As often happens now, this post started as a comment on Chris Brooke’s Facebook page. Today he set out his initial, sober thoughts on the Grenfell Tower disaster and the link to austerity.
Like Chris, I’ve said nothing to date, for the obvious reason; it’s hard to take in the scale of the horror facing people during that night, and nothing anyone says can diminish the pain and grief.
But we have to say something in the end, because to say nothing will in time become more disrespectful, and making meaningless the lost lives that should meant something.
So here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts on what those who died and will die mean.
One of my more formative political experiences was as a young staff nurse in charge of a general medical ward at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, on the morning of the Clapham Junction disaster in December 1998, .
Sometime after my early shift started, I picked up he office phone to a matron (I think they were still called matrons) to be told that the emergency response procedure was in place, and I had to release everyone I could to casualty for redeployment.
That morning, as the sirens wailed, just two of us (me in charge and an ‘auxie’) did what we could around the ward, with all the old fellas joining the solidarity to say that it didn’t bloody matter if they didn’t get a wash or tea today, and that we should keep focused on the drips, drains and stuff. That solidarity from very ill people meant a lot.
At the time, we were in dispute over nurse staffing levels (I was secretary to the NUPE branch and had been a strike organiser in Feb 88), so I was semi-aware of the wider dimensions, but also very narrow in my thinking.
But in early 1989, when the P&O lads at Dover went on strike over the fact that the company was still failing to address the kind of issues which had led to the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987 (I forget the technical details), I started to put two and two together properly, and got the union branch to start day-off train trips to support the picket line on a ‘disaster can happen to any of us, and workers must stick together for safety’ solidarity basis.
The two and two I put together was that there was a reason people got killed in accidents (my dad had also been killed in an accident 10 years previous), and that that reason was people with skills, experience and knowledge were not being properly listened to by those with control.
This needed to change, I thought.
Two years later, I was in Bangladesh when the 1991 cyclone struck, on April 29th. A quarter of a million died. My Facebook & Twitter avatar is a picture of me helping save a little girl’s life on an island field hospital. I’m glad we did.
Just a couple of weeks ago, a cyclone of the same kind of scale hit the same area of Bangladesh.
A massive, brilliantly organised evacuation of the islands and coast meant death numbers were quite small. This is a well established procedure, in a country that still has massive poverty.
A thousand girls died in the Tazreen fire in 2012. It makes me sick to think of them locked in those rooms, locked in so they would work a bit harder. Those images were what came back to me as news of Grenfell came.
But in Bangladesh, action has been taken, especially with international sweatshop dealers. Factory regulations now mean more in Bangladesh.
In Britain, Grenfell happened. We don’t yet know exactly why, and we don’t yet know whether it happened precisely because people in power didn’t see doing the right thing as ‘cost-effective’, but we do know people with real knowledge weren’t listened to.
Safety regulations have come to be abhorred as red tape, and those who insist that they matter have become reviled as whingers and moaners.
Grenfell changes everything, I hope, just as the 1991 cyclone and the Tazreen fire have served to transform Bangladesh, not just in terms of safety, but more broadly in terms of administrative competence and care for citizens.
The lives of those who have died at Grenfell mean something, but we can and should develop a spirit in the country which make of their lives a transformative force, pushing us towards a society where skills, expertise, and the value other people’s lives — even the poor — become re balanced against the search for profit.
My generation failed, it is painfully clear, to move from our anger at injustice to a coherent programme of solidarity against it. Without our failure in face of the profit motive, Grenfell would not have happened. Mea culpa.
When I look at the deep anger of a new generation about what happened at Grenfell, and as that anger evolves into a demand for wider social justice, I can at least feel hope that they will not betray the next one.