Sunday, 2 July 2017

Thatcher's Children







Copious lines have been written and video footage aired of the utterly horrendous fire at Grenfell tower in west London. The sights and sounds of people in fear and in death, and the red raw grief of the survivors, their families and the local community are beyond adequate description.

Yet these personal and collective tragedies speak too to a wider truth, one which has been buried away for years by mainstream commentators and media (though covered here), but which is now finally being aired, not least thanks to the outcome of June's General Election and the willingness of the dramatically insurgent Jeremy Corbyn to speak about the things that dared not be mentioned by his neoliberal predecessors. For, more powerfully and tragically than any blog, inspection report or political speech, the Grenfell fire has horrendously illuminated the very human impact of the Great Inequality at the faltering heart of British society and in particular the effect it has on that most vital need of everyone alive – the need for a comfortable, secure and perhaps above all, a safe place to call Home.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, shelter is one of the most primal needs of home sapiens alongside food. That it is unavailable to so many in this, the fifth richest country on a materially prosperous world is beyond a scandal – rather it evidences that we live on a planet ruled by psychopathy, with an economic system founded on essentially psychopathic principles and an elite willing to sacrifice the lives of lessers to enjoy, in the case of Grenfell Tower, a better view.

For let’s be in no doubt – while few people would actively harm others, millions willingly embrace a system that does untold harm to tens and hundreds of millions. Incidents like Grenfell Tower are simply the most striking, the most urgent, most public of the toll taken on those who are on the wrong side of the economic divide. Nero was probably unfairly accused of deliberately setting fire to Rome to turn squalid slum housing into his personal park, but the holocaust of decent housing and safe housing standards across Britain and most acutely in London has been a modern day fiddle of epic proportions. And the Tories and their allies are at the very heart of it.

From small beginnings, and, as with all cons, selling citizens’ ruin as a virtue to their victims, the Thatcher Gang first alienated and then appropriated public housing before their grasping descendants effectively finished it off under Blair and Cameron. In this context, tearless Theresa, while an appalling, craven character in so many ways, is (perhaps unsurprisingly) unremarkable. Her pathological lack of empathy is no aberration but, if anything, the Ideal, representing the Homo Capitalissimus, the Children of Thatcher.
Consider the tack – first of all, selling off council houses to sitting tenants through the 1980s and 1990s, trumpeted in the same way as the sick joke of the “shareholder economy” when the state’s energy assets were being flogged off, was marketed as giving people a security they could not get from council housing. This was in spite of the fact that tenancy of council housing was normally assured and, by law, at a fair rent. Rent controls and assured tenancies also at that time existed in the private rented sector, affording some degree of protection for renters.

Next Thatcher and Major went about dismantling all these controls and protections, supposedly for the benefit of “choice and flexibility”. As tenants became homeowners unable to get a market price for their houses on council estates, many sold on to… private landlords, many of them Tory MPs or their relatives or business partners, mates or simply their elite class comrades. Around one in three homes sold to council tenants are now privately rented, without the levels of maintenance or security of tenure, nor low rents, that people once enjoyed.

Similarly, a slew of other regulations and arrangements were destroyed: for example, the state Property Services Agency with a fund of information and expertise on rent and building controls, including safety, was stripped down and privatised. Councils were barred from using the receipts from council house sales to invest in either new or even their remaining stock. And soon forced transfers to housing associations and the rip-off of “arms-length management organisations” (often the former council housing chiefs running their own “not for profit” company) meant that democratic control of housing was gone. State funding over the decades, under both Tories and Nu-Labour, then conspired to force what had been local or specialist charitable housing associations to merge and develop into ever bigger, remote beasts until now just a handful control the vast majority of “social housing”, as what was once council housing is now known.

Everywhere you look over the last thirty years in social housing, all you can see is a steady stripping away of protection, contracting out of maintenance services, downgrading of tenants voices and underfunding of any redevelopments. And of course, in boroughs like Kensington & Chelsea, Tory leaders have made a virtue of running down their public services, running a surplus and paying a dividend back to their rich residents – the borough is on average the very wealthiest in the UK, but also one of the most grossly unequal. The absence of council staff from the tower area in the days after the fire was probably as much down to the fact that there are so very few of them as to bad organisation.

So here we are now – in the fifth richest society on the planet, in real terms more than twice as prosperous as it was in the 1970s, more and more people sleep in the street; millions more than ever can’t afford to buy any housing; and London and elsewhere boast tens of thousands, if not more, empty properties purchased as “investments” to deliberately lie empty until their owners flog them on to the next property investor. Those who do have places to live may easily end up with insecure tenancies in properties whose landlords the current government decided last autumn to not make legally responsible for ensuring are fit for human habitation. Some may end up, as shown on the BBC by chance the evening after the Grenfell fire, crowded in rented properties three or four to a room, or living literally in a cupboard, or even in a garage with just a tarpaulin sheet for a door.

Or maybe they end up dying in a block of flats, with no fire escape, nor any sprinkler system, with flammable cladding primarily put in place to spare the eyes of the rich across the borough, offended by the site of an ugly tower block full of “little people” as one Tory MP patronisingly called the survivors. While tests show a 100% failure rate on cladding on tower blocks across the country now, it may yet be that they are compliant with fire safety standards - because they too have been compromised in the search for every more profit.

Much is being said about the need to learn from the fire. Corbyn has rightly and radically called for the requisitioning of the empty properties in the borough to house the survivors leading to shudders of outrage from many Tories and their collaborators. 

Mark Bridgen MP fulminated that this was a nonsensical idea when student accommodation could be used instead (the irony of the state of a lot of that being lost amidst his blind arrogance); alleged celebrity Anne Diamond appeared on TV to dismiss the idea on the grounds that many of the owners live abroad so couldn’t be contacted (email stops at Dover since Article 50 was invoked); but most breath-taking of all was the insistence of economist Andrew Lilico, Chairman of the Institute of Economic Affairs, on Radio 4 PM that it would be “immoral” to seize private property and if not doing so meant people were homeless “well, you don’t always get exactly what you want.” (49.30 mins in on - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tvj7f ). Even in a disaster of the magnitude of Grenfell tower, he feels that it is wrong to share property for the common need, never mind the common good.

Andrew Lilico
The lines are drawn. Grenfell is not an aberration. It is not an accident. And Theresa May’s Government by psychopathy should not be a surprise or a shock to us.

Because, ever since Thatcher declared there is no such thing as society, just individuals, this has been our destination. Capitalism is about exploitation – everything is in the end a commodity to be bought and sold and the smartest or fastest or best-protected racketeer gets to walk away with the prize. There is no empathy, no compassion. Self-interest and functioning without conscience or regard for others trumps all.

So, welcome to the future. To Thatcher’s Children and the planet of the psychopaths. This is our world now, but only for as long as we allow it. For, like all “libertarians”, what Mr Lilico sitting in the BBC studio yammering on about property rights forgets is that property rights only exist for as long as society - all of us - continue to recognise them.