Big Ben. Mariano Mentel / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Political scepticism and suspicion, civic disengagement, chequered confidence in those we contract to protect us, have been terms thrown around academia for centuries. And though the connected debates are often over-dry and abstract, a sequence of events has just reminded us that without raw trust, the very ability of democracy to function is at serious risk.
Get careless with the small stuff - to paraphrase Albert Einstein - and you won’t be trusted with big ticket business. If this advice was pinned outside every committee corridor, every MP’s room, every debating chamber, every quango office, would it make a difference? On recent performances, the answer is, sadly, no.
Where to start? Those who work in the Palace of Westminster have been worried about the consequences of a catastrophic fire for years. This is not about altruistic concern for those living in sub-standard public housing.
It is about how £5.7 billion is needed to refurbish parliament, to bring a neo-gothic building into the 21stcentury; and about how the electrical system in Westminster is dangerous and maintenance might not be working. It’s also about security, and digital communications and protecting Pugin’s interior design, all with a sky-high price.
This work will get done and billions will be spent. But it will probably not take the lives of ministers, MPs or the staff of the Palace of Westminster to force through the project. It is unlikely a catastrophic fire will engulf the palace and destroy Sir Charles Barry’s work. And when the upgrade is complete it will remain a fitting monument to our democracy.
But what kind of monument is the blackened skeletal structure of Grenfell Tower? What is the significance of dozens of council-owned blocks that are either clad in the same combustible material that contributed to the horrors of Grenfell, or found to be sub-standard when experts carried out a thorough safety evaluation?
If one of the key roles of the state is to protect its citizens and to ensure their rights are upheld, then what is left of Grenfell – and I choose these words carefully, intending to upset no one – is a giant tombstone to democratic failure.
Whatever form or part of government you examine, whether federal or the UK’s parliamentary and local administrative system, trust is the glue, the belief even, that decisions will only be taken if the public are protected.
Living in an advanced civic society has its risks. Government, those we elect, is there to protect and minimise such risks – to ensure food is safe, roads are safe, energy is provided, waste disposed of, the environment protected. We learn, as political consumers, to trust the government and to trust the technical experts the government says it trusts.
But what happens when trust fails and we learn there is more focus on a £5 billion upgrade of parliament’s home rather than homes supposedly built for those unable to enter the private market?
The expenses scandal fostered concern that those who represent us may instead be stealing from us. Broken political promises and basic lies compound the problem - and trust slides. During the EU referendum, an extra £350m every week was promised for the NHS if Brexit happened. That pledge vanished quickly, along with the meaningless ‘Take back control’.
An election that Theresa May repeatedly said would not happen, subsequently resulted in her authority being abruptly removed. The marketing of a ‘strong and stable’ leader was rumbled as an unconvincing, feeble con.
Political trust, thin on the ground before the election, has since the Grenfell fire morphed into a deeper anger. And while we may accept conflicts over the outcome of competing economic arguments, we have no stomach to accept life-ending hazards that have been ignored or dismissed as unworthy of prioritising.
Political trust, thin on the ground before the election, has since the Grenfell fire morphed into a deeper anger.
The residents of Grenfell Tower knew where they lived was dangerous. Their concerns were well documented. Yet their voices, and their rights, were sidelined. Their concerns were not centred on advanced technological systems. It was far less complex. They knew sprinklers would help, that better alarms mattered, that a single stair exit was far from ideal.
That anyone slept well in this fated tower block says more about the tragic acceptance of risk than it does about faith and trust. And now? If Grenfell is to mean anything, then the low trust we have in politicians and in the commercial relationships formally connected to the state, must change. Business as usual is not an option, nor is a drawn-out judicial inquiry that tries to lean on the ability to forget and move on.
Trust is lost easily, but it is usually a slow learning curve. It produces a drip-feed of suspicion that those supposed to be on your side have their attention elsewhere. This fosters the idea that even tried-and-tested expertise should be questioned or rejected. From the state’s perspective, a wait-and-see approach to catastrophe then begins to look attractive.
The UK is perhaps more guilty of this approach than elsewhere. We improve rail safety after major accidents (Paddington, Clapham Junction); we improve oil rig safety after lives are lost in a major fire (Piper Alpha), we improve ferry safety after a sea disaster (Zeebruge). And now we will improve the building and safety of high-rise blocks after Grenfell.
Our mounting loss of trust could be offset through formal links to international organisations, which monitor safety on a global scale. Instead the UK’s withdrawal from Europe risks a retreat to an ‘own-back-yard’ school of safety when we should be drawing on expertise beyond our borders.
openDemocracy has already pointed out inconsistencies in air safety in the North Sea where the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and its Norwegian regulatory counterpart both decided they will make decisions on their own rather than take directions from the European Union’s air regulator, EASA.
In February this year the CAA discussed proposals to allow a “phased return to service” for a helicopter (Airbus’ EC225) that had been banned from operating in the UK. Despite being deemed airworthy by the EU and returned to service by military and air sea rescue services world-wide, there are currently no Super Puma 225s flying from the UK or Norway.
The CAA stated that provided conditions were met on equipment checks and other issues, the aircraft could return to its business of ferrying personnel to the North Sea oil fields.
On the surface, this looks like the type of thorough safety regime absent from many tower blocks in the UK. Evidence was being judged and evaluated, and risks were being assessed.
However a month later the CAA opted for a two stage approach: the first where the UK and Norway regulators would decide if they are satisfied everything is safe; and a second stage where the crew and passengers who use the helicopters offer their assessment.
If this is an indication of how far institutional trust has been eroded, where industry regulators no longer believe their own expert opinion is enough, then the work of the inquiry into Grenfell ordered by the Prime Minister will be a far harder task than expected.
The UK is about to start work on a new generation of nuclear power stations. Park the questions over their economic viability. If we no longer trust the authorities that will evaluate nuclear safety, if we no longer trust the politicians who take decisions on our behalf, and instead want a local or DIY approach to public safety, then where do we draw line? Before we board a jet to fly off on holiday, do we want to inspect the engines ourselves? Where does trust end and continuous fear become the norm?
Grenfell is already more than an appalling loss of life. It may be a bonfire of our remaining political trust, trust any future government will need to work very hard to restore.
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