How London Became a Playground for the Rich
London is often hailed as globalism’s great success story. So why does it feel like it’s falling apart?
When I think about that morning last summer, when London awoke to television images of a West Kensington tower-block engulfed in flames, there’s one interview I can’t get out of my mind. A young man told the BBC that the fire felt like a predictable moment: the culmination of years of being made to feel like the city wanted them gone.
“[They] put them shoddy plastic things on there that set alight because they want more reasons to knock these blocks down… I’m not even so sure that was totally an accident,” he raged, as if some cabal of corrupt councillors and property developers had thrown a lit rag through the letter box.
It was a crazy notion, issued in the heat of fury and grief. However, in the days that followed, as we began to learn about the truth of the fire last June — about the inferno that fed on cheap flammable cladding and about the confluence of municipal neglect, outsourcing, and value-engineering that permitted 72 people to die in their homes — it was easy to feel sympathy for the man’s sense of victimhood. For the outside world, the Grenfell Tower fire was a horrifying tragedy and a blight on the conscience of those who let it happen. But for many Londoners, it exposed something rotten in the marrow of London itself. For us, the fire was an instant and terrible symbol of a city in a tight spiral of dysfunction, where the ideas that once sustained it are breaking down beyond repair.
It is no longer possible for a lifelong London resident like me to pretend that the city is a united, happy, and enviable place.
In the 18 months since disaster befell the Lancaster West Estate, the condition of the British capital has seldom been out of the national conversation. As with most topics of commentary in deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, London tends to be presented in binary terms — either paradise or hellhole, depending on your point of view. To idealistic liberals, it remains a cradle of tolerant coexistence, the place where multiculturalism works. The rainbow city that would have…