When is it Political?
One of the things that seems to happen, like clockwork, whenever a tragic event occurs, and people start talking about the causes is for others to say that it is either “Too Soon”. Or, also often “You shouldn’t politicise this” or some variation on that theme.
There are obviously various competing factors here. A desire to be respectful to those who have been affected by the event, their grieving families. But at the same time a desire to know why it happened. A desire to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A desire that if people have been guilty of wrongdoing that they are held to account, and punished.
In truth none of these are illegitimate. And in many ways they are not mutually exclusive. And where people are expressing sensitivity to the victims, particularly if they are directly connected to the victims this should be listened to.
All too often those claims are really about shutting off debate, about fearing to talk about the politics behind things because you are worried that the inevitable conclusion will challenge your political convictions, or political affiliations you hold.
When people in these circumstances say “You shouldn’t politicise this” or words to that effect, then I believe that is deeply insidious in a Liberal and Democratic society. It seems to hinge on the idea that tragic events are somehow “Ordained by a higher power” and nothing we could have done would of made a difference.
But I’m afraid that is palpable nonsense. Many tragedies are the direct result of either decisions by officials or organisations, or even of public policy. Or maybe they are the result of someone deliberately choosing to ignore the rules. Or maybe they are caused by incompetence. Or maybe they are caused by criminality in the pursuit of personal gain.
If there is even a suggestion that such a tragic event had any connection to any of those things, in any way, then it is political. Almost everything we do on a population level is political.
People often say that you “Can’t put a price on human life”. The overwhelming majority would agree with that statement without caveats. But the awful truth is in almost every sphere of public life people do put a price on human life. And when it is investigated that is often set at a level that people might find insultingly low.
In the Grenfell fire it seems that price might have been £2 per square metre for fireproof cladding. Now that decision was political. It might even have been criminal. And in light of so many people losing their lives; and so many more losing their homes it is entirely legitimate to ask these political questions.
But here is the other thing most of us would probably find examples where actually we’d consider the price too high too.
I mean say let’s look at traffic deaths. Last year (2016) in the UK around 1800 people lost their lives on the road, and a further 25000 were seriously injured. Another 150,000 odd received minor injuries.
Now if we say introduced a blanket 20mph speed limit in populated areas and vigorously enforced it say with very liberal (some would say illiberal) use of average speed cameras, or maybe mandatory GPS devices that constantly reported speed and automatically reported speeding drivers. That would almost certainly drastically reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries on our roads.
But that policy would never come to pass. There would be arguments against the cost of installing the speed cameras and limits. There would be arguments based on the effect on the economy of everyone having to drive so much more slowly. There would be arguments about civil liberties of the GPS devices. But most of all the underlying truth would be people would be against it because of the inconvenience to them personally of having to drive slowly and take longer to get to places.
That, is both putting a price on human life, and it is inherently political. Because it is the weighing up of costs and benefits against the risks and consequences and deciding what to do. And when it comes to it, getting to Sainsburys more quickly means we’ll as a society tolerate 1800 deaths and 25,000 serious injuries a year on the road.
Like I said political.
And this sort of stuff applies to everything, particularly tragedies, and particularly preventable ones.
So Hillsborough was political. The floods in 2012 were political. The BSE crisis was political. The Thalidomide crisis was political. The current A&E crisis is political.
Any anyone who ever tells you these things are not political are hiding in fear from what looking into the politics of those things would say. If Grenfell was preventable, if the fire was predictable, if lessons can be learned to stop this happening again. Then we have to have asked those questions.
Understand that officialdom will always try to obstruct the process of getting those answers. Look how long the families of the Hillsborough 96 had to wait to get proper answers, and proper justice. In the child abuse scandal the New Zealand judge Dame lowell Goddard wasn’t able to do the enquiry because the Home Office would not allow her to be independent and pick her staff insisting that they had to chose the people looking into their own department. Asbestos victims had to go through decades of legal challenges to get compensated; often posthumously.
So yes, now is absolutely the time to ask the political questions, and make the political points. Whilst the eyes of the world, and the country are on Grenfell. Where officialdom cannot weasel out of their responsibilities because people won’t tolerate it. If we don’t demand answers and actions now we could be consigning the victims to a Hillsborough like wait.
And I’ll finish by saying that know this; when someone tells you you shouldn’t make “political points” when something like this has happened. That you shouldn’t consider why, how and who? That we should just be sad but accept it as “One of those things”. Then they are being political in doing this.
Also published on Medium.