There are disasters that enter history as much for the political mark they leave as for the death and destruction they wreak. Such was Hurricane Katrina for George W. Bush, leaving an indelible image of a president slow and weak in response to human suffering. And such may be the Grenfell Tower fire for Prime Minister Theresa May, and more broadly for the infatuation with austerity and deregulation of British governments for the past four decades.
Mrs. May, like Mr. Bush, may have delayed visiting the disaster scene so as not to interfere with rescue efforts. But politics fixes on symbols, and the flames racing up the 24-story tower unleashed the pent-up anger of survivors and residents of other low-cost public housing, known in Britain as council flats, at an officialdom deaf to their complaints and conditions. The duty of national leaders at such a time is to be there, even if that means taking the brunt of the fury.
Mrs. May must have known the anger was there. She had just suffered a drubbing in a national election at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who had been dismissed as a relic of an obsolete hard left. It turned out that he was far closer than she was to the popular anger over the systematic shrinking of the old quasi-socialist state through privatization, deregulation and corporate tax cuts begun under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and continued under the “New Labour” of Tony Blair — policies generically known as “austerity” that have left Britain deeply divided into haves and have-nots.
Coming a week after the election, the Grenfell Tower fire seemed to summarize the political debate in a moment of terrifying clarity. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian, the problem turned out to be not the European Union, or action on climate change, or immigration, but a local authority that decided to save 4,750 pounds — about $6,100 at today’s exchange rates — by opting for cheaper and more flammable cladding for the building, installed in 2015 and 2016. It did so fully aware of the risk of a catastrophic fire, since such cladding had resulted in many fires and many warnings. At a time when all governmental red tape, even that…