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The tragic price for a rolled-back state


My mother, Patricia Cockburn, joined the Air-Raid Precautions (ARP) in 1939 and worked at the “Northern Control Centre” in a large cellar deep under Praed Street in Paddington through the early months of the Blitz. This is about two and a half miles from where Grenfell Tower was to be built 35 years later. She recalled later in a memoir that “60 of us sat in a large underground room, each at a narrow desk on which were four telephones coloured white, red, green and black”.

The black phone was for the Chief Warden of a district to call in to say where bombs had fallen and ask for assistance proportionate to the level of destruction and the number of casualties. Patricia would immediately pick up her white phone to send ambulances, the red one for fire engines and the green for heavy rescue vehicles. The skill of the controllers lay in matching the rescue effort to the needs of the victims of the bombing. “You never gave the warden all the machines he asked for,” wrote Patricia. “If you did, you would run out of ambulances and fire engines, long before the raid was over.”

Overall, she found the system well organised and effective. There were glitches, such as an instruction to wear gas masks at all times which briefly made it impossible for the controllers to hear what the wardens were telling them. She was overawed by the dedication of the rescue crews. One night during a heavy raid she got a call on her white phone and heard a girl’s voice calmly asking: “My ambulance is on fire, do I have permission to abandon it?” Patricia asked if she had any patients in the ambulance. The girl said she did not because the crew had been on the way to a bombing. Patricia asked if this meant they had a full tank of petrol and, when told that it did, replied: “Don’t ask any more questions, get out and run like blazes.”

My mother left the job because she was pregnant and was therefore not in the cellar when a bomb fell through an airshaft and killed everybody on duty at the time.

I was thinking about my mother’s time in the ARP during the Blitz, comparing her experiences with events surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire. The fire, ambulance and police services behaved with comparable courage and efficiency to their predecessors in World War Two. But the response of central and local government 77 years after the Blitz was miserably inadequate, and continued to be so long after the unexpectedness of the calamity provided any excuse. They failed at every level and their failure is being rightly pilloried as a grotesque example of cavalier irresponsibility on the part of the state.

It is nauseating to think of the burned bodies of people trapped in Grenfell Tower as the flames engulfed them and then read government boasts on an official website about how “businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from six hours to 45 minutes, allowing managers to quickly get back to their day jobs.” Dangerous drivel like this sends the clear message that the authorities do not care much about fire safety. Of course, under a regime of cursory 45-minute inspections every business will have a “good record” until the day it burns to the ground.

The Government approach is to imply with a sort of gloating superiority that concern for health and safety is a frivolous diversion from the real business of life which is making money. It is disgusting but revealing that in the wake of Grenfell Tower the Government has still not withdrawn a press release dated 3 March 2016 which is entitled “Government going further to cut red tape by £10 billion”. Signed among others by the communities and local government secretary, Sajid Javid, its lauds the infamous “One-in, Three-out policy” under which three regulations must be removed every time one new one is introduced. If some PhD student ever writes a thesis on “Gimmicks that kill”, they should try to trace how this mindless slogan turned into policy.

Sneers directed over the decades by governments and media against “Health and Safety” as the apogee of unnecessary and intrusive bureaucratic meddling, set the stage for the Grenfell Tower tragedy. One does not have to be particularly cynical about human nature to realise that some businesses, noting the dismissive attitude of the state to its own regulations, will conclude that nobody who matters will mind if it breaks a few of them.

But there is an even more destructive aspect to this contempt for state supervision that marks a big difference between government attitudes today and in 1940. For centuries after the end of the 17th century, Britain had a more efficient and better organised state than its rivals in the rest of Europe. This was the outcome of decades of civil conflict in Britain and Ireland, though not all parts of the state apparatus were equally effective, the navy being much better run than the army. It was state power as much as free trade and the industrial revolution sustained the British role in the world.

It is a tradition that has taken a long time to die. Britain was never going to retain its imperial status after 1945, but neoliberal rhetoric about shrinking the state has been deeply damaging in a country that was never big or strong enough to afford too many mistakes. I was periodically stationed in the Middle East, Russia and the US in the years after 1980 and in all these places one could sense the decay of British state institutions. Visiting British politicians were astonishingly ignorant of the local political landscape. British embassies abandoned diplomacy and turned into trading posts. Britain’s reliance on its relationships with the US and the EU became ever more pronounced. This may not have mattered too much until British voters decided to discard the European crutch and President Trump devalued the US crutch by retracting the US role in the world.

Some of this decline was inevitable and some was self-inflicted. The political and media elite often compensated for these failings by disappearing into a world of comforting fantasies, as in the failed British military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It became the norm to blame all the disasters on Tony Blair, but in both these wars, and later in Libya and Syria, there was a pervasive lack of interest in what was going wrong and how it might be put right.

For a nation that so often is mocked and mocks itself for being too absorbed in its triumphs in the First and Second World Wars, the British are surprisingly ignorant of the causes of their past success. Whatever its military fortunes, the British state machine used to be better organised and more effective than its allies and opponents and its ability to create powerful alliances useful to itself was unmatched. Self-interested denigration of the state as a sort of super-parasite over the past 30 years has helped dissipate these strengths. The well-organised calm of my mother’s ARP control room under Paddington in 1940 was incomparably better than the chaotic state response to Grenfell Tower.

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