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2017 Revisited – July: Bonfire of the inanities? Just wait for the Grenfell circus


2017 Revisited: A look back through the eyes of TCW’s top writers. 

First posted 

Public inquiries are all very well, provided they’re not too impartial and can be manipulated by those with the loudest voices and the most strident pressure groups behind them. This, at least, seems to be the view of a number of campaigners who, scenting blood, have decided to use the Grenfell inquiry to make as much political capital as possible.

Shrillest and silliest among these is a group called BMELawyers4Grenfell. This is an umbrella group. Its collaborators include such interesting outfits as Black Activists Rising against the Cuts (run by a ‘performance poet and artist’, daughter of a UN official and a 1960s agitator, in conjunction with with a race relations activist, previously a senior adviser to Ken Livingstone and Respect candidate for Croydon North); and Blaksox, an organisation which is pleased, among other things, to characterise the war on drugs as a war on black people.

The demands of BMELawyers4Grenfell include the removal of the judge appointed to lead the inquiry (and, implicitly, a de facto veto over anyone suggested to replace him). But this isn’t all. In addition they want a ‘properly diverse expert panel’ to advise on such matters as housing need, fire and safety construction: an odd demand, since presumably an expert is an expert whatever his colour or gender (unless they think black or female experts are more likely to favour black or female victims, which is about as insulting and patronising as you can get). And other things too, such as a single charity – no doubt controlled by activists – for all donations, not to mention immediate and unconditional UK citizenship for all undocumented survivors.

And there are others. One is the Society of Black Lawyers, chaired by Peter Herbert, a barrister and part-time judge who, after Lutfur Rahman was ejected from the Mayoralty of Tower Hamlets for blatant electoral fraud in 2015, reached the obvious conclusion that it must all be down to racism, including among the judiciary. (He was reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Office for that outburst.)

This gentleman, on behalf of the Society, now says that the Grenfell community ‘has lost confidence in the white male middle class model but continues to impose this in appointing a Chair who has little or no personal or professional insight into the cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity represented by the Grenfell community’. For heaven’s sake, this is an inquiry into how and why a tragic and preventable fire started, and what might have been done to avoid it. Of course we all at TCW have the greatest sympathy for the victims and the bereaved; but their cultural, religious and ethnic diversity is simply beside the point. The object is to report on how an event as awful as this can be prevented from happening again – to anyone at all, whether black, Asian, white, Christian, Muslim or anything else.

And, of course, there is the inimitable David Lammy, who never sees a bandwagon without feeling an irresistible urge to climb on to it. A white, upper-middle-class man, he says, will not do to lead this inquiry, even if (as he admits) he is eminently ‘independent and judicious’. Why? Easy: because he is not able to ‘be empathetic and walk with these people on this journey’ (whatever that means). At the very least, he says, there ought to have been a woman or member of an ethnic minority.

Now, just stand back and think about this. The job of the chairman of the Grenfell inquiry is to be impartial, to find out what happened and to make balanced suggestions about what to do in future to save lives. This is something for which independence and judiciousness would seem a perfect qualification.

Why, then, the need for empathy? To make sure he reaches a different conclusion? Perish the thought. No, it’s the confidence of the community, stupid. But hang on, David: you’re in difficulty here. Are you saying that members of ethnic minorities are so stupid that they are more likely to believe reasoned conclusions if they come from a black man or a woman than if they come from a white man? And if you are, have you made this view clear to the electors of Tottenham? Were you to do so, a sizeable number of your own voters would, it seems, have every right to feel very unhappy.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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