Sunday, 24 June 2018

Hysterical Reasonableness

That the pro-EU Tory "rebels" have neither rebelled nor secured any meaningful concessions from the government should not come as a surprise. It has long been clear that they have neither the numbers nor the determination to substantially influence the negotiating strategy of Theresa May, but despite this they remain the darlings of the centrist commentariat. Some of this is just the habitual indulgence of "sensibles" such as Ken Clarke, a man whose decidedly mixed record as a minister under Thatcher and Major has always been occluded by his TV-friendly geniality, and some is the media's structural appetite for division and plots as the narrative frame of political reporting. What is more of the moment is the determination to avoid admitting that the only effective route to mitigating the impact of Brexit (or preparing the ground for reaccession) will be through a Labour government, which until further notice means investing hope in Jeremy Corbyn. Far from acknowledging this political reality, the various forces of "Continuity Remain" seem determined to pin the blame for Brexit on the Labour leader, hence the recent protests at the Labour Live event and yesterday's "Where's Jeremy Corbyn" chant at the People's Vote protest march.

The six Tories who did vote against the government last Wednesday on the "meaningful vote" amendment did so in the certain expectation that the government would prevail. The effective winning line in the Commons is 320 (there are 650 seats, but 3 are held by the Speaker and his two deputies and 7 by Sinn Fein, so there are only 640 votes in practice). The government won by 319 to 303. It would have needed 9 more Tories to rebel or 17 to abstain. This was never going to happen, yet the media coverage was breathless in anticipation during the early part of the week. With 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, the government could be defeated on Brexit if 8 Tories rebelled, but when you add the 4 hardcore Labour leavers (Kate Hoey, Frank Field, John Mann and Graham Stringer) to the balance, then it would need 12, and that's assuming no abstentions. The ease with which Dominic Grieve was bought off, and the alacrity with which the Brexit ultras crowed that a "no deal" outcome remained in play, should make clear that these "moderates" would prefer the worst kind of Tory administration over any flavour of Labour government. Were we to end up facing a no-deal exit next year, I'm not convinced that enough Tories would rebel to bring down May even then.

The implicit suggestion of some of the anti-Brexit activist groups that have come to prominence, such as For Our Future's Sake and Our Future Our Choice, is that Labour cannot effectively oppose Brexit while Corbyn remains as leader, but replacing him wouldn't change the numbers in the House of Commons. You'd still have a hard core of Labour leavers and enough other MPs wanting to respect the referendum result to prevent cancellation of Article 50 (and that's assuming such a manoeuvre would be both legal and acceptable to the EU27). Were Keir Starmer to be promoted to the leadership there is no reason to believe that he would pursue a different strategy to the one he has crafted to date because it reflects political reality rather than the leader's personal preference. An unrepentant Blairite in the job, however improbable that might currently appear, would end up adopting the same policy as Corbyn. The limit of their ambition would be to reserve the power of the Commons to pass judgement on the negotiated deal, which is precisely what Labour was trying to achieve last week. Pushing now for another referendum, before the terms of the final deal are clear, is poor politics if the aim is to persuade Labour. Realistically, Corbyn and Starmer can only oppose Brexit and insist on a second vote if we end up in no-deal territory.

The ulterior objective of the mostly centrist groups now dominating the pro-EU cause is presumably to associate Corbyn with Brexit in the hope that chaos arising in 2019 and after will either justify a leadership challenge before the next scheduled general election in 2022 or boost the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. This is naïve. Not only is it likely that the damage of Brexit will be slow rather than sudden, but the all-too-obvious aim of the government's handling of the transition period and "backstop" is to maximise the Conservative Party's chances in four years time. The best hope of the anti-Corbyn forces within Labour is that he leads the party to defeat in 2022 and that a more "moderate" candidate can win the inevitable leadership contest thereafter. As the left will be able to justifiably point to the relentless undermining of Corbyn since 2015, both within and without the party, the chances of the membership falling for a Blair Mk II are slight. If they had any sense, centrists would back off Corbyn now to avoid the charge of disloyalty, but just as Tory centrists would never facilitate a right-wing Labour government, so Labour centrists will never tolerate a left-wing leadership.

The antipathy of these pro-EU groups towards Corbyn is not simply centrist opportunism, and nor should we imagine that fear of the Labour left is now a key driver behind remain - it isn't. What's going on is primarily an act of displacement. The most notable feature of the remain campaign over the past two years has been the failure to develop a better case for continued membership of the European Union beyond "I told you so" as another multinational business threatens withdrawal. This void has been filled with irrationalism and conspiracy. Many remainers have been adamant that voters were lied to or not in full possession of the facts in 2016. This is true, but it is neither a novelty nor a reason to declare the vote illegitimate. A re-run now would probably produce a similarly close result precisely because a more persuasive argument for remain has not been forthcoming since the referendum. While few people reckon the government is doing a good job of handling the Brexit process, the general sense seems to be that judgement should be reserved until the outcome is clear, which won't be any earlier than October this year and might be considerably later depending on the terms of the transition. It is at that point that popular opinion on the need for another referendum might change, though that in turn presumes a clear choice. Given that the negotiations to date have been characterised by fudge and ambivalence on the UK's part, that isn't a given.

The rhetorical emphasis of the pro-EU groups on "our future" is not just an attempt to mobilise the young. It points to a reluctance to discuss the past and in particular the failure of the EU to become truly hegemonic in British society. Blaming the media for this isn't an explanation, not least because the same media were overwhelmingly pro-Europe in 1975. Clearly something changed during the Thatcher years to encourage a Euroscepticism that we might otherwise have expected to wither away, and given the actual demographics of the leave vote, rather than the media interpretation, I suspect this change is predominantly located among the comfortable classes of the South East and the Midlands, not the "left behind" working class of the North. The psychic damage of the Maastricht Treaty, coming only a decade after the supposed arrest of British decline in the Falklands War, seems to have been more significant than the material damage of deindustrialisation. Despite its own hegemony, built on the back of victory in the South Atlantic, Thatcherism was clearly an unstable project because of the tension between its small capital values and the material interests of big capital. Europe was always going to be the fault-line, with its intersection of market liberalism and pooled sovereignty.

Remainers who question the legitimacy of the 2016 vote, and whether it may have been unduly influenced by dodgy money or Facebook propaganda, are crying over spilt milk. Short of evidence of industrial-scale ballot-stuffing or massive voter suppression, the result will stand. Pointing the finger at Russian interference is not merely irrelevant (there was probably meddling, but it was almost certainly inconsequential), it is patronising towards those leave voters who need to be won over (or at least convinced to abstain were another referendum to be held) and it encourages remain voters to continue to vilify the opposition rather than seek to convert them. Muttering about xenophobia is also unhelpful as it addresses the symptom rather than the cause. The pro-EU voices that dominate centrist discourse too often exhibit a contempt for ordinary voters, hence their blithe rejection of a democratic decision in the name of some form of superior democracy (what was the 2016 referendum if not a "people's vote"?). It often seems that they consider "democracy without a demos" to be an ideal rather a deficiency.

That public opinion on the wisdom of Brexit has remained fairly consistent over the two years since the referendum suggests a lack of engagement between the two sides and an entrenchment of views. My anecdotal evidence is that while leavers are still obdurate, they are increasingly pessimistic about the outcome, while remainers are increasingly prone to hyperbole and a belief in dark forces, despite their claims to be rational and committed to evidence. In continuing with a strategy of confrontation and deprecation, they seem to be ignoring that leavers are increasingly primed for persuasion. You'd think after two years that they would not only have come up with a better case for the EU but that they would have cut out the patronising contempt, but Guardian commentators are still insisting that remainers "are so endlessly reasonable, [but are] up against people who are beyond reasoning with". Just as the remainers failure to develop a more persuasive vision has weirdly echoed the drift and incompetence of the government's negotiations with the EU27, so their demonisation of Corbyn as an objective Brexiteer has been strangely reminiscent of Stalinist jibes that Trotsky was an objective Fascist. Hysterical reasonableness is no less silly than rebels who never rebel.

Monday, 11 June 2018

A Very English Conundrum

Apart from nostalgia for a time when the Liberal Party was relevant, which is probably a hankering for the blissful dawn of 2010 rather than 1974, A Very English Scandal, the dramatisation of the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe, has prompted little in the way of political reflection. As a story of tragi-comic entitlement (Norman Scott's lament over his National Insurance card was as emblematic as Thorpe's expectation of the connivance of others), the politics of the era was always going to be marginalised, and that's before you take into account a rich cast of characters that included an inept assassin, a biased judge and a dissolute barrister. With a routinely thuggish police officer and a bustling lady publican called Edna Friendship thrown into the mix, this felt like a Joe Orton farce. As a dramatic form, farce deals with universal moral failings in ridiculous settings, rather than historical specifics, which is why good farces don't lose their relevance. Accidental Death of an Anarchist isn't about Milan in 1969 but a tale of police corruption, which is timeless. Likewise, A Very English Scandal dealt with establishment immorality and complacency, which is for the ages. However, there is some value in thinking about the political context of the Thorpe affair, both to understand the role it played in the lead-up to the pivotal election of 1979 and to assess the current state of the "centre ground" in British politics.

Though he became a Liberal, Jeremy Thorpe was of Tory stock and is best thought of as a maverick who was sincerely postcolonial at a time when the Conservative Party wasn't. He was also heavily influenced by Lloyd George - a family friend - in his political opportunism and reliance on rhetoric. Any similarities in terms of sexual promiscuity are presumably coincidental. In modern terms, Thorpe was a Notting Hill Tory avant la lettre. This highlights one important dynamic: that despite its distinct history and persistent nonconformist culture, the postwar Liberal Party has often featured socially liberal, patrician Tories as leaders, from Jo Grimond to Nick Clegg. I don't apply that term mockingly: rather I note that the Liberals lost their social role with the growth of the Labour Party but were still able to operate as a ginger group that took issue with Conservative Party orthodoxy while agreeing on the fundamentals of property and capitalism. Thus Jo Grimond was able to advocate Scottish independence and nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 60s without being branded a traitor, while the role of the Orange Book in preparing the coalition of 2010-15 was to encourage the Tories to be even more market-friendly.

Jeremy Thorpe was cautious in his social liberalism. As A Very English Scandal makes clear, he was not interested in advocating the decriminalisation of homosexuality, though I think this reflected a political calculation rather than fear of personal exposure. Being against the death penalty, as he was, wasn't necessarily popular, but it was seen as principled: it didn't alienate those that it didn't attract, which wasn't the case with gay rights in the 60s. His strong suit was his internationalism, notably his stands against Rhodesian UDI and South African apartheid, but this masked a lack of interest in economic policy beyond a distaste for socialism typical of his class and background, which meant an antipathy towards trade unions and an ambivalence towards the welfare state. His opposition to the activism of the Young Liberals in the late-60s was driven more by their demands for a policy of industrial democracy than their disruption of rugby matches involving the Springboks. Ironically, their diversion of this democratic activism into the community politics of the early-70s did much to secure the by-election victories that would propel Thorpe to the peak of political influence in 1974.

While the Liberals were always going to be identified with the political centre by default, Thorpe pursued a strategy of accentuating the party's centrist positioning in order to maximise the votes of disillusioned Labour and Conservative supporters. Rather than a distinct Liberal identity, such as that advocated by the Young Liberals or, in a different register, by the Orange Bookers of the early-00s, the party made "none of the above" the centrepiece of its platform, which meant that it wasn't always clear what it really stood for. Even in the arena of foreign policy, which was inconsequential for the vast majority of voters, Thorpe's leadership was marked by radical rhetoric and cautious policy (for example, while he excoriated British colonialism, he stymied the Young Liberals' opposition to NATO and support for Palestine). His chief legislative contribution was his support in the Commons for Ted Heath in the passage of the European Communities Act in 1972, though it's worth remembering that this was overwhelmingly backed by the establishment (and most of the media at the time) and the inexorable logic of what would become "ever closer union" was understood by relatively few. He wasn't taking a great political risk.

Thorpe's strategy highlights another important dynamic: that centrism is fundamentally opportunistic rather than principled. Again, this is not a slur but an observation of political practice. Centrism needs two clearly defined poles of opposition in order to define itself as a viable alternative. Historically, the electoral success of the Liberal Party under Thorpe (at least in votes if not in seats) owed everything to the secular economic crises of the early and mid-1970s and their political ramifications, in particular the shift of Labour towards greater industrial intervention and the shift of the Conservatives to a more liberal economic policy. Both of these tendencies were partial and multivalent. Labour was divided between traditional advocates of state control and bureaucracy on the one hand and post-68 advocates of workers' control and direct democracy on the other. The Tories were increasingly divided between statist modernisers who placed their faith in Europe and economic liberals who in turn made common cause with small capital reactionaries in their suspicion of the state. The drift of each away from a pragmatic approach towards a more ideological position opened up a space for the Liberal Party, however this depended on the electorate remaining ambivalent about both the main parties, which in turn depended on those parties remaining in flux.

The problem for the Liberals was that this space largely depended on the "don't knows" and in particular Tory voters suspicious of emergent neoliberalism. In other words, this was an electoral bloc that was essentially conservative, rather than socially liberal, and one that found Thorpe's patrician manner and policy caution reassuring. As the political climate became more partisan, and as these conservative voters became more antipathetic towards Labour after the IMF "crisis" and the "winter of discontent", the Liberal Party was increasingly occluded by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party as it exited the state of flux quicker than Labour. While A Very English Scandal suggests that the party's decline in the latter part of the decade, culminating in Thorpe's loss of his seat in 1979, was partly due to the fallout of his acquittal, it was in fact due to a decisive shift in the electorate's attitude towards economic management. Labour actually won slightly more votes in 1979 than it did in October 1974, but the Tories romped to victory by adding 3 million at the ballot box: roughly 1 million from the Liberals and 2 million from increased turnout. While some of that Liberal-to-Tory swing might have been influenced by the Thorpe affair, it is hard to believe that previous non-voters, whether abstainers or the young, were that bothered by it.

This highlights a third dynamic: when the electorate switches in large net numbers between the big two, centrist parties (or regional parties, for that matter) tend to suffer, as would be seen again in 1997. They can also suffer if the centre ground itself becomes contested. Though the Liberal Democrats lost two-thirds of their vote in 2015, after their uninspiring period in coalition, this wasn't because of a major shift between the two main parties but because they lost their pre-eminent role as the "none of the above" vote repository to UKIP. Thinking of UKIP as a centrist party might seem perverse, but that is essentially how many ex-Labour voters who switched to the Kippers rationalised their decision. Even ex-Tory voters who gravitated to UKIP saw themselves as essentially centrist (which for them is synonymous with conservative) in contrast to the socially liberal bloc represented by David Cameron and George Osborne. It's an unpalatable thought for centrists, but the political legatee of Jeremy Thorpe, with his trilby, covert coat and generally raffish air, is (or was) Nigel Farage. But the wipe-out of UKIP in 2017 did not herald a revival in Lib Dem fortunes as the home of the protest vote. Instead we saw a reversion to an electoral duopoly.

Considering the three dynamics outlined above - the tendency of the centre to attract progressive Tory politicians, its tactical opportunism, and the need for a balance of power between the two main parties - the times might appear to be auspicious for a centrist revival. The likes of Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve attract more media coverage than Vince Cable, Brexit provides the mother of all opportunities for a distinctive position, and the 2017 result and subsequent opinion polls suggests that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are about to secure a decisive majority of the electorate. But, there is a big problem here, and we can see it if we remember that the Liberals' fortunes steadily declined after their electoral highpoint in February 1974 as the effects of the mid-70s recession bit. A centrist party that seeks to supplant one of the big two can do reasonably well in terms of votes, certainly sufficient to effect the outcome of a general election, as was the case in 1983 when the Tories lost vote share but increased their seats due to the impact of the SDP-Liberal Alliance on the Labour vote, but a party that seeks to come through the middle and take votes equally from both Labour and the Conservatives requires a relatively benign economic environment and for political debate to accommodate matters aspirational or international.

You might then wonder how the Liberal Democrats managed to do so well in 2010, when they captured 23% of the vote in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The answer is that their success owed much to the Brown administration's stabilisation of the economy in 2009, which led many voters to think that the impact on their personal circumstances might be slight, and their commitment to aspirational policies such as tax cuts, green jobs and (ironically) educational investment, which contrasted well with the Tories' prioritisation of austerity. There was also the banked goodwill arising from their opposition to the Iraq War, which was still a live issue with the setting-up of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009. If austerity did for the Lib Dems in both 2015 and 2017, it is likely that the weak state of the economy will do likewise come the next general election. Were there to be an earlier election, the most likely trigger would be the government's defeat over its Brexit policy, however the election itself is unlikely to be fought on that topic and is far more likely to centre on economic and social policy, specifically on Labour's plans for investment and repair. In that scenario, a clear difference between Labour and the Conservatives is likely to empty the centre, just as it did in 2017.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Candide in Kensington

As Editor at Large for the London Review of Books, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan was responsible for a couple of notable long-form essays in recent years that caused ripples beyond the literary world. The first was about his aborted stint as a ghost-writer for Julian Assange. This revealed, to no one's great surprise, that its central character was an egomaniac exploiting the conspiratorial netherworld of state secrets and libertarian leakers. The second essay was about Craig Wright, an Australian programmer who claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin, whose public unveiling was to be recorded by O'Hagan. Wright was a fraud exploiting the conspiratorial netherworld of libertarian technology. You've probably spotted the pattern here. Despite the wealth of background detail offered in these two essays, I was never convinced that O'Hagan was really interested in their ostensible subjects - the ethical grey zones of state secrets and cryptocurrencies - or their unsympathetic central characters. Each might have provided the raw material to craft an interesting fiction, but they didn't really work as essays, despite the attempts to build a sense of tension into unfolding events, essentially because O'Hagan didn't appear to have a point to make in either case

O'Hagan's latest essay is about last year's tragedy at Grenfell Tower and in particular the fractious relationship of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the residents of its northern wards. Despite a much larger cast of characters, this is a more focused project because it has a point: a revisionist interpretation of the council's role. But some features are still familiar, such as the conspiratorial netherworld of the local authority's critics, who in O'Hagan's view are no more able to substantiate their claims than Assange or Wright were. The dynamic of the essay this time is not the tension of a looming decision but the search for a sympathetic character. O'Hagan tells us that he started out with a naïve, even antagonistic attitude - ‘Let’s get the bastards who did this’- but came to realise that the council, and its executive and political leaders in particular, were actually the unsung heroes of the tragedy. But to make the revisionist case he has to show that the common view of the council was near-universal and wrong-headed, which leads him both to construct an exasperating strawman - that its critics believed the council to be "homicidal" and bent on "social cleansing" - and to reduce all those critical of the borough to caricatures. I don't think he is motivated by political bias, or that long exposure to the literary world has made him starry-eyed about the posh, but I think he is approaching the tragedy as a novelist.

In terms of literary influences, there are explicit references to Martin Amis and Charles Dickens, and even a whiff of T S Eliot and Henry James, but the overall tone bends more towards moral philosophy than social critique. What it reminded me of was Voltaire's Candide (a book about disasters and illusions shattered), not least because the essay concludes with the promised cultivation of a modest garden. The chief problem is that most of the nominally central characters, the victims and survivors of the fire, are reduced to simple types or given a schematic purpose, in contrast to the more complex portrayals of Nicholas Paget-Brown, the Leader of the council, and Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Deputy Leader. The local activists are presented as stereotypical trouble-makers, high on their own rhetoric and low on logic, the national authorities (most notably Theresa May and Sajid Javid) are shown as cynical and manipulative, while the "heroes" come across as decent white men put in an impossible situation. It reads at times like a reminiscence of colonial administration in the 1950s. I think O'Hagan seriously misrepresents the critics' case against the council, as well as the history of housing in the borough, and I also think he goes too far in sneering at marginal characters in the story, providing cartoon villains that meet the expectations of the anti-left commentariat (David Aaronovitch and Brendan O'Neill have been predictably prominent in the applauding claque).

The pen portraits of the residents of the tower at the start of the essay emphasise their warm-heartedness and everyday concerns, but they also suggest (by omission) the absence of any political sensibility beyond neighbourliness and a rhetorical commitment to community, even going so far as to approvingly note the quietism of the Muslim bereaved. This approach to the memorialisation of the victims of tragedy has become common since 9/11 and has now been formalised in the opening phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. But O'Hagan also uses the emotional capital of these obituaries to put himself on the side of the victims and against the "committed local agitators", such as the longstanding Grenfell Action Group (GAG), who are uncharitably accused of "throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding". He describes the Grenfell United support group, set up in the aftermath of the tragedy, as "secretive, slightly exclusive" and suggests that it is unrepresentative: "Several of the residents we spoke to ... were sympathetic to Grenfell United, the ‘bereaved, survivors and community’ group that has the ear of the prime minister, which they filled (both ears) with stories of how much they hate the council. Many of the survivors I spoke to had nothing to do with the group."

O'Hagan takes an evident dislike to Edward Daffarn, the GAG activist who explicitly warned of the danger of a fire well before last June, and also to the then newly-elected Labour MP for Kensington: "Emma Dent Coad introduced Corbyn to a variety of interested parties, among them several local ‘housing campaigners’, but no one from the council. Odd, given that she was a local councillor for so many years. Or is it?" (you'll note another pattern here: that self-ascription is treated to inverted commas). It was at this meeting that Corbyn suggested of the empty properties in the borough owned by the rich that "maybe it’s time to put some of them to good use", which resulted in various defenders of the liberal order in the commentariat clutching their pearls over the sanctity of property rights. O'Hagan admits that the Labour Leader was one of the few visitors to understand the challenge of the aftermath: "he showed some sense of the scale of the problem when he was told how many people would need to be rehoused. ‘But Kensington as a borough wouldn’t have vacant properties for anything like that number’". Given that O'Hagan's chief charge against May and Javid was their insistence on an unrealistic target of three weeks for rehousing those made homeless by the fire, his determination to denigrate Corbyn - "He was admired for his easy ability to hug people" - seems gratuitous and mean-spirited.


That people tell lies in the wake of a tragedy, whether from anguish or self-importance, is well-known. It's human nature. Likewise, that people will try and leverage such events for wider political ends is hardly a surprise. We all interpret evidence to suit our priors. O'Hagan is sympathetic when it comes to the lies and myths of the apolitical victims - "people tell the stories they need to tell, ones that match their own disbelief, and it doesn’t matter if they’re true" - but he won't extend the same sympathy to those he classes as "agitators" or to those, like Lily Allen and Stormzy, who have cameo roles in the aftermath. The criticism of these two is cheap, claiming that Allen is hypocritical for worrying about gentrification because she is rich and that Stormzy (also "rich") is foolish for demanding money for the survivors when money had already been forthcoming. But why should we expect singers and rappers to be any better-informed than the public at large or less susceptible to rumours and emotion? O'Hagan's attitude, which mixes irritation with patronisation, is not that different to the recent press criticism of Raheem Sterling for his gun tattoo. Ironically, pouncing on minor errors of judgement and questioning motives is the tactic that O'Hagan elsewhere criticises the media for in their coverage of the Grenfell fire. It isn't a defence of the council to emphasise that myths were peddled or hobby-horses ridden, any more than suggesting that some of the fans at Hillsborough were pissed was relevant to that tragedy.

In his generally positive assessment of the council's response, O'Hagan fails to distinguish between will and capacity. The central criticism is not that Kensington and Chelsea was callous or dilatory, as per his strawman, but that it wasn't set up to adequately deal with its residents' needs, both before and after the tragedy, despite being a relatively well-funded and competent organisation. The council did not treat its poorer northern wards in the same way as it treated the richer southern wards, but this is not about an inequality of resource, which O'Hagan is at pains to deny, but an inequality of respect. This comes across indirectly in O'Hagan's narrative, but he is loath to make a direct criticism of the council beyond admitting that their communications were weak. The defence of the council, that they were "there" on the ground helping people immediately after the tragedy, omits to ask why residents felt abandoned. Instead, he prefers to accuse outsiders and the press of jumping on the bandwagon, or to suggest that the victims were simply unbalanced by the tragedy and not capable of the sort of rational thought that he prides himself on. The point is that the council had an institutionalised, arms-length, patronising relationship with its northern residents, and many of them had as a consequence either come to actively despise it or had decided to simply ignore it. This wasn't just about council staff not wearing tabards at the scene of the disaster.

When people said "the council is nowhere to be seen", they weren't just referring to the immediate aftermath but to years of what they interpreted as neglect, but which might be better thought of as an unwillingness to directly engage with people that successive Tory administrations felt an abstract compassion towards but had no interest in establishing any real human relationship with (the film by Anthony Wilks that accompanies O'Hagan's essay online is much better on this point). The key criticism made by the GAG was that the council didn't listen. The defence outlined by O'Hagan is essentially: we read all their emails. While some people will use "listen" as a synonym for "agree with me", it's clear that most of the activists were after engagement - i.e. respect and consideration. On occasion, when trying to blame a third party, O'Hagan admits that the relationship between the community and council was dysfunctional: "It should be said that among the people the prime minister was listening to, with the churches by Grenfell Tower acting as conduit, were people whose disaffection with the council went back years. The wider group had legitimate concerns over a whole spread of issues, not just the tower, and whether she understood it or not, May was being drafted into a political war against the council, in which the fire was a pretext." You'll note how the now-hackneyed phrase "legitimate concerns" is quickly neutralised by "political war" and "pretext".

Nick Paget-Brown was asked by O'Hagan about responsibility: "I said sorry – and indeed I am sorry for what has happened. It happened on my watch, in my borough, and it’s terrible. I’m not apologising for the cladding I was blamed for installing, which has actually been installed all over the country, and which the TMO was told met building regulation standards". This is a standard expression of regret, but it's one that refuses ultimate responsibility. Is that legitimate? Paget-Brown has grounds to suggest that the council could not be effectively responsible, but that would mean criticising a system of market-driven regulation and compliance that was enthusiastically supported by the borough. In defending Feilding-Mellen, O'Hagan notes: "the tower’s vulnerability lay in a network of negligence that was beyond the capacity of any one man". It would be more to the point to say that this "network of negligence" was beyond the capacity of any one council, but that a failure to recognise this on the part of the council was also negligent. When businesses that win council housing contracts are protected from public criticism by "commercial confidentiality", when regulators are captured by industry-backed interests, and when council stock is either sold-off or its management privatised, then councils are often the only visible target for popular ire over the provision and condition of social housing. Paradoxically, the more they are divested of power and responsibility, the more they become a target.


O'Hagan blames or denigrates pretty much everyone bar the council: the tenant management organisation (TMO) that had operational responsibility for the borough's housing stock, the building industry and its lazy regulators, central government (notably an interfering Number 10), London Gold (the cross-borough emergency response team) and the London Fire Brigade. Labour politicians, such as Corbyn and Dent-Coad, whose lack of executive power meant that they could not be held culpable, are criticised precisely for having nothing to offer but sympathy ("hugs"). They all appear to be motivated by self-interest and opportunism while the council's political leadership and executive officers are, in O'Hagan's telling, motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of their fellow citizens. I have no doubt that political calculation played a large part in Theresa May and Sajid Javid's responses last June, but the caricatures that O'Hagan presents are no different to the normal fare of a media that he elsewhere excoriates for over-simplification and an appetite for villains. In his desire to redress the balance of the media's coverage of the council, he becomes partisan. Rather than an even-handed assessment of the tragedy, we get the case for the defence.

The council doesn't get off entirely scot-free. O'Hagan criticises it for its inadequate PR operation and in particular its failure to control the narrative in the immediate aftermath of the fire, but he doesn't draw any conclusions about local government capacity generally, the decline of local newspapers (the traditional conduit for both explanation and criticism), or Kensington and Chelsea's particular history of a tight-lipped approach to communication. If anything, he appears to admire its emotional reticence: "Civic duty doesn’t hug. What it does do, while few notice, is call every head teacher and visit every school, carefully answering the educational and psychological needs of people who may not even register that what is being done for them is being done by their local authority". This panegyric continues with a salute to courage ("grace under pressure") and ends with a  lament: "If you talk to people who work in councils, and I’ve now spoken to hundreds, you quickly see that it is a culture of low appreciation generally, so when something goes badly wrong – off-the-scale wrong – the culture is already in place for total execration. It wasn’t always like this."

O'Hagan expands on that last point by talking of his own upbringing in a council house in Scotland, but his purpose seems to be to marginalise metropolitan trouble-makers in favour of a more traditional, respectable working class: "we didn’t fight a general war with the council. On the contrary, our parents believed the council was on our side". He acknowledges that this changes with right-to-buy: "After Thatcher’s arrival, I noticed that the people left in ‘social housing’ were much quicker to complain". The problem with this interlude, long ago and far away, is that it has nothing to do with the particular circumstances of North Kensington. The area had long been a site for social activism and dissent (again, the Anthony Wilks film is much better on this), and a seed-bed of the counter-culture, from the days of Colin MacInnes through Michael Moorcock to The Clash. There was a general war with the council that long-predated Thatcher, while right-to-buy had relatively little impact because the borough had a modest amount of directly-owned housing stock compared to other London boroughs, having historically preferred to foster housing associations and charitable trusts. O'Hagan gestures at these truths in his review of the area's history, but he doesn't join the dots: a council that is reluctant to be directly responsible for providing homes, the most immediate human need above sustenance, will not have a vital relationship with those citizens for whom housing is primarily a precarious necessity rather than an investment or a route to self-actualisation.


Any council, any fire brigade, would have struggled to deal with a disaster like Grenfell. In some ways, such as its financial reserves, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea was in a better position than most, but in two crucial respects it was at a disadvantage. The first disadvantage is that it is quite small. This meant that its capacity to handle a city-scale challenge was limited, both in terms of emergency housing and the depth of council services and staff available to support the affected. The consequence was the rapid escalation to the London-wide Gold Command structure, which reinforced the sense that the council was out of its depth. O'Hagan recognises this challenge of size, but he focuses on the unreasonable expectations of Number 10 (particularly that everybody be rehoused within 3 weeks) and the personal ambition of the London Gold team leadership. Were Kensington and Chelsea to be merged with Hammersmith and Fulham, the combined borough would still be smaller, both territorially and in terms of population, than either Ealing or Barnet. This idea is not aired by O'Hagan, even though it is a common speculation among London government experts and has been effectively broached in the creation of shared backoffice services. The continuing existence of the Royal Borough is simply a given.

The second disadvantage is that the borough has long been highly diverse but also highly segregated. Though much was made of the proximity of rich and poor in the press coverage, the reality is that the latter are clustered in a few estates, mainly at the northern end of Kensington and with the northernmost further isolated by the Westway. If you read about (or remember) the Rachmanism of the 50s and the squats of the 70s, you might assume that the creeping gentrification of parts of the north of the borough since the 80s was a consequence of council policy. It was, but not in the sense of deliberate social cleansing. The key point to understand is that Kensington and Chelsea historically built very few council homes. O'Hagan points to the borough's commitment to supporting social housing through charitable trusts, and even suggests the council's policy of supporting them has helped preserve stock that would have been subject to right to buy if council-owned, but he neglects to note that Kensington and Chelsea stocks of both council and social landlord housing are much lower in absolute terms than other inner London boroughs. For example, in 2016, Kensington and Chelsea had 6,840 local authority properties and 13,034 social landlord units, while Islington had 25,850 and 15,617 respectively, and even Westminster (which had done its best to export the poor in the 1980s under Shirley Porter) had 11,840 and 15,312.

The slums and squats of old were a testament to a large market of cheap private rentals, not just in the northern wards but across the borough. As gentrification accelerated from the 80s onwards, that market gradually disappeared as properties previously converted to small flats were bought for conversion back into larger flats or single homes and remaining private rents rose. Kensington and Chelsea didn't sell off lots of council homes because it didn't have that many to begin with, and it didn't decant large numbers of tenants to other boroughs because it didn't have that many tenants. The contemporary "squeezed middle" of Kensington and Chelsea - skilled working class and even professional people who struggle to find genuinely affordable rents - is a consequence of a market that was already heavily privatised before Thatcher came to power. The issue of supply for less well-off residents was the unwillingness of the council to expand its stock over the last 30 years to offset the loss of genuinely affordable rental properties in the private sector. When O'Hagan insists that "In the actual amount of social housing delivered, they did much better than many Labour-run London councils", pointing to a chart that shows the net change in houses for social rent between 1997 and 2017, he ignores that the other boroughs struggled to replace stock lost to the private market over those years because of central government constraints on the use of right-to-buy receipts (again, Wilks makes this point). If you provide 800 new properties through housing associations but lose 1,000 council homes to right-to-buy, your net change will be negative. If you provide 200 new properties but only lose 100 to right-to-buy, your net change will be positive.


O'Hagan uses the word "estrangement" twice. He first talks about how the separation of the borough into distinct communities was driven in recent decades by the property market: "A genuine sense of estrangement, however, arrived with the super-prime boom in London real estate". Pointing to Russian oligarchs and basement swimming pools ignores that the actual estrangement in the borough was due to the boom in prime - not super-prime - properties, which wiped out the market for private rentals affordable by the working class and lower middle class. He then notes that every tragedy itself estranges: "Every disaster shrine now is a locus of bereavement but also of estrangement". We lose connection with people slowly, and then we lose connection suddenly. However, his remedy is little more than good intentions hedged by a commitment to plurality (this sounds like it was lifted from a speech by Emmanuel Macron): "The space opened up by the tragedy may be one into which no British political party can currently fit: somewhere new and ethically arresting, where the distance between rich and poor is addressed, and where the notion of society is reconsidered, not merely along the old class lines, but with a new tolerance of different truths, as well as true differences". Again, he is loath to admit that the policy of the council might have anything to do with that widening "distance between rich and poor".

There is nothing in his prescription that talks about the social role of local government, which has withered not only because of the retreat from housing but because of the wholesale move to a transactional model of services, something that the Tory administration of the borough has enthusiastically adopted. While the council was not as neglectful of the poorer wards as has been suggested by some high on hyperbole, it never saw its job as being to actively promote wider community integration, something that was evident in its tendency to try and ring-fence the Notting Hill Carnival as a periodic intrusion. Its approach towards the poorer wards was paternalistic: decisions made on the assumption of what would be good for the people without real consultation or involvement (this is the central point of the Wilks film, which is why it succeeds better as an essay than O'Hagan's long read). It is in this context that the residents' disappointment that no community members were to be appointed to the  official inquiry should be understood. Time and again they have been ignored by authority while successful community initiatives, such as the Westway Trust, have either been taken over or marginalised.

O'Hagan sums up: "Despite all the headlines and all the cries of murder directed at the local authority, the only people who could have known that the cladding was a potential fire risk were the people whose financial advantage lay in selling it, and passing it off, up and down the country, as safe. But as headlines go that’s not as sexy or as memorable as accusing two posh men of mass murder." He points to a systemic problem - the conflict of interests within the fire safety regime - but then distracts by insisting that a personal attack on "two posh men" is uncalled for. Just as those two men are a synecdoche for the council, so the council is a synecdoche for that dysfunctional regime. No responsible critic is accusing the council of "homicidal intent", but they are accusing it of being part of a wider system that is neglectful of the housing needs and safety of the less well-off. The term "social murder", which John McDonnell has revived, makes explicit that it is a system of incentives and a lack of restraint that leads to murderous consequences, not the machinations of malign individuals. The Hillsborough Independent Panel did not exonerate Sheffield Council because the proximate cause of that tragedy was the cowardice and callousness of individual policemen.

In the end, O'Hagan fails in this essay, as he did with his long-reads on Assange and Wright, because there is no convincing point to it. It tries to make the case that the council has been unfairly maligned and that tragedy brings out both the best and the worst in people, but the first claim is tendentious, and overly-dependent on a strawman, while the second is banal. The motivated will come away convinced that activists and Labour politicians are manipulative, that pop stars are hypocritical self-promoters, and that some victims are grasping and insufficiently grateful. I'm not sure that O'Hagan set out to make these points, but it is the corner that he inexorably painted himself into once he decided to view the council as a set of well-meaning individuals rather than as a dysfunctional system. What he seems oblivious to is that Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen's bafflement and hurt at their treatment is precisely the problem. They were always estranged from the people they sought to administer to, but this is not a failing of them as people: they were simply perpetuating a culture and policy framework that had been established over decades. Grenfell Tower is the story of 72 deaths much longer foretold than the lifetime of Edward Daffarn.