Grenfell United projection

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 The second part, which may not be published for another two years, will examine the circumstances and causes of the disaster.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.


  1. damon

    I agree that rushing to judge and condemn is pretty unpalatable.
    Some people are responsible for what happened some way or other – but I don’t know what even these enquires we always have will change. Accidents do happen – uncontrolled fires have been a problem for humans since back when we were living in caves.
    The worst of this blaming and trying to politicise the tragedy though came from the left – and those that even sought to make it a black and minority ethnic issue.

    “David Lammy suggests Grenfell Tower death toll may have been covered up to prevent riots”

    Then there was the racialised objections to the enquiry being led by a white man.
    They didn’t like the look of Sir Martin Moore-Bick. What did he know of the lives of black people they asked.

    And on the sad story of the Vietnamese migrants and so many thousands of others who try to get to England – it’s Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s England they desperately want to escape to.
    I think it would be useful to bear in mind some other Guardian opinion pieces on the deaths of the migrants in the lorry. There was one by Hsiao-Hung Pai which gave a bit of background to who these migrants were.
    Mostly, just young people looking for a better life. Just like my Irish parents did at their age back in the 1950s when they moved to England.

    She writes: “It appears that many of the 39 people may have come from the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Vietnam, which have been hit by economic reforms. Three decades ago, in 1986, the Vietnamese government launched the Doi Moi economic reforms, which aimed to facilitate a transition from a centralised planning to a “socialist-oriented” market economy. From the 1990s onwards, the government boasted of Vietnam’s rise in GDP – what was not said was that the growth was built upon the low-cost labour of millions of Vietnamese, toiling in processing factories and assembling products for overseas companies.”

    Because they don’t want that life, they decide to head off to the other side of the world – and do so clandestinely and illegally. Because they can’t be stopped, the writer of that piece, urges western governments to open up their societies and let them in. From every corner of the world. Vietnam alone has a population of nearly a hundred million and I do wonder what percentage of them would like to move to Europe.
    Does it matter and should it matter how many want to start new lives in the West?
    Some say no it doesn’t and that we have plenty of room to build bigger cities – and loads of people disagree with that view too.
    Personally I think it matters more than many on the left would care to admit.
    At the least one should agree that high rates of immigration transforms the society that hosts these new people into a different kind of country and society. And some of the result of that is good and some is problematic.

  2. damon

    There’s some pretty nasty and divisive sectarian class and race politics being played over the Grenfell Tower fire.
    Jacob Rees-Mogg is their latest victim. He was asked about the fire and the first part of the report on LBC radio the other day – and he gave his answer. Unfortunately there was enough ambiguity in what he said for it to be twisted as used as a way of attacking him. And lashing out more broadly against what is seen as his political and social class – of which his race is a part of too.

    This was from Sean O’Grady in the Independent.
    “Jacob Rees-Mogg’s cruel Grenfell comments confirm all the worst suspicions about the Tories”

    It’s a complete hatchet job. Quite shameful in my opinion.
    And course the ridiculous David Lammy also had to have his say again.
    You think he might be a bit ashamed for getting it so wrong about the police deliberately covering up the numbers of dead. But no – he’s actually a race baiter.

    This is one of the reservations I have about the multicultural and multiracial society. It’s easy to carve out cliques and factions. You can get lazy distrust and a lack of unity. I’m pretty sure I often feel it.
    More like South Africa (although that’s very extreme) and less like Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where you feel a stronger sense of solidarity and affinity amongst the common people.

    Many people have joined in the attack on Rees-Mogg, including Corbyn (of course) and the man of our times, Stormzy, the south London rapper. Why wouldn’t he? It’s the natural reaction from the sort of cultural movement he’s a leading part of.

    “Stormzy: Jacob Rees-Mogg is ‘an actual piece of s***’ for Grenfell comments”

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