One of the main reasons austerity is being imposed on the general public is precisely to free up funds for foreign interventions.
We don’t have, it seems, enough money for all tower blocks in the country to be fitted with sprinklers and for adequate fire safety measures to be in place, but we do have enough to set fire to a series of secular Middle East countries that the Western elites and the endless war lobby want ‘regime-changed’.
Just compare the very modest sums that would have ensured the safety of the mainly working-class inhabitants of Grenfell Tower with how much the British government has squandered on wars against ‘target states’ in recent years. The London Fire Brigades Union tweeted that ‘Nobody has ever died in a fire in the UK in a property with an effective fire sprinkler system fitted’.
The cost of fitting Grenfell Tower with sprinklers has been put at around £200,000 by the industry’s trade body. £200,000 to protect 600 people’s lives? Nah, too expensive, mate, in neoliberal/neoconservative Britain. We’ve got other more ‘important’ things to spend our money on – like backing anti-Assad ‘rebels’ in Syria, which in 2013 alone the UK government proudly announced would receive £13.2m from the taxpayer.
The shocking truth is that public safety at home has been sacrificed for the pursuance of neocon objectives abroad.
Looking at the national picture, there are an estimated 4,000 tower blocks in the UK without sprinkler systems. By my math that means it would cost around £800m to make all of them safe. If that seems a hefty amount, then put that figure alongside the £37bn the war in Afghanistan has cost British taxpayers up to May 2013 – a sum equivalent to £2,000 per household.
Or the £205bn to renew and maintain Trident, which, in the words of journalist Peter Hitchens (a conservative, not a leftist), “protects us from an enemy we don’t have in a war which ended 26 years ago.”
Then there is the issue of cladding. The decision to clad the building was taken, at least in part, to improve the view of wealthier neighbors. There was a choice of two types of cladding – one flammable- and the other fire-resistant. The fire-resistant one was £2 per meter more expensive. And guess which one was chosen? Yup, the flammable one.
It was revealed this week that the private firm that fitted the flammable cladding for £2.6m in 2016 put £2.5m into tax schemes before part of the company went bust.
Back in the pre-neoliberal, neoconservative era, refurbishments would have been done ‘in-house’ by the council. But Thatcherism changed all that. Local authorities have seen their funding from central government cut and have opted out of a wide range of activities they once carried out. Outsourcing has become an obsession, which makes it oh-so-easy to pass the blame on to someone else when things go wrong. Which they often do.
Tory-controlled Kensington and Chelsea Council handed over the running of its housing stock to Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO). KCTMO commissioned a French-owned firm to manage the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project.
KCTMO then signed an £8.6m contract with a private company named Rydon (who made a profit of £14.3m last year) to carry out the work. Rydon then sub-contracted another firm, Harley Facades, to install the cladding. Harley got the insulation for their panels from another firm, who in turn are owned by a French company. The Reynobond cladding used was made by another company in America.
Confused? You’re not the only one. When a director of Rydon was asked in a television interview which cladding was used he couldn’t give an answer.
Another major scandal is the closure of fire stations. Back in 1975, a social-democratic era where public money was spent on things the public really needed (how radical was that!), there were 114 fire stations in London and 546 fire-fighting vehicles. The respective numbers today are 103 and 157, for a city whose population has grown from 7.3m in 1975 to around 8.6m today.
In January 2014, no fewer than 10 fire stations in the capital were closed due to ‘budget cuts’.
When the then Mayor Boris Johnson was challenged about these closures in the London Assembly, his thoughtful, measured response to his interlocutor was, ‘Oh, get stuffed’.
The penny-pinching architects of austerity at home, are – surprise, surprise – the most expansive, gung-ho warmongers abroad.
Just one day before the Grenfell tragedy, the BBC was reporting how George Osborne, the millionaire former Chancellor of the Exchequer, was urging the government not to change course on austerity.
“Talk of ‘an end to austerity’ is code for ‘we’re going to allow the deficit to rise, and we don’t care”, an editorial in Osborne’s Evening Standard declared.
Yet, strangely enough the ‘thrifty’ Mr Osborne didn’t seem to care too much about the deficit himself when he was pleading with MPs to back the bombing of Syrian government forces in the summer of 2013.
In 2015, still sulking, he described the decision of Parliamentarians not to support all-out war against Syria as “one of the worst decisions the House of Commons has ever made.” If Parliament had sanctioned war four years ago, it would have cost us a small fortune – as well as greatly aiding the cause of al-Qaeda and their affiliates. But hey, George, the ‘architect of austerity’ was up for it.
Like other Establishment hawks, the ex-Chancellor only supports austerity when it suits him. He likes to play Ebeneezer Scrooge when it comes to cutting services that ordinary folks rely on at home, but morphs into a blank cheque-book waving, big-spending Keynesian when it comes to military interventions in the Middle East. We mustn’t forget Libya, either.
Britain’s prominent role in the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 cost the UK taxpayer at least £320m.
This was at a time when myself and many others were fighting to save public libraries from closure due to government cuts to local authorities. Of course, the cost to the public of destroying the country with the highest Human Development Index in Africa greatly exceeds the money Cameron and Osborne spent seven years ago. The war (and other neocon military adventures) has caused a refugee crisis of Biblical proportions – as well as greatly increasing the terror threat at home, as we saw from the Manchester Arena killings. The Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, lest we forget was – as historian Mark Curtis notes – part of an Libyan extremist group which was regarded favorably by the UK elites as a proxy militia to oust Gaddafi.
Abedi is thought to have returned from Libya – now a failed state and a huge jihadist training camp – only a few days before he carried out his deadly attack.
There are those who say that with Jeremy Corbyn so close to power, the left should concentrate on domestic policy and leave foreign policy well alone. But the two are inextricably linked. Now at last people are beginning to make the connection between the huge amounts spent on wars and ’liberal interventions’ and cuts to vital services at home.
There’s been a lot of media hot-air and commentariat wind-baggery since the Grenfell fire, but there was a real ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment when a survivor told a television interviewer “What really upsets me is the fact that last year when it came to voting to bombing Syria you can see that the government has got the money to do stuff like that for war and send off planes and missiles, they’ve got the technology for that but they haven’t got the technology to save the people in London.”
And that’s a deliberate political choice.
One of the main reasons austerity is being imposed on the general public is precisely to free up funds for foreign interventions. The endless war lobby need to cut spending on things we want – like public libraries, fire stations, sprinklers on tower blocks, and a properly funded NHS – in order to pay for the things they want – like bombing Libya back to the Stone Age, keeping the conflict in Syria going for as long as possible, and for military build-ups on Russia’s borders.
They want to use our money for warfare, and for toppling governments that don’t do their bidding; we want it spent on our welfare. Never in a hundred years has the conflict of interest between the elite and the people been so stark.
To put fires out in Britain, we need to stop lighting them overseas. And the only regime change ordinary folk should be interested in is the one that’s urgently needed at home.