Burning Questions and Political Facades


Against the ravenous tiger of fire, we give the rich a rifle and the poor a feather.

In 1971, an engineer at Ford motors called Lou Tubben invited all of his fellow company engineers to a presentation he’d put together about gas-tanks. Driving around with a whole lot of highly flammable liquid is, when you think about it, bound to carry some risks, and Lou Tubben had some ideas about how the integrity of the gas-tanks Ford were installing could be improved.

In fact, Ford had been made aware that there was a particular problem with one of their models – the Pinto – with increasing reports of the car exploding into flames if rear-ended even at low speeds. Lives had been lost, and Tubben and his boss had begun to have real concerns. This was not a theoretical, niche issue. People were losing their lives.

Tubben put together a detailed presentation about the issue, and some ways in which the Pinto could be made less vulnerable to catastrophic fire. When the day of the meeting came, only two people turned up: Tubben and his boss.

‘Safety isn’t the issue,’ another engineer admitted. ‘Trunk space is. You have no idea how stiff the competition is over trunk space. Do you realize that if we put a [safer] tank in the Pinto you could only get one set of golf clubs in the trunk?’

This was the price of safety: a set of golf clubs. As a seminal report by Mother Jones put it in their 1977 exposé:

Heightening the anti-safety pressure on Pinto engineers was an important goal known as “the limits of 2,000.” The Pinto was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not to cost a cent over $2,000. “[Ford] enforced these limits with an iron hand,” recalls the engineer quoted earlier. So, even when a crash test showed that that one-pound, one-dollar piece of plastic stopped the puncture of the gas tank, it was thrown out as extra cost and extra weight.

As the Pinto scandal grew – as Tubben predicted it would – Ford found themselves with a much more serious problem. Recalling all of the Pintos on the road would be a hugely expensive job, so they had the finance people run some cost-benefit figures:

(Price to install a safer tank) x (number of cars needing making safer)
= total cost to Ford of the Pinto recall.

(180 deaths per year from burning if the recall doesn’t happen) x (pay-out cost to Ford per death)
= total cost to Ford if they don’t do the recall.

Wait a minute. Ford put a dollar price on a life? Yes. Working with the government of the day, in order to complete their ‘cost-benefit analysis’ they needed to know how much a life was worth. After a bit of discussion, they decided. A life was worth $200,000.

180 x 200,000 is $36m, lower than the cost of recall. Ford’s mind was made up: it wouldn’t be worth making their cars safer. People would continue to burn, but it was cheaper to let them.

— / —

There is something so savage, so elemental about fire. In ancient myth, it is the gift we stole from the gods, and the source of our future torture in hell. It consumes without thought. It is said that those who drown experience a moment of tranquility before they are finally taken by the waters. No one says this about fire. It is no coincidence that pain itself is described in terms of burning.

As London smoulders in the aftermath of the raging inferno at the Grenfell Tower, what the charred skeleton of the structure reveals is the brutal calculations that layers upon layers of government have put on the price of life.

When the ‘Pinto Memo’ about Ford’s cost-benefit analysis was discovered, it caused complete outrage, and the company was plummeted into a corporate disaster entirely of its own making, yet one that forced fire safety back onto the agenda. 1.5m cars were recalled – the largest in history at that point. Improvements came immediately. The issue wasn’t that Ford didn’t know that their fuel tanks were likely to explode, it’s that they calculated that it would be cheaper to ignore it.

Underneath all of this, one can’t help feel that those in charge of these blocks of council homes knew enough about the fire risks, but, like Ford, calculated that it would cheaper to let some people burn.


‘Exceptional Collaboration Resulting in Ultimate Perfection’

Just a few short streets away from Grenfell Tower is another high rise block. In so many ways, One Hyde Park, still in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, could not be further away. A single apartment in this block recently sold for £55m. The figures are staggering, and the wealth that those who live here have is extraordinary. When dealing with these riches, the calculations suddenly become different.

Thus, as the website for Kilnbridge Fire Protection Services boasts, the systems installed in this block were unparalleled. ‘A new benchmark for this standard of finish was realised,’ the company gushed, ‘typical of the level of detail and quality demanded on every aspect of this development.’ Sprinklers. Fire stopping to ductwork, pipe work and cable tray penetrations passing through all fire compartment walls and concrete floor slabs. In summary, the project was about ‘exceptional collaboration resulting in ultimate perfection.’

Those who are worth more, are worth more. The Ford Pinto was a cheap car, for people whose lives were deemed cheap. Built at exactly the same time as the Pinto, Grenfell was a cheap tower, re-clad 40 years later with the cheapest possible materials.

This is what fuels the anger. Not that the fire service hadn’t done an extraordinary job. Not that an already over-stretched NHS didn’t blink and took on another huge disaster. No. The accelerant here is that one of the wealthiest boroughs in one of the wealthiest cities in the world accepted a gaping chasm between the value of the lives of its rich residents, and those who were poor. For the rich: the very very best protection against a horror that respects not class or skin-colour or religion or wealth. For the poor: cut corners and minimal standards. Against the ravenous tiger of fire, we give the rich a rifle and the poor a feather.

This is a borough who – in the midst of austerity – saw fit to offer residents a rebate on their council tax, because they’d cut local services so far to the bone that they were now running a huge surplus. A borough who opted for cladding panels that were £2 cheaper, even though they weren’t the most fire-safe. They were the budget buy, illegal in the US, but deemed good enough for the poor.


Burning Facades

Perhaps the best we can hope for out of all of this is that the political facades that have been hastily thrown up around the Tory party will also be burned through, and reveal the same brutal Thatcherite structure that remains underneath. ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ has never rung true. If you are poor, if you are disabled, if you are unemployed, they are still the nasty party they always were.

It runs from top to bottom. We have a Prime Minister who lied about the election, and lied about social care. We have a Foreign Secretary who lied about Brexit, and an Environment Secretary who may well have been put there by Rupert Murdoch, and who stabbed his colleagues in the back. And below all this, a Conservative council that has treated residents’ concerns about the safety of their houses with utter disdain.

Why? Because — just like those who ran the Ford motor company — they believe in an economics that doesn’t care about people. Market economics says opt for the cheaper cladding. Market economics says break up the NHS and make it for profit. Market economics says means test people with severe disabilities, and chase down poverty-stricken benefit cheats when 10 times more money is lost on tax evasion by those who are rich enough to afford it.

Perhaps it will have taken a terrible tragedy like Grenfell to burn this facade down, this cheap political cladding that diminishes all of us. The spin. The bullshit. The pretence that there is governance in the interests of all, equally. In short, the foul construct that is everything that the Daily Mail prints: fear, anxiety about ‘the other,’ house prices.

What the multiple tragedies of Manchester, Borough Market and Grenfell have exposed so clearly is just how strong and stable and caring and diverse our communities are. What we deserve is government that is as good as this. For that, I’m afraid we need to pull down the charred remains of a Tory administration in disarray, propped up by an intolerant and toxic party of Democratic Unionists, before it starts to re-clad itself, and present on the surface something it demonstrably is not underneath.


4 responses to “Burning Questions and Political Facades”

  1. Thank you!
    So very true…concisely written, expressing my exact thoughts and feelings at this historical time.

  2. James Quartley

    Yes, I agree. However (and this is only conjecture), the reaction of communities to those appalling situations highlights the impotency of government and appears to strengthen the ‘shrinking of the state argument’ – I can hear the neo-liberal extolling how the private market responded so effectively to the situation. Of course, many of us believe that neoliberal policies of promoting the market as a solution to service provision (with the ensuing ‘rationalisations’ of privatisation, efficiency savings (underfunding), and decline in service provision and quality) are the reason why the ‘connected’ civil society has needed to respond in this way in the first place – to fill the empty space where government once sat. It seems a deeper irony that the very market mechanisms of private individual actors , which neo-liberals argue so strongly for, were the most dynamic substitute for the missing ‘state aid’. Cause and first response rolled into one.
    As you point out, the UK government response has been found to be seriously lacking, other than the excellent emergency services. The inevitable argument that market liberalisation is a good thing and that markets, left to themselves, are most efficient and effective for our society has been doubted by many over the last 40 years. Too much [social] value is sacrificed in the pursuit of profit (and power). If the light-touch-market-liberalisation financial crisis was the first shock to the neoliberal assumed orthodoxy, then the negligent deaths of those in Grenfell Tower (facilitated so well by austerity), is the second shoe dropping to the ground.

  3. ‘The reaction of communities to those appalling situations highlights the impotency of government and appears to strengthen the ‘shrinking of the state argument’ – I can hear the neo-liberal extolling how the private market responded so effectively to the situation.’

    I see what you mean, but I don’t think that the argument holds in this situation. Yes, the community rallied round and worked incredibly hard to help one another. They had agency, and they used it. But what we immediately knew was that the community had already rallied round and repeatedly lobbied the council about the fire risks when the refurbishment had taken place… but here they had no agency, and so their calls fell on deaf ears because the market didn’t care about them.

    What we should learn from this is that there are limits to what markets can do. There are situations where market economics simply don’t apply the correct vectors, because markets do not care about people. In order to care about people, there need to be limits on markets – in other words, regulations. And when you have a Tory government that was celebrating the burning of red tape, and the relaxation of laws that kept people safe, then you are massively increasing the risk.

  4. James Quartley

    Yes, I know. I’m playing with the ideas a little. As for the council, they didn’t (still don’t?) recognise locals peoples’ agency, because it was not backed up with either legal or monetary power. Now the boot is on the other foot…but why should people have to suffer such appalling events before protections or [horrible expression] lessons are learned. This horrific event once again provides the strongest argument for the regulation of markets in order to protect those who have no real leverage with them.