‘Surreal’ is an overused word, but it frames an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life. En route to St Charles Hospital in north Kensington, I saw the horrifying scene from Armageddon. A few hundred yards away, a high-rise block of flats totally blackened and windowless, spewing bright orange flames and thick brown smoke. Seemingly futile fire hoses aimed no higher than the 11th floor; above that, scores of people were cremated.
A public enquiry is to be held, and the focus will rightly be on the combustible building material and safety procedures: lessons must be learned. But there is another aspect to this tragedy that should be included in the investigation. For the reaction to the Grenfell Tower blaze was an unprecedented frenzy of irrational and dangerous provocation by people who should know better.
Theresa May did not have a good fire. Reeling from a poor election result, she was stilted, her failure to connect with those who survived the inferno contrasting sharply with the empathy of Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, people were angry, and May would not complain about her heated exposure to the real victims of Grenfell. But the abominable treatment of this fundamentally decent woman at the hands of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and mainstream broadcasters was troubling. The day after the anniversary of Jo Cox’s death, the knives were literally out for May. In a glimpse of the nasty vengefulness in the resurgent Labour Party, one Corbynite called for her beheading.
Newspapers got on the bandwagon, The Sun recklessly headlining ‘This was murder’. The tabloids all conveyed the message of penny-pinching Tories and capitalist greed. Apparently fire-retardant panels could have been fitted for an extra £5,000, but in the context of an £8.5 million refurbishment, blaming austerity is stretching logic. Why should Theresa May be blamed for the cladding contract, instead of the several councils up and down the country (many of them Labour-controlled) who have had similar fascia installed on tower blocks? A letter in the Daily Mail satirised the hysterical targeting of the Prime Minister: –
‘When I worked in the building industry and we had a problem regarding cladding, we would always contact Theresa May. What she did not know about insulation and composite panels was not worth knowing.’
The threats extended far beyond May and her unstable government. For several days, the atmosphere in London was highly tense, a tinder box with the match ready to strike. Social media was rife with anarchic urges, with the BBC and Channel Four fanning the flames. MP Clive Lewis, once tipped to replace Corbyn, implored: ‘Burn neoliberalism, not people’. Paul Mason, once a respectable figure on BBC Newsnight, attributed the fire to Brexit bigotry. And darling Lily Allen, in her stream of irresponsible tweets, alleged that the Government was masking the number of dead. The fake news of a D-Notice was spread by hard-left website Skwawkbox.
I have saved the worst for last: John McDonnell. Left-wing agitators, as in the perennial Socialist Workers, will always make the most of a crisis that can be blamed on capitalism or the Conservative Party. In the spirit of democracy and debate, they have a part to play. But this is the shadow chancellor of a party at the cusp of power. Corbyn’s right-hand man sensed Grenfell as the event that would push people over the edge to socialist revolution. A ‘Day of Rage’, an already-planned demonstration against the Queen’s Speech, now had a turbo boost, with ‘Blood on her hands’ placards to add to the usual ‘Tory scum’.
Any past Labour leadership would have called for calm, but that’s too bourgeoise for the current Marxist helmsmen. Here was a chance to rid the country of the Tories and to wreak destruction on all the hated parodies of privilege. McDonnell called for a million marchers to shut down London and overturn the Government (despite Labour losing the election, and the Conservatives gaining a hefty 42.5 per cent of the vote). In the aftermath of the terrible fire, this was bordering on incitement, and I hope that he is made to reflect on this cynical and grievous command.
Politicians and the media exploited this tragedy for their own selfish ends, and they are culpable in creating the conditions for riots. Fortunately, at the time of writing, this scary outcome seems to have been averted, and the ‘Day of Rage’ might fizzle out. Rabble-rousers in positions of responsibility and influence appear to have stepped back from the abyss, possibly following a word in their ear from the police or wise elders. The Guardian has been remarkably quiet.
Ultimately, the Corbyn cult has misread the public mood. People don’t really want anarchy and violence. But this experience of militant opportunism must not be swept under the carpet. Questions must be asked about how the country was so nearly plunged into total turmoil by a dreadful accident. Let the committee of enquiry summon Corbyn, McDonnell and the North London commentariat to forensic interrogation.
(Image: Kevin Walsh)