This essay, on the shallowness of public debates about social tragedies, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 3 November 2019, under the headline ‘From Grenfell to migrant deaths, we fail to see the deeper causes of tragedy’
The 72 people killed in the Grenfell Tower fire. The 39 migrants who died in a shipping container left in a car park in Purfleet, Essex. Little may seem to connect these two dreadful events except the sense of horror we feel about both.
What links the two tragedies is less the events themselves than the public discussions about them and the way that such discussions reveal the difficulties we have in thinking about ‘causation’ or ‘responsibility’. In both cases, the roots of the tragedies are manifold. But in both cases we seem more interested in laying instant blame than in excavating the wider causes that might help us prevent such catastrophes happening again.
When the Grenfell Tower inquiry was set up two years ago, its chair, Martin Moore-Bick, decided to divide it into two phases. The first part, the report of which was published last week, dealt with the events of that tragic night. The second part, which may not be published for another two years, will examine the circumstances and causes of the disaster.
This might seem a rational approach – consider first the actual events and then explore the causes. The trouble is that it’s not easy to create such a neat distinction. In dealing with the events of the night, the first phase of inquiry has inevitably had to deal with causes, but only certain causes, the most immediate ones. It was the actions of firefighters that bore the greatest scrutiny in last week’s report.
Almost from the moment of the fire, though, it has been apparent that behind the horror lay a much wider set of factors – from the flammable cladding that was allowed to wrap the building to a political culture that saw regulation as an affront to freedom; from cuts to the London fire service to an almost criminal level of ministerial negligence. The report acknowledges many of these issues. None will be properly investigated, however, until the second phase.
The fire service and its practices certainly need to be scrutinised. The insistence of the London Fire Brigade commissioner, Dany Cotton, in her evidence to the inquiry that she ‘wouldn’t change anything we did on the night’ was grotesque; she has rightly faced considerable criticism both in the report and from survivors.
Nevertheless, the failures of the fire service make sense only against the broader background of the failures of regulation and policy. As Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, has observed: ‘The truth is that the firefighters turned up… after the building had already been turned, in reality, into a death trap.’ The order of the inquiry, Wrack argues, was ‘back to front’ because it ‘prioritises scrutiny of firefighters, who did everything that they could to save lives, over investigating the critical issues of public safety that led to the fire’.
This is not simply an issue about the Grenfell inquiry and how it has been structured. It reflects, rather, a deeper cultural tendency to focus on the proximate causes of social tragedies and to ignore, or downplay, more distant but often more significant issues.
Perhaps nowhere has this been more apparent than in the discussion of the terrible deaths of the 39 migrants found in a refrigerated container in Essex.
Both the police investigation and the media reporting have focused on one issue: that of people smugglers or human traffickers. In the accounts of the police, politicians and journalists, the migrants are portrayed merely as victims of unscrupulous criminals. The police investigation is still live and we do not have all the details. It is not, however, the first time such deaths have occurred and we know much about people smuggling and the reasons for it, from both academic and police investigations.
Migrants are rarely simple victims. For all the venality of the smugglers and their couldn’t-give-a-toss-about-human-lives cynicism, they do not force migrants to travel. People smugglers are not the same as human traffickers, who do kidnap and coerce, and the tendency of police, politicians and journalists to conflate the two is irresponsible and misguided.
‘Smugglers can be ruthless and regularly deceive migrants’, the Dutch sociologist and migration specialist Hein de Haas has pointed out, but they ‘deliver a service asylum seekers and migrants are willing to pay for’. They are willing to pay for it because rich countries in the West have cut off most legal routes of entry. The irony, as de Haas observes, is that it is such immigration policies that have ‘created a huge market for the smuggling business’.
Yet rarely has the wider context in which the smugglers operate been discussed. Police, politicians and journalists all seem to believe that smugglers operate in a policy vacuum, that they smuggle simply because they are amoral and that there is nothing to be said beyond that.
It’s a mindset that will only ensure that the horrors revealed in that container in Purfleet will happen again. And again. And again. Every time migrants die in such gruesome fashion, there are calls for tighter immigration controls. Tighter controls lead to migrants taking more dangerous routes and being more likely to resort to smugglers. That in turn leads to more deaths. It’s a vicious cycle we seem unable to see.
More than half a century ago, the historian EH Carr observed in his book What Is History? that any social or historical event has myriad causes. Some are meaningful, some less significant, some irrelevant. How should we distinguish between them?
Meaningful causes, Carr suggested, are those that allow us to generalise from any specific case, to make us think more broadly about a particular event, to change things (policy, infrastructure, attitudes) in a way that leads to social improvement. What the tragedies of both Grenfell and Purfleet reveal is the difficulties we have in thinking about the wider social meaning of such calamities. Even when, as in the case of Grenfell, we recognise the significance of regulation and policy, we are nevertheless drawn to thinking primarily about immediate, proximate causes.
The question that such devastating events pose is this: do we really want to prevent such tragedies in the future? Or are we happy simply to point the finger, find someone to blame and absolve those in power of responsibility?
The photo is one of the messages projected by Grenfell United, the survivors’ action group, on to high-rises across England, in the run-up to the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.