The Plastic Hippo

June 19, 2017



It is conceivable that during the early hours of last Wednesday morning returning from a game of football between France and England in Paris the previous evening, Prime Minister Theresa May on final approach to RAF Northolt might have glanced out of the window and witnessed flames lighting up the night sky above West London. Later, as her motorcade sped along the A40, perhaps her thoughts on England`s woeful defensive performance against 10 men were disturbed by the smell of acrid smoke. Then on the Westway, the burning cladding blowing across the carriageway might just have distracted her mind from what she needs to bribe the Democratic Unionist Party with in order to prolong her stay in Downing Street. We may never know at precisely what point, if indeed at all, she considered the game was well and truly up.

There are few things more repulsive than an attempt to turn human suffering to political advantage. One of the few things more repulsive than the politicising of disaster is an attempt to suppress criticism when human suffering and disaster has been directly and unequivocally caused by political decisions. Consider the politicians and newspaper proprietors who in the heat of a vicious election campaign, sought to find a causal link between the dreadful loss of life and terrible injuries caused by terrorist attacks with the demeanour of the leader of the Labour Party. Those same politicians and newspaper proprietors now heap indignant scorn upon anyone that dares to suggest that the Grenfell Tower disaster was anything other than an unfortunate accident or a random Act of God over which we cannot hope to have any influence; in other words, an exercise in the avoidance of both responsibility and blame.

This implied intervention by the Almighty is typified by the incorrect use and flippant coining of the word “tragedy”. When something horrible happens, it is a tragedy only because the horrible thing happening is inevitable. Horrible things happening that are preventable happen because of incompetence, ignorance or criminality and are not, in the strictest definition, tragedies. This notion goes back as far as Aristotle and if you are old enough to remember going to see a show by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, you will recall seeing a chorus troop on at the beginning and tell you exactly what was going to happen and why. Someone was about to have a disaster and it would be a tragedy because the Gods made the disaster inevitable…so there.

By the time of Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Gods had become God and the tragic flaw in dramatic heroes and villains was internal imperfection rather than divine malice. No longer helpless victims of fate, Shakespeare`s characters suffer downfall and disaster due to their own inevitable failings. Othello`s jealousy and willingness to trust fake news, Hamlet`s inability to take decisive action and Lear`s vanity and mistaken belief in opinion polls resulted in tragedy because they refused to listen to wiser counsel. Both Romeo and Juliet were doomed due to the impetuosity of youth and the utterly ridiculous idea that Capulet and Montague could live in peace in the same neighbourhood. Julius Caesar, guilty of arrogance and ambition ended up on the wrong end of a number of blades because not even Caesar is above the law. For any politician or political apologist to suggest that the circumstances and aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster is anything other than political is a display of breathtaking hypocrisy or evidence of astonishing ignorance.

The burnt-out ruin of Grenfell Tower stands, albeit briefly, as a metaphor for decades of British politics. Poorly designed and built in a hurry to meet an urgent need, there are thousands of these blocks across the nation. Most are beyond their sell-buy dates and some have been updated to a cosmetic brief rather than with a nod towards efficiency or safety even though local government expenditure is invariably justified by projected energy savings. Some schemes, especially those involving solar and even thermal energy, appear to be successful but the variation of competence and commitment from one local authority to another is more than worrying.

What makes the Grenfell fire political is not simply its location in a wealthy borough in a wealthy city in a wealthy country but is also due to increasing wealth inequality in the United Kingdom. The victims and their families seem to occupy a stratum of society that has been told to bear the brunt of political and economic failure. A politically motivated regime of dogmatic and unnecessary austerity has done nothing to improve the national economy and has made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Government protection of landlords and government harassment of tenants together with the removal of building regulations in order generate profit for the few rather than the safety of many is just about as political as it can get particularly as more than 70 Tory MPs who just happen to be landlords successfully voted against a bill that required landlords to provide accommodation that is fit for human habitation.

The issue is clearly political when the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea avoids any questions for five days and then claims to be as traumatised as anyone else and suggests that the residents of Grenfell Tower refused to have sprinklers installed and that it is difficult to deal with survivors who have English as a second language. This chap has said that he will not resign because he has to lead his community. The community; in, around and beyond Latimer Road organised food, clothing, money and shelter for the victims and the dispossessed.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and central government at Westminster did nothing apart from expressing gratitude to the emergency services. Ealing Council has just annexed Kensington and Chelsea in order to co-ordinate disaster relief.

The emergency services once again responded with astonishing professionalism and unbelievable courage. There are few things more repulsive than hearing a duplicitous politician who, in the name of austerity, praises the courage and professionalism of the emergency services after cutting and cutting again vital funding to those same emergency services. One thing more repulsive than even that is Boris Johnson who, as London Mayor, closed 10 fire stations and told a concerned London Assembly member to “get stuffed” when he was questioned about fire safety. David Cameron vowed to remove the “scourge of red tape” that was preventing construction companies making profit and, for good measure, cut billions of funding to local authorities. When similar fires occurred in high-rise buildings in the past, lessons were allegedly learned, guidelines were revised, lines were drawn and the recommendations of experts and coroners were ignored. Eric Pickles wrote a letter to local authorities telling then it was their fault. Later, Brandon Lewis wrote a letter to the “fire industry” – whatever that is – telling them it was their fault. Gavin Barwell, a former housing minister until he recently lost his seat, suppressed a report into tower block fire safety following the Lakanal House fire of 2009. No longer an MP, Mr Barwell is now Mrs May`s new Chief of Staff.

To suggest that the disaster in Notting Hill has nothing to do with politics sums up exactly what is wrong with UK politics. Those affected have seen funding for the police, the fire service and ambulance services, the NHS, education, social housing and community care cut to a point when disaster is inevitable. The surviving victims later read newspapers and watch TV news broadcasts which blamed them for the tragedy rather than those that caused disaster.

Prime Minister Theresa May took herself back along the Westway to talk to senior police officers and some photographers and then promised a judge-led public inquiry. Thank goodness we will have a public inquiry led by a judge appointed by government and with terms of reference set by government and an outcome decided by whatever government has the power to publish findings and recommendations in about five or six years if the inquiry gets its skates on.

We need only to look at the successful Leveson, Chilcot and Child Sexual Abuse Inquiries to feel confident that no stone will be left unturned until more stones need to be found to cover the needless scrutiny of wealthy and powerful people. Hillsborough was not a tragedy; it was not inevitable but it took decades to discover that the truth was systematically buried by dishonest governments, corrupt senior police officers and subhuman monsters pretending to be respectable journalists abusing the concept of free speech. An Inquest, rather than a Public Inquiry, would provide answers through a Coroner with greater urgency, accuracy and relevance than the pretence of what will turn out to be a massive cover-up. Like Hillsborough, Chilcot, Leveson and CSA, a public inquiry will only protect the guilty and will benefit the shareholders of companies that manufacture document shredding machines.

Even now, the hacks spreading hatred at the right-wing tabloids are blaming the dead and are sharpening their crayons in the hope of civil unrest as a result of uncaring government at both a local and national scale. After reporting growing anger, the state broadcaster seems disappointed that as the hours pass, the predictions of riots have yet to become reality and in desperation to find a distraction from the abject failure of the political class, now seem to be instigating unrest by asking survivors unbelievably stupid and downright provocative questions such as “why are you so angry?”

It is worth noting that the local community quickly organised aid, support and comfort to those in desperate need and continue to support those that have suffered the most horrendous catastrophe. Local and national government have failed to secure the safety of its citizens living just a couple of miles away from the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace and have massively failed to meet a challenge that is of their own making. Evasive politicians trying to avoid responsibility by denying that this horror is not the result of politics is stomach-churching enough without then hearing them claim that their inability to govern and suspension of government business as a mark of respect to the victims is in some way democratic.

Aristotle was a champion of Greek Tragedy and regarded the dramatic form as being beneficial to an audience that experienced the “emotional cleansing” of witnessing the powerful being chopped down to size by a host of Gods. Our own Shakespeare was keen on seeing the mighty fallen but this time by a single God or the pursuit of unnatural and inappropriate ambition.

The Grenfell Tower disaster is not a tragedy because it was, and in the case of past and future disasters, completely preventable. The “emotional cleansing” favoured by Aristotle was probably a good thing way back then but it now seems that the ethnic and economic cleansing favoured Theresa May and her declining number of followers is likely to end in collapse along with the collapse of the building itself which will conveniently close the book on the number of estimated corpses.

The flip side of tragedy is comedy. Sadly, there is nothing funny to say about a government that is so inept, uncaring and incompetent. Today they will start negotiations to leave the European Union. As Liam Fox returns from the United States after trying desperately to sell off what is left of the NHS and David Davis flies off to Brussels without a single clue or idea, Boris Johnson will take coffee in his north London garden and notice a smell of burning on the summer breeze. There are very few reasons to be cheerful and even fewer expectations of normality as long as this current lot of idiots remain in power.

Tragedy, however, can result in hope. It seems unlikely that Mrs May will last much longer given her increasingly bizarre posturing and her inability to answer a question or express an opinion other than using a three word sound bite that has been written down for her and then memorised by mainstream media..

After the undignified bear pit skulduggery of the last Tory leadership contest that produced Theresa as the unquestioned Queen without a single vote being cast, the absence of any credible successor emerging from the shambles of the Conservative Party, it is a distinct possibility that another General Election is likely. Interestingly, since Mrs May lost her majority and her mandate, some old people have died and some young people have become 18.

Sadly, old people and young people and the people in between who died in the Grenfell Tower disaster will not enjoy the right to vote. That is not a tragedy…it is a disgrace.

1 Comment »

  1. What else is left to say?

    Comment by The Realist — June 20, 2017 @ 11:37 am | Reply

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