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Andrew Tettenborn: The Grenfell service and the politics of grief


You could have seen it coming. As the Moore-Bick inquiry into what actually happened at Grenfell Tower gets under way, the great and the good have lost no time in embracing the opportunities to milk it for all the political advantage it’s worth. Two vignettes illustrate this perfectly.

Last Thursday’s memorial service at St Paul’s was attended not only by survivors, but by royalty, politicians and celebrities. As one might expect, it was a mish-mash (aka a ‘multi-faith’ and ‘multi-cultural’ event). The radical Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, invited ‘people of different faiths and none’ to remember the deceased before God (!) in a service provided with an imam and a Syrian oud-player, a hijab-covered Islamic girls’ choir singing ‘Insh’allah’, and a steel band playing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. But that is not the important thing.

First, Labour but not Conservative councillors from Kensington were invited (or, according to some sources, Conservatives were unofficially told to stay away at the request of Grenfell residents who did not want them there, but that is much the same thing). For a service ostensibly aimed at reconciliation and healing, this seems a strangely un-Christian approach. That the Church should apparently condone the demands of one part of a congregation to exclude those they would prefer not to have relations with is not a hopeful sign.

But then one suspects reconciliation and forgiveness were never intended to take more than a back seat. The service looked much more like part and parcel of a broad-based social-political campaign, coupled with an expression of solidarity against the borough council, the government and anyone else seen to be involved. Recordings were played which could have come straight out of Labour HQ: ‘People want justice, they want someone to pay, most of these people are angry and their anger is understandable.’ Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, picked up the theme, again in words that could have been in a Guardian op-ed: ‘Today, we ask why warnings were not heeded; why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to.’ And afterwards Jeremy Corbyn, rather than leaving discreetly, was given the opportunity to grandstand outside and make what can only be described as a political address (‘People are very angry and I understand that, I’m here to listen to them, I’m here to work and I’m here to try to change things . . . The inquiry has to come up with some very strong answers to some very tough questions about the building, the cladding and the performance of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’).

So much for the Church. TCW readers, however, will remember that there were others, such as Jeremy Corbyn and the Justice4Grenfell pressure group, who wanted to make the investigation into not so much an inquiry as a grand political inquisition into housing and social policy (and, though of course they didn’t say so, a stick with which to beat the government). The government rejected this, and rightly so: issues like this need to be decided ultimately by the ballot box and not by hijacking judicial investigations.

Never worry: the Equality and Human Rights Commission (previously in TCW here and here), a quango paid for by you and me, has now stepped into the breach with a parallel inquiry on almost exactly these lines. Chairman David Isaac’s press release, like Bishop Tomlin’s, is pretty pure Guardian-speak. Grenfell Tower, he said, ‘has become a symbol of the inequality that exists in our country . . . from the right to life to the duty to provide adequate housing, there are several areas where the State fell short in its duties to its citizens and these must be properly addressed . . . our expertise in equality and human rights laws is essential in determining the extent to which the State failed, not only the residents of Grenfell Tower, but also those who witnessed the fire and have endured harm.’ No stone will be left unturned: your EHRC will, he says, seek evidence of infringements not only of the right to life, but of children’s rights (very fashionable these days); of discrimination against the disabled; of inhumane and degrading treatment; and so on and so forth.

This sudden solicitude of the EHRC for the rights of Grenfell victims as such is a little surprising. Previous EHRC investigations have concentrated on fairly specific issues: care of the old, boardroom equality, human trafficking, and so on. All have had a number of things in common. They have dealt with an issue of principle rather than a given high-profile event; they have been fairly narrow in compass; they have been susceptible of relatively simple recommendations; there has been no existing inquiry on foot to establish the facts; and they have not taken place against an enormously politically charged background. With Grenfell Tower all this has changed. It is not obvious why the Commission could not have waited until the facts were established by the Moore-Bick inquiry; furthermore, as wide-ranging an investigation as they seem to envisage is likely to make it difficult to reach succinct conclusions as against making general recommendations as to how society should be run. But the most disconcerting feature of this jeu d’esprit is the most obvious. It might always be a kind of academic exercise taking its opportunity from a serendipitous event, rather like a law exam question: ‘Take the facts of Grenfell and consider what, if any, breaches of human rights may have occurred, giving reasons for your answer.’ But that’s not how it comes across. Whether or not this is what was intended, the impression will be gained in many quarters that this is a politically-motivated exercise, and that the real motivation of the Commission is not a disinterested pursuit of human rights, but a perceived need to be seen to be in touch with the progressive forces in this country. For a supposedly non-political body, this ought to raise some awkward questions, if only of diplomacy.

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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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