If not us, Who?
There is a naivety about me that I find really annoying. I have to work really hard to overcome it and ensure that I stay in the real world rather than the one that’s in my head.
See – the world in my head is a nicer place. People care about each other deal with each other in a fair way. Public servants particularly councillors and MSPs and MPs, civil servants, local authority employees, all work hard to ensure that they do the best for the people they are employed (with public money) to serve. I know many who do exactly this, our MP Drew Hendry speaks up for those most affected by Universal Credit, Women for Indy sisters focus on reducing inequality, We have some fabulous new councillors who are indeed there for the “we” not the “me”. I am however, regularly faced with reminders that many more are not like that. And yet in my naivety, I am always shocked when I see this and cross with myself for not being more realistic and less stupid.
Over the last year I have seen people who on the face of it share my political goals, put their own self interest before the good of the community, the cause, and the parties they represent. I have seen first hand, spiteful, selfish behaviour from people who should know better. I have seen self promotion win over team working several times and I have seen examples of bullying and cheating which have left me furious and open mouthed at the absolute bloody cheek of people and completely aghast that they think this is an ok way to behave.
I have, of course also seen committed and caring people supporting each other and working together for a better community. I am fortunate to work for an organisation which does that every day. I am part of a wonderful group of activists with the desire to create something better at the heart of what they do. There are, of course, arguments and heated discussions just like any other group of people trying to make a difference to something when they really only have their own voices. We don’t always all LIKE each other but we share an understanding that what we are doing is not about “me” but about “we” and this means we work together to try to affect change – regardless of our own situation. We help if we can and we want the best for our communities, and for each and every man, woman and child within it. I like to think that most people want this and it is this naivity which means that I am always surprised when confronted with behaviour like I described previously.
The fire in the Grenfell Tower has shocked me as it has many others. It has horrified us all. If, as the residents of the area are saying, these Tower Blocks are not to the standard that people paying for their homes would accept, why the hell not? Now, I can understand that people paying millions of pounds for a fancy flat expect a higher standard – but surely that is in room size, decor, finish. Surely it’s full length windows and a fancy balcony; it’s whirlpool baths and sound insulation for the hardwood floors; it’s top of the range kitchens and being fully wifi’d up the yin yang; it’s fancy garages with automated doors and a concierge to doff his cap and call you sir or madam whilst smiling, accepting your Harrods order for you and keeping the “atrium” clean so that they can call you a cab when you need one.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is entirely acceptable for someone paying hundreds of thousands of pounds for a house to want nice things, more space, top of the range facilities and beautiful fixtures and fittings and space age security.
When it comes to fire safety, surely there isn’t a compromise worth making? When you come down to the bones of a building it is either as safe as it can be or it is not? If the posh block down the road is safer with sprinklers, then the council block is also safer with sprinklers. If the penthouse flats have hoses on each floor then so should the council flats. If each flat in the million pound development has fire alarms outside each front door or inside each apartment, then the council block must have the same.
Cars are a good example of this. I drive crappy cars. I have always driven crappy cars and whilst I accept that the very nice Mercedes Benz is likely to have much fancier braking system than my 10 year old Skoda, I still expect my Skoda to have brakes that work and do the job they are supposed to do. No one would think it ok to leave out the brakes in a cheap new car or let an old knackered car pass it’s MOT if the brakes don’t work so why is it ok to do that with housing? If we allow poor safety systems to exist in social housing we are clearly saying that the lives of people who rent these properties are not worth as much as those who buy their properties, that safety and therefore, life itself has a price which we as a society are not prepared to pay for those people who need to rent their homes.
This is utterly shocking. But is it actually surprising? When you remember what has happened over the last few years it’s perhaps not so surprising at all. People have been prodded and poked to make sure we remember who our “enemies” are. Miles and miles of newspaper has been printed with divisive, racist, classist shite which has repeatedly told us all that it is the poor, the refugees, migrants, immigrants, the alcoholic, the drug addicted, the single parent, the homeless person, the sick and the disabled who are the people our society needs to be frightened of. They are the people we need to keep under the cosh because they are dangerous and they are dragging our country down.
We have been told by successive governments that supporting “these people” is a waste of money, that the welfare state is bloated and that what “these people” need is more stick and less carrot. We are told that the gold standard of being a good citizen is owning your own home and that anything short of this is failure. We are encouraged to see those that don’t own their homes as somehow lesser and, having allowed themselves to become a burden on the rest of us, they are therefore to be sneered at, looked down on and dismissed as not important.
Given this attitude we can see how a decision could be made that it was acceptable to put cheaper cladding on a council high rise rather than the more expensive fire retardant stuff. We can see how a decision could be made not to install sprinklers, because this block, these people, were not worth it. We can see how the local council could decide there was no point in organising support on the ground. After all – everything we see, hear and read – the Government, our Daily Papers, programmes like Benefits street – tell us that these people are less worthy. So what does it matter if we cut a bit here, trim a bit there, look the other way, they are not important.
We reap what we sow. A Government that cares nothing for those who have nothing and most for those who have everything. We voted them back in only a fortnight ago. Newspapers that see the cost of everything and the value in nothing. They scream their hatred and vileness from their headlines seeing people and their grief as commodities to increase their profit margins and nothing more than that. We still buy them. We still support their existence and we lap up their gossip and hatred. We have news reports that have only bias to offer – the build up to the general election was the most unbalanced across both Scotland and the rest of the UK that I have seen, and yet we still pay our licence fees, our sky subscription. We watch, we snigger and we don’t turn off. We reap what we sow.
I have seen many people say that the people that died in the tower block died because they were poor. And they are right but it’s not just that – they died because our society has allowed money – profit, to be the priority above all else. Whether there is a case for corporate manslaughter is not for me to say. But every single one of us carries some blame. We are all responsible for allowing society to get to where it is. Even those of us who have tried to change it. We haven’t spoken loudly enough, we haven’t worked hard enough, we have been – I have been – too naive to really hold people, especially the politicians to account.
Those voices that “tut tut” and say we should not politicise this miss the point entirely. It is because we have avoided politicising issues like this, because we have allowed the political class to turn us away from class politics, that our society continues in this manner. This is political and the only way to respond is to politicise it. If we continue to allow politicians, corporations, individuals to put the “me” before the “we” then we fail people like those living in Grenfell Tower. If we allow the powerful to damn us, to silence us for “politicising” this terrible event then we allow them to take away the voices of people living in places like Grenfell Tower, the people who David Lammy described as having ” no power, locus or agency”.
It is ONLY by politicising this that we change things. It is only us who can demand change, us who can challenge those in power to be better. We need to put the blame for society’s ills, not on the poor the disposed or the vulnerable, but on those who seek to profit from making them worthless and those of us who let that happen.