As the country fell silent yesterday for the Grenfell Tower victims, David Davis was opening negotiations to take the UK out of the EU. How did it come to this great kamikaze mission? What fired up a small and eccentric group of rightwing extremists to hammer away over the decades until they dragged us away from our closest neighbours?
One word captures their intent – and it concerns the Grenfell residents: “deregulation”. These Brexiteers are driven by a kind of fever to tear down restrictions, regulations, laws and constraints on business to let free enterprise run wild. That’s what they mean by “take back control”, though it’s not how they explained their shrink-the-state passion to referendum voters.
We don’t yet know if building regulations were weakened or disregarded at Grenfell Tower, or if rules were obeyed but wholly inadequate. We do know that coroners and experts calling for tougher safeguards were simply ignored by those who should have listened. With residents of another 4,000 tower blocks needing urgent reassurance, whatever national appetite for deregulation and risk there might have been has gone.
The Brexiteers’ ogre is the monstrous regiment of EU regulations and the abominable army of homegrown health-and-safety guardians whose red tape is deemed to hold back our buccaneering business spirit. “Elf’n’safety” officers (with a sneer) became the butt of Tory dinner party jokes about the nanny state, and a staple of Tory press myths about the EU. No, conkers and hanging baskets were never banned. Boris Johnson was minced before the Treasury select committee for his fictitious ban on recycled tea bags, children blowing up balloons or the correct weight of coffins.
There was significant regulation here. What there wasn’t was responsibility. And a little more of the second can be very much more important than the first. Whether we call it the Clerk of Works, or professional responsibility, whatever, that one individual–and yes, making it one person does concentrate minds wonderfully–owns a project, the benefits and failures of it in that liability sense, tends to make things safer. On the very sensible basis that someone with their knackers potentially in the vice tends to pay attention. Box ticking doesn’t have quite the same effect.