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A towering political inferno in Britain

The Queen’s speech to Parliament presented a threadbare program of a government in need of emergency resuscitation. Outside the gilded chambers of the Palace of Westminster, protesters gathered for a march under the banner of a day of rage. It is a divided realm. For Britons, the chain of recent events and tragedies calls to mind Lenin’s famous saying: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Four terrorist attacks and a blazing inferno at Grenfell Tower in West London have taken a deep emotional toll on the public and eviscerated any belief in the competence of the government of Prime Minister Theresa May. There are valid fears over the risk of riots in London.

Readers in the Middle East could be excused for thinking that the fire at Grenfell Tower, in which 79 people were killed, holds no immediate significance for them. At first glance, it appears solely a domestic British crisis. Yet buried in this story are some core truths that increasingly apply across borders and manifest themselves worldwide.

The crisis flared up on multiple levels. Clearly health and safety is key, as are cuts to the fire services. Yet this does not explain the anger that threatens riots on the streets of London, because this is also a deeply political crisis, and a perfect example of the long-term disenchantment and distrust of the ruling elites and calcified political institutions.

The health and safety issues are not limited to this one building or to London. An estimated 30,000 buildings in Britain are clad with similar materials, but many high-rise fires in the Gulf have also involved cladding materials, such as the fire at the Address Downtown Dubai hotel on Dec. 31, 2015. Even as far back as 1999, reports have highlighted the risks of cladding, yet it was still used in high-rise blocks.

A fierce counter to a health and safety culture has seemingly allowed a dangerous laxity in adhering to basic health and safety norms. This is encouraged by a frenzy in trying to cut red tape and deregulation.

Idiotic and bizarre health and safety policies should never have been an excuse to dilute regulations designed to save lives. Austerity and cost-cutting measures are no excuse. The most startling statistic from the Grenfell fire was that for just an extra £2 ($2.53) each, the cladding panels could have been fire-resistant, amounting to a total of just £5,000.

Four terrorist attacks and the deadly fire at Grenfell Tower in West London have taken a deep emotional toll, with heightened public anger and fears of riots in the streets.

Chris Doyle

Yet this does not explain in full the current fury. Residents of the tower and their supporters claim they are victims of criminal negligence. The authorities knew significant fire risks existed and did nothing. Again, is this just a British issue? How many countries will not even hold a public inquiry into such fires?

Kensington is the richest borough in England, with an average annual salary of £123,000. But the area in Kensington in which Grenfell Tower is located is among the poorest 10 percent of all places in England. This is genuine economic apartheid.

The rich-poor divide is huge here, as it is in many countries. In Egyptian terms, it is like living in a slum in Cairo’s affluent Zamalek district. Income inequality in the US is startling, with the top 1 percent taking home more than 20 percent of all income. Even worse, a report last year by Oxfam showed that 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.

Most of the 600 residents of Grenfell Tower were immigrants, and many were Muslim. The tragedy suggests that money and cost savings were being placed above lives, and that some lives matter more than others. Many affected by the Finsbury Park mosque attack also feel this way.

More widely, the crisis encapsulates the chasm between the governing and the governed. A glance across the global political system reveals a range of dissent, and desire for change looms large. Consider the growth of support for the far right and far left, for nativist movements, for protests across the Middle East and Russia, and even for hard-line Islamist groups.

Large numbers of people seek answers outside the political comfort zone, and opinion polls show alarming dissatisfaction with national democracy. Too many believe the state no longer works for them, but against them. Leadership appears a dying art. May’s failure to act more decisively to ensure aid reached the Grenfell victims, and her hesitancy even to meet them, was a devastating misreading of the situation.

Yet she is not alone; increasingly electorates only get excited by new fresh faces such as President Emmanuel Macron in France or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada. Like former US President Barack Obama, they achieved astonishing popularity before barely a day in office.

Trust — in leaders, politicians, institutions, the police, banks and the media — is seemingly facing extinction. US President Donald Trump has amply shown that honesty and integrity are no longer necessary qualities in a politician, and that he can abuse distrust of the system to gain power.

All this is reversible, but it requires considerable reforms to sate the popular appetite for change. In the short term, the London fire should become a global example of the risks faced by governments that do not put people before profits. In the longer term, political leaders must rise to the challenge, regain popular trust, bridge inequality and heal divides.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.