue others. It is wrong to politicize this terrible tragedy. Of course there were serious failings, but they were mistakes due to poor management and a lax attitude to health and safety regulations, not because the people who lived in this particular building were poor.

You Decide

  1. Was inequality to blame for the Grenfell fire?
  2. How can governments ensure that similar incidents do not happen in the future?

Activities

  1. In pairs, make a list of ten measures your school should take to prevent a fire.
  2. Research and write a report on three other disasters from modern history. In your conclusion, discuss whether there are any common features.

Some People Say...

“Things like this are going to keep happening if the poor are ignored in this city.”

— Pastor Danny Vance

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This is one of the worst disasters of its kind in recent history, which is why it has received press coverage around the world. It will take days or even weeks for fire fighters to search the building and many people are still missing. They do not expect to find anyone else alive inside the building.
What do we not know?
The inquiry announced by the prime minister will try to answer key questions such as how the fire started, why it spread so quickly and who is responsible for the failings that meant it was so deadly. The final loss of life may not be known for some time.

Word Watch

Death toll
The fire brigade warned that this would not be the final figure and said that it was expected to rise substantially in the coming days.
Warnings
A blog post by the Grenfell Action Group warned seven months ago that the building was at severe risk of fire, pointing to several failings in fire safety.
David Lammy
The MP for Tottenham has a friend who lived in the tower and is still missing.
Similar incidents
A fire in a tower block in south London in 2009 killed six people, while another in Southampton in 2010 killed two firefighters.
Crisis in Western democracy
Unexpected victories for Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA, as well as a large share of the vote for the far-right in France and other European countries, have led some to declare the West to be in crisis.
Cladding
Some experts have suggested that these exterior panels or the way in which they were fitted may have helped the fire spread.