Darren McGarvey: The Grenfell tragedy was all about class

If the tragedy at ­Grenfell Tower has revealed ­anything other than ­industrial scale incompetence, it's the deep social divide at the heart of British society. Unsurprisingly, in the days that followed, the debate opened along class lines. Some came down on the side of the community, arguing they had been ignored, dismissed and placed at risk because they were poor. ­Others, on the side of the state, urged calm until the experts had cast their objective eye over the events and discovered the facts.

Grenfell residents who warned of catastrophe were ignored because they were poor, says Darren McGarvey. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images
Grenfell residents who warned of catastrophe were ignored because they were poor, says Darren McGarvey. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images

Regardless of the proximate cause of the Grenfell fire, we can say with absolute certainty that the ­confluence of negligence that ­preceded this tragedy is a direct result of political exclusion – a ­central tenet of social deprivation. This is to say, people living in ­conditions of poverty find it harder to participate in the political ­process, for myriad reasons, and when they do, they are much easier to ignore.

This was typified in the chillingly prescient words, written in November 2016, of the same intrepid blogger the council threatened with legal action, which read: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the ­Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.’

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Not only that, but the same blog repeatedly warned about the risk presented by specific issues like the lack of fire escapes, the precarious stairwell and the ‘stay put’ instruction which appears to have played a fatal role in why people were not evacuated sooner.

What’s been going on in Grenfell was a scandal before the fire even kindled and it’s the same story up and down the country. For those of you so apparently concerned with rationality, doesn’t it seem a tad ­irrational to continue to ignore the people who correctly predicted the fire? As for facts and experts, the countless warnings in previous years, about the generally unfit state of high-rise housing stock as well as the risk posed by cuts to fire ­services, all seem pertinent to me.

I think what the debate in the ­aftermath reveals is that many well-meaning conservative-minded ­people appear to misunderstand poverty – and the poor – at a ­fundamental level. To them, the idea of political exclusion is hilariously naive. To them, democracy is about swanning into a polling booth every few years and voting for whichever party has most slavishly attempted to accommodate their personal concerns.

But for the Grenfell Action Group, who repeatedly gave detailed ­warnings about safety risks in the building over a period of years, it took a wee bit more effort than that. Nearly a decade, in fact, and they were still ignored. Not only that, but they continue to be ignored and ­spoken over despite being utterly vindicated – at the expense of their own friends and family.

That’s why the Grenfell fire is about political exclusion. These people were trying to get their most basic safety needs on to someone’s to-do list, only to be dismissed, ignored and intimidated. Had they been of higher social standing, it’s almost certain this would not have happened – that’s why this is about poverty and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

Poverty is about more than ­money. Poverty is like a gravitational field, comprising social, ­economic, ­emotional and physiological forces. Every person’s escape velocity is different, relative to their circumstances, but regardless of how those individual factors, such as family or education, may differ between individuals, the forces that ­poverty brings to bear on a person will ­subtly direct the course of their life. That’s why we can accurately ­determine a child’s social mobility and life expectancy based solely on their birthweight and where they were born.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests poverty is more than an economic problem. A recent study conducted by the Crittenton Women’s Union showed chronic stress, of the sort experienced by people living in ­daily poverty, “has impacts far beyond diminution of personal agency, self-awareness, or understanding of others. It causes physiological changes in brain development that deeply affect the ways people react to the world around them”. The author of the study, Elizabeth Babcock continues: “Stress and fear cause the limbic brain to trigger the release of dozens of ­hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, developed to help the mind and body prepare for self-protection. These hormones, in conjunction with activation of the inflammatory response, create the potent effects referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ or ‘acute stress’ response.”

This is one of many reasons why telling the people of Grenfell to calm down was not only stupid, but emotionally illiterate and culturally unsophisticated. Sadly, many on the right appear to have such a pedestrian grasp of the physiological impact of poverty, it’s no wonder the Tory social policies they advocate are so demonstrably damaging.

The fire happened in the same week it was revealed that 4000 ­people died after being declared 
fit-to-work. Such evidence is hardly anecdotal. These policies, well-meaning as they may be, are based on an ideological belief that ­poverty is, primarily, a state of mind. But if these people were as concerned with facts and experts as they claimed after the Grenfell fire, then they’d already have known that ­poverty is not merely a dysfunctional family of self-limiting beliefs, but a matrix of oppressive, quantifiable, inequalities. The events prior to the Grenfell fire, as well the incendiary aftermath which brought London to the cliff edge of civil unrest, is a glimpse of what’s on the cards unless some on the right accept that the experts have already spoken. The fact is, you’re dangerously mistaken about poverty and the poor.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social ­commentator @lokiscottishrap