A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

More Concerns About the Grenfell Tower Fire Response

grenfell Tower fire donations - coordination effort

The public response to the Grenfell Tower inferno has been astonishing, but the coordination of relief efforts on the ground has been worryingly inconsistent. America learned important lessons after Hurricane Katrina. We now need to learn some of those same lessons.

Three days after the awful fire which destroyed Grenfell Tower, made hundreds of families homeless and resulted in a death toll which may creep up to three figures, there are alarming signs that some of the problems with coordination and delivery of disaster relief efforts that I previously worried about on this blog have still not been resolved.

The Daily Telegraph’s live blog gives a stark account:

A number of residents left homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire have not even been given a toothbrush despite the volume of items donated following the tragedy, a pastor has claimed.

Derrick Wilson, from the Tabernacle Christian Centre, one of the many which collected donations after Wednesday’s disaster, said he had heard harrowing stories of people still without aid.

Mr Wilson criticised a lack of co-ordination from the council and said his team had been forced to deliver items directly to those affected.

He said that volunteers found around 60 residents, evacuated from the block to accommodation in Earl’s Court, who still had nothing.

The 53-year-old said: “We have just heard some harrowing stories because of the lack of co-ordination.

“We sent out people to find out where these residents are and at Earl’s Court we just found out a number of residents had not received even a toothbrush. They are very angry but they are not really saying much.”

He added: “Some of them, they haven’t received anything, they haven’t got any money.

“They are only being given bed, breakfast and dinner – nothing in between. So what we are doing now is setting up everything from here.”

Mr Wilson said: “There is just confusion, the council doesn’t know what they are doing. We are afraid that these things would be taken away and just dumped, stored…”

This was worrying on Day 1, alarming on Day 2 and is now frankly inexcusable on Day 3. It is rapidly becoming evident that there is no carefully thought-out master plan for how to respond to the aftermath of an incident of mass destruction, that critical phase when the immediate crisis is brought under control but the people affected by it are most in need of assistance.

Three days after the disaster, survivors are being sheltered in a dispersed assortment of churches, mosques and community centres, and the bountiful aid so generously provided by members of the public is clearly not reaching everybody in need. Rather than hearing harrowing stories about the fire, we are now also hearing “harrowing” stories about the impact on survivors of the uncoordinated emergency relief response. Something isn’t working properly.

Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Joe Carlebach, who went to assist with the relief efforts as a volunteer, gives an even more concerning account over at Conservative Home:

There were a small group of young volunteers with mega phones doing their best to organise huge numbers of volunteers to sort and box mountains of food, drink, clothes, toiletries, and toys. What they lacked in management and organisational experience they made up for with dedication, commitment and raw emotion.

I set to work helping form human chains (and being part of the chain myself) for the sorted goods to be moved quickly to the road side waiting for transport for. I met a great variety of people, not just from London but all over the country. They all came with one thing in mind – to do what ever they could to help.

I talked to members of a mosque from North London, a businessman who owned a chauffeur business in Sutton, a prison officer, a Sainsbury’s check out assistant, a taxi driver form Ealing… I could go on, but I think the theme is clear.

There was a significant amount of confusion around where the sorted goods should go to be stored and what transport there was available to help move it. I made several calls to local businesses in an attempt to get trucks and vans to come to site and collect the aid and many, including Olympia Plc, responded quickly and sent several vans (at short notice) to help.

Whilst there was an overwhelming feeling of goodwill for the emergency services, and a wonderful spirit of community pervasive throughout the area where I worked, there was also a growing feeling of anger. At this point it was not directed at the cause of the fire or even at who was responsible, though I dare say that will come in time. It was focused on: where was the help that many had been expecting with the relief effort?

Where were the soldiers to help with the transport of aid? Why were families left on their own to undertake the heartbreaking task of searching the hospitals for missing loved ones? If ever there was a time for a show of force by the authorities, this would be it.

Yes. Where was/is the coordination, the people who bring real organisational skills and have experience in disaster relief to situations such as this? And why did nobody consider calling in the Army Reserve, as other countries frequently do to assist with the logistical aspect? Just because the Grenfell Tower disaster took place in an urban rather than a rural setting does not mean that logistics and transport will take care of themselves. It’s great that proactive councillor from a neighbouring borough had the foresight to call local businesses to request support, but why was this not already being done?

More:

It also has to be said that the visit of many politicians to the site with no tangible results in terms of assistance did not help. It seemed they came to look, not to assist. These are not my words but those of many I spoke to.

Yes. I wrote about this the other day. While senior politicians mucking in to actually help with the recovery process might not make any great physical difference in the grand scheme of things, the visual is powerful and the image projected is one of a political class who actually care rather than one which is alternately terrified of the people and eager to use their suffering as the backdrop for a round of cynical, party political point-scoring.

The examples I gave:

Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.

Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows.

Turning up and pitching in to help out is basic Leadership 101 in the United States. Apparently our more aloof senior politicians in Britain have not yet received the message.

The Huffington Post then gives this account of Theresa May’s latest cringeworthy television interview, this time with BBC Newsnight:

After fleeing Kensington, she struggled in a BBC Newsnight interview that was meant to focus on the £5 million aid package for the fire’s victims.

After May described what victims had told her, Emily Maitlis said people needed to hear her say: “Something has gone badly wrong. It is our fault. We acknowledge that and accept responsibility.”

“Something awful has happened,” May began. “This is an absolutely awful fire that has taken place.”

Maitlis interrupted to ask whether she would admit she misread the public mood by not going to visit the victims until now.

May answered that she had worked to “ensure the emergency services have the support they need”.

Maitlis told the prime minister: “But that’s three days on prime minister. This is Friday evening. They needed those things in place on Wednesday.”

The presenter described the support efforts for people made homeless by the fire as “chaos”, adding: “No one was in charge.”

May’s answer focussed on the £5 million: “What I have done today is ensured that, we, as a Government, are putting that funding in place for people in the area.”

Ignoring Maitlis’ questions about how victims would get the money, May said: “This has been absolutely terrifying experience for people.”

Again, put aside the mounting evidence of Theresa May’s robotic ineptitude and inability to command the situation – I have written extensively about the prime minister’s inexcusable failures of leadership, here and here.

No, what’s most concerning here is interviewer Emily Maitlis’ assertion that three days on from the fire, there is still a lag in getting the emergency services and aid volunteers the support that they need. Nor does there seem to be any kind of mechanism in place for disbursing the £5million aid package announced by the government, or a clear idea of how the money will be targeted to do the most good.

Instead, it seems as though the government is willing to make sweeping general pledges but then throw the ball to others when it comes to delivering on them:

 

All sensible measures, but it is one thing to draw up a list of promises in Downing Street and quite another to translate that list into tangible action on the ground. And it is still far from clear how these pledges will be delivered, or who will deliver them.

As I made clear in my previous pieces, to point out these various failures is in no way an attack on those goodhearted people who are freely giving of their time, money and resources to help the survivors and the bereaved, and do as much as possible to reduce their suffering. With the exception of the prime minister, the failure is systemic, not personal.

The community spirit and public generosity on display since the awful fire took place have been gratifying to witness. But it is not enough to praise the London spirit and take satisfaction in a job well done. In some cases and in some aspects the job is not being done well, not due to lack of effort but due to lack of advance planning for disasters and an uncoordinated response.

I wrote the other day about how much more organised and proactive aid efforts often tend to be in America, which may be counter-intuitive to many readers who have recently heard lots of smug, politically motivated comparisons of Theresa May’s ineptitude with former President George W. Bush’s failure to get to grips with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But since that awful failure of the federal government, improvements and changes have been made. When I witnessed disaster recovery efforts up close, in response to a huge deadly tornado in the Mid-West, they were a well-oiled machine:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

We need to learn some of those lessons and apply some of this best practice here in Britain. The disaster relief aspect in particular is certainly not a party political issue, but it is a vitally important issue in terms of social cohesion and even national security. We need to get this stuff right, and we need to make sure that better plans are in place to deal with future incidents, especially if – God forbid – there is a larger scale humanitarian disaster, perhaps resulting from a terrorist attack.

The problem seems to be the failure of any one involved party to take ultimate ownership of the relief effort. National government is partially paralysed following the indecisive general election, and in any case is led by a prime minister whose leadership skills seem to have gone entirely AWOL. Furthermore, Westminster seems to have no grand plan or desire to lead the effort, preferring instead to pledge a sum of cash and leave it for others to work out how best to put it to use.

Local government is similarly ineffective, as numerous eyewitness accounts have now now shown. And the slower Kensington & Chelsea council are to respond, the angrier people get (as we saw with today’s storming of the town hall by protesters), which then makes the council even more defensive and prone to error, a negative spiral which is now already well underway.

That leaves the charities, community organisations and private individuals who have borne the brunt of the effort and gone above and beyond the call of duty, but who do not necessarily have the organisational expertise to coordinate a disaster relief effort on this scale. Very specific skillsets are needed to manage a situation such as this, including logistical knowledge, communications expertise, public health guidance as well as legal, housing and insurance advice.

Charities can only hope to coordinate all of these tasks adequately if they know that they are explicitly expected to do so upfront and given the resources to do their work. Local government would seem to be a much more natural fit for these responsibilities, but government is so centralised in Britain that local authorities would struggle to maintain any kind of readiness given their reliance on (squeezed) funding from central government and inability to raise taxes of their own. And even if the funding was there, it seems increasingly evident that there are no longer any real civil contingency plans to speak of. Perhaps they were all considered obsolete and scrapped when the Cold War came to a close and history “ended”.

The net result is that Britain’s current civil contingency plans for a medium-sized disaster like the Grenfell Tower inferno seems to be “make it up as we go along” mixed with “muddle through and hope for the best”. This isn’t really good enough, but neither is it likely to change so long as ultimate responsibility for coordinating disaster response efforts falls down the gaps between national government, local authorities and the charity sector.

As the official public inquiry into the fire grinds on and answers are sought as to how such a grievous lapse in fire safety could have been tolerated, we should also spend some time conducting a post-mortem investigation of the disaster recovery effort. It is likely to show an amazing outpouring of financial and tangible assistance which sadly were not put to their best immediate use because nobody in Britain plans for the nightmare scenario anymore, and nobody is ultimately responsible for standing ready to execute against the plan even if one existed.

Yes, there are lots of lessons to be learned from this scandalous fire and its aftermath. And they are far too important to become fodder for some party political blame game.

 

Grenfell Tower fire donations - shoes

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

The Grenfell Tower Inferno – Shortcomings At Every Level

Grenfell Tower fire inferno

The deadly inferno at the Grenfell Tower apartment building revealed more systemic and political failures than those relating purely to fire safety

I woke up early on Wednesday morning with the television still playing, the BBC News Channel showing a long shot of a burning tower block with a plume of smoke drifting away across the skyline. It looked like a miniature version of 9/11. Then came the close-up shots taken overnight as the inferno raged, the entire exterior of the building in flames, with people still clearly trapped in their apartments. It was a vision of hell.

This disaster – aptly described as “Dickensian” by Brendan O’Neill – has clearly exposed huge safety concerns when it comes to building codes and fire regulations, particularly with the type of external cladding which has increasingly been widely used to soften the harsh edges of 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture in towns and cities across Britain. I have often remarked to my wife how much nicer the serried ranks of tower blocks in nearby Swiss Cottage look with their new exterior cladding – one can only imagine the trepidation that their occupants must be feeling now, having seen Grenfell Tower burning like a torch.

Predictably, there was a rush to point fingers before the flames had even been extinguished. The Left is naturally running with the theme that the blood of the victims is on the hands of the Evil Tories, as though Theresa May had been secretly abseiling up and down the tower at nighttime, sloshing accelerant across the surface of the building before the blaze. This is deeply unhelpful. Clearly some calamitous decisions and errors have been made, and it may well be the case that criminal liability comes into play. But making a partisan issue out of a mass casualty incident before any facts are known is cynical and wrong.

Brendan O’Neill is quite right when he says:

Such a staggering loss of life in West London, worse than we yet know, and all that observers can think to say in response is “Tory scum” and “We love Corbyn”. The gap between the largeness of this calamity and the smallness and self-interest of the political response to it is vast, and increasingly nauseating. It’s as if the General Election is being restaged on the smoking rubble. I cannot remember any other national tragedy being marshalled so quickly to the cause of petty party politics. It’s dreadful. London deserves a better discussion of this horror.

Pete North does a good job of stepping back and looking at the broader systemic issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on any one person:

So Grenfell Tower is going to be heavily politicised. It’s austerity, it’s private greed, it’s too much regulation, not enough regulation, Toories and blah blah blah.

Rather looks to me like it is a toxic combination of all of the above. The outer cladding is to do with meeting thermal requirements as set out in regulation, fireproof panels were stripped out to meet requirements on asbestos and corners have been cut all over the shop.

Ultimately the failure lies with the local inspectorate. They will blame “austerity” because that’s the convenient scapegoat but ultimately it’s negligence and bureaucratic indifference. The same factors we see in many other scandals involving local authorities.

I did see that a blogger had been threatened with libel for raising the alarm. The claims made were indelicate and probably did fall foul of defamation law, but ultimately the council, probably environmental health, have utterly failed to respond to the concerns of residents. The usual institutional lethargy and arse covering we saw in Rotherham. Anything but admit fault. Similar to my own experiences when trying to confront lawbreaking bailiffs.

This seems to be how things are. Only when there is an egregious failure do we see any real activity – and is soon brushed under the carpet as soon as the immediate risks and liabilities are covered. Then it’s just a matter of time til it happens again. I would say this is a sign of the times, but actually, I don’t ever recall a time when it was any different.

The incident has been described as an accident waiting to happen. I concur. Somebody somewhere is responsible and that person needs to go to jail. Until there are serious consequences for failure we can expect this will happen time and again. But then we say this every time, don’t we?

Ironically, many of those blaming the Evil Tories are likely the same people who patrol Twitter after a terrorist attack, calling out anybody who dares assume that the perpetrator is a Muslim extremist. People who counsel calm and urge others to suspend their judgment when it comes to Islamist terror but are happy to convict conservatives of murder without trial when there is a terrible fire have a truly warped moral code, and one can have no meaningful engagement with them.

Of course, Theresa May has once again been her own worst enemy. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that Theresa May has simply lost whatever mojo she once had. It’s inexplicable and it happens in the blink of an eye, but sometimes a politician or leader can go from appearing vaguely competent to looking like an utter clown for no discernible outside reason. Why else would the prime minister tour the disaster site, speak to emergency service personnel but fail to publicly meet with residents? Why allow Jeremy Corbyn to become the nation’s de facto Healer in Chief and cement her own reputation as cold, aloof and unwilling to risk unscripted, difficult interactions with people suffering real hardship?

There is simply no recovering from the nadir to which Theresa May has sunk. Humiliated on the world stage having undercut her own authority by calling an election and then losing her majority, stripped of any real authority within her own party and unable to push forward with much of her own pitiful domestic agenda and still displaying the emotional intelligence and charisma of an old sock, this is just untenable.

The prime minister’s unravelling is as astonishing as it is appalling, and while none of her likely successors are remotely better in terms of policy, she nonetheless has to go. A 21st century democracy, particularly a major nation wishing to influence world affairs and defend widespread global interests, simply cannot be led through difficult times by a natural introvert halfway through a political self-destruct sequence.

May’s shameful failure to talk with and be filmed among the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire is just the latest example of the prime minister’s failure to “engage her humanity”, as Michael Portillo scathingly put it on television this evening. Sometimes as a leader you have to show up and just be among your people, even if many of them rather hate your guts.

Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.

Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows. And today’s most memorable pictures showed Jeremy Corbyn hugging sobbing survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, while Theresa May’s motorcade briefly swept in so that she could stare at the charred building and confer with fire chiefs before whisking her back to Downing Street without the prime minister having to risk any difficult human interaction. The incompetence and cowardice from a basic leadership perspective is simply off the charts.

But the Grenfell Tower disaster has exposed potential issues with leadership not just at the national level, but at the local government and community level, too. From the reports I have seen on the news, together with the personal account of a friend who spent today volunteering at one of the community centres processing donations for the Grenfell Tower displaced families, it sounds as though the aid response – so well-intentioned and earnestly given – has nonetheless been worryingly disorganised at times.

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

Some of this we have also seen take place in West London in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Apparently more than £1 million has already been donated to various appeals and JustGiving sites, which is astonishing – as have been the number of donations of physical goods such as clothes, shoes and food.

But still it seems as though the coordination part is not yet fully in place. My friend noted that donations of clothes and toys were being collected but then sent haphazardly to different locations around the city, with no real understanding as to where the aid was most needed or where displaced families would end up. And volunteers arriving to help reported a lack of coordination at the various scattered sites – perhaps understandable, and certainly not a real impediment to mucking in and helping wherever there are obvious tasks to perform.

My friend spoke of volunteers who offered their own vans and trucks to the relief effort, but who ended up largely driving back and forth quite aimlessly, shuffling donated goods around the city with no sense of the broader plan, rather than transporting them in a coordinated way for sorting and redistribution. She spoke of fresh fruit and perishable food being delivered with no capacity to receive, store or refrigerate it. She spoke of people with significant social media followings successfully hitting up companies for funds and goods, which is fantastic – but begs the question of why the job of getting companies to donate phone chargers and other useful items was left to proactive individuals rather than being an integral part of a pre-written disaster response plan.

Accounts that I have heard suggest that overall ownership and accountability for the humanitarian response is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and the charities and community groups which are doing much of the delivery on the ground. Politically, this makes sense – nobody wants to have ultimate responsibility for emergency accommodation or the health and safety of evacuees, because there is only risk and no political upside. Kensington and Chelsea borough council have no desire to be the primary public face of the response, and nor does the Westminster government – particularly the weak government-in-flux that emerged from the general election. That leaves well-meaning community groups to do the hard work of coordination, for which they are perhaps not best suited, backed up by various charities.

Now compare this disorganisation to the scene at US airports when Donald Trump’s ill-considered travel ban saw hundreds of travellers refused entry or detained at the border. In that case, lawyers immediately descended upon airport arrivals halls and self-organised legal aid triage centres to help refugees, US visa holders and citizens who were being impacted by the policy. Any new lawyers arriving to lend their assistance were then quickly identified and routed to wherever they were needed most.

Now, one cannot directly compare the white collar effort of resisting/subverting a dubious immigration ban with the hard physical and logistical work required to address a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. But I think we can still learn something from the proactivity and coordination aspect which often seems much stronger in America, where the federal government is more remote and civic organisations are much more capable of stepping up quickly in times of need.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a criticism of anybody who is selflessly giving of their time and money to help people in need. The response from faith communities and civic groups has been heartwarming, just as it was after the heinous terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge. But the wonderful London spirit alone is not always enough. That spirit needs to be coordinated and channelled in the right direction, to make the best possible use of the time, money and talents that people freely offer up in times of disaster.

If somebody has knowledge of housing or insurance law and can potentially help people find accommodation or deal with an insurance claim, for example, they shouldn’t be stuck filling boxes with donated toothpaste. Donations should be better coordinated and where possible, the official response needs to speak with one voice rather than through a multiplicity of separate Twitter accounts.

This is a tragedy, and in so many ways the disaster has brought out the best in the British people, with communities coming together to assist the survivors and numerous people donating their money and their time to the recovery process. But it has also exposed flaws, some of which (like Theresa May’s appalling leadership skills) we already knew about and others (like the organisation of relief efforts) which perhaps we did not.

Once again Theresa May proved herself to be a leaden, unresponsive prime minister without either the courage or emotional intelligence to lead the country. But it also seems as though the organisation of relief efforts on the ground has lacked coordination and struggled to fully leverage the amazing influx of aid and assistance. Again, this is in no way to criticise the individual efforts of anybody who is freely giving of their time and resources to help people beset by tragedy. But neither is it enough to mindlessly praise the strong community spirit, as if by rote, without asking questions as to whether the response could be better planned and coordinated, and whether this ad hoc approach would cope if there were an even larger scale disaster, or if the epicentre was somewhere else in the country, far away from the beating heart of central London.

It is a fact that we rely on the government to assist us and provide us with services more than would be the case in some other countries, particularly the United States. And to some extent we are entitled to demand a more comprehensive service – we certainly pay enough in taxes to expect government to be on call 24/7, even if bitter experience shows us that we will continue to receive RyanAir level service for an Emirates level fee. But has this general reliance on government eroded the ability of civil society to respond effectively to major domestic disasters, particularly at the all-important level of local coordination?

At present it feels a lot like this aspect is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and charities/community organisations. Somebody needs to take ultimate ownership. Perhaps this should be national government (through a new agency such as the United States’ FEMA), since Westminster already takes the vast bulk of our taxes and probably ought to show us something in return. Perhaps it should be local government – and certainly we generally should aim to be empowering local government more and more rather than perpetuate the overcentralisation of services in Britain. Or perhaps it should be charities, provided that they are organisationally capable of providing that coordination role.

We mourn the victims of the Grenfell Tower inferno and the suffering of their loved ones, of course we do. And we should refrain from partisan finger-pointing before the facts are known. Which makes this the perfect time to begin a sober discussion about the way we deal with the aftermath of major disasters, either terrorism-related or not (as in this case), so that we can do an even better job the next time that tragedy strikes.

We take it for granted that our emergency services and first responders will do a brave, heroic job, and they always do. But if there is room for improvement in the way we coordinate a response in the hours and days following such tragedies – the humanitarian aid and relief aspect – then we should not shy away from having those discussions.

 

Grenfell Tower fire donations

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

The Clinton Foundation – Noble Charity Or Grubby Political Pay-To-Play Scheme?

Hillary Clinton - Bill Clinton - Clinton Foundation - CGI

Hillary and Bill Clinton continue to insist that there is nothing untoward in the way that their Clinton Foundation sought donations or interacted with the State Department when Hillary was Secretary of State. But how much smoke can there possibly be without fire?

It has been three days now since the Associated Press’s big investigative story detailing potentially concerning links between the charitable Clinton Foundation and individuals who managed to secure private meetings with Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State.

A flavour of the story:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.

Obviously, the Clinton campaign sees it slightly differently.

From the Washington Post:

She dismissed as “ridiculous” Trump’s accusation at a rally in Tampa on Wednesday that Clinton had run the State Department like a “Third World country,” doling out favors and access in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.

“My work as secretary of state was not influenced by any outside forces. I made policy decisions based on what I thought was right,” Clinton said. “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”

Last week, the Clinton Foundation announced that it would no longer accept foreign donations or donations from corporations if Clinton is elected president in November.

So something which would be unacceptable if Hillary Clinton were president (taking money from foreign donors and entities) was perfectly fine when she was “only” the nation’s top diplomat?

Lots of smoke and yet no fire, the candidate’s own (rather smug) words.

There’s nothing to see here, we are continually told. Move along. Sleep easy in your beds. Everything about the Clinton Foundation is pure, noble and virtuous. There have never been dubious financial dealings, and nothing which might even fall into a morally grey area. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign isn’t resting on top of a powder keg of suspicion and scandal which could see Donald Trump snatch the election, or at least weaken Clinton to the extent that she effectively becomes an instant lame duck. No, nothing like that. Honest.

The American Conservative’s Patrick Buchanan – perhaps unsurprisingly – disagrees:

The stench is familiar, and all too Clintonian in character.

Recall. On his last day in office, January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton issued a presidential pardon to financier-crook and fugitive from justice Marc Rich, whose wife, Denise, had contributed $450,000 to the Clinton Library.

The Clintons appear belatedly to have recognized their political peril.

Bill has promised that, if Hillary is elected, he will end his big-dog days at the foundation and stop taking checks from foreign regimes and entities, and corporate donors. Cash contributions from wealthy Americans will still be gratefully accepted.

One wonders: will Bill be writing thank-you notes for the millions that will roll in to the family foundation—on White House stationery?

By his actions, Bill is all but conceding that there is a serious conflict of interest between his foundation raking in millions that enhance the family’s prestige and sustain its travel and lifestyle, and providing its big donors with privileged access to the secretary of state.

Yet if Hillary Clinton becomes president, the scheme is unsustainable. Even the Obama-Clinton media might not be able to stomach this.

In one sense, Hillary Clinton is right. At present there is lots of smoke – huge, billowing clouds of the stuff – but not one visible lick of flame. It may well remain like that. It may be that the remaining emails still to be released (and think on that: the world’s superpower having its democracy influenced by shadowy outside actors based on the poor decision-making of one of its presidential candidates) point to more potential tawdry sleaze, but with no smoking gun.

And let’s face it: both Hillary Clinton and her husband are highly accomplished lawyers and politicians – if they did engage in corruption, are they really likely to have left a smoking gun or to have dealt with people who could not be trusted to keep silent? Hardly.

So rather than any concrete ethical scandal which may or may not emerge, I think it again comes down to a question about bad decision-making by Hillary Clinton. The decision to go rogue and conduct State Department business from a bootleg private email server was appalling. Even if the State Department did not have clear protocols in place for how departmental emails should be managed, simply going off on one’s own and setting up a home server is an appalling idea. Under the American system of course there was nobody to stand up to Clinton when she made the decision. In countries like Britain, with a permanent civil service running the show in the background, Clinton’s homebrew server plan would have been slapped down within minutes of it being suggested.

And then there’s the Foundation. I get it: it must be difficult transitioning back to normal life after being president of the United States. One can hardly go back into business working at an ambulance-chasing law firm or a lobbying firm or corporate America. Neither is there an established tradition of ex-presidents seeing out their days as a small town mayor or state governor, charming as the thought may be. After the Oval Office, lesser offices of state understandably seem less appealing.

So what is one to do? Well, George W. Bush provides a very helpful template for us, though sadly too late for Bill Clinton to have followed. After George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22% job approval rating, he retired to Texas and resolved to see out his days painting unconvincing watercolour pictures of dogs (and some of his less fortunate counterparts and colleagues). Sure he’ll pop up to give a speech every once in awhile, but generally George W. Bush has maintained a dignified and most welcome silence.

Or one can go the other way, and do as Jimmy Carter did, enthusiastically throwing himself into real charitable work – not the running of giant foundations with all the perks that doing so entails (first class or private jet air travel, five star hotels, swanky fundraisers with billionaires, nurturing relationships with the politically active and an occasional conscience-easing cash disbursement to a worthy cause) but rather doing God’s honest work for Habitat for Humanity.

Actually physically building homes for disadvantaged or struggling people – that’s real charitable work. The Clinton Foundation in many respects is quite praiseworthy as some 88% of funding goes on charitable mission, but on $2bn revenue up to 2016 that is still $120 million on “overhead”, which in a family foundation has potential to conceal a whole world of ethical grey areas or outright abuses.

The point, I suppose, is that a family charitable foundation is a perfectly legitimate option for an ex-president and his family who intend to quit the political game after leaving office. But when this is not the case – when Hillary was pursuing senatorial ambitions and later becoming Secretary of State – conflicts of interest are inevitably going to occur.

When one is as rich and well-connected as the Clintons, acquiring more money becomes of limited interest. Instead, the reason for getting up in the morning after having left the White House often becomes the building of power, influence and legacy – and, of course, keeping the family in the style of living to which they have become accustomed (i.e. minimal contact with ordinary people). A family foundation accomplishes all of these objectives wonderfully. But when one or more members of the family are still politically active it is highly questionable.

It would have been far better, when there are still active political careers in play, for the Clintons to have put ego aside and thrown their support behind an alternative, existing foundation – much like Warren Buffett is giving away much of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognising that it makes little sense to build up his own philanthropic expertise from scratch and create all the overheads which come from a second foundation when a perfectly good one already exists.

Why did the Clintons not take the Warren Buffett approach? Three reasons – ego, power and prestige. It is great that the Clintons are philanthropically active. But nearly all of their philanthropic work is done through the Clinton Foundation ($1 million to the foundation in 2015 and just $42,000 to another charity), meaning they want to do charity on their terms. It is a few distinct shades further away from pure altruism, and more to do with continuing to exercise power after the White House.

When Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in 2001, like a shark he had to keep swimming or surely die. Sitting at home in front of the television was never an option. But neither was Bill Clinton about to show up to work for Bill and Melinda Gates, or Habitat for Humanity. He wanted the benefits of his charitable work to accrue to him and his family, not to the Gates family or anyone else. And so the Clinton Foundation was born.

And since the Clintons choose to conduct philanthropic activities on their own terms and through their own foundation, in a way which aggrandises the Clinton family name and brings them power and influence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about any other “fringe benefits” which Hillary Clinton pursued while holding the immeasurably valuable bargaining chip of being a senior part of the Obama administration. And when there is smoke, it is not churlish or unreasonable for journalists to have lots of questions about these activities.

And yet…

None of this is yet sufficient grounds to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Indeed, it is difficult to say just how large an ethical scandal would have to befall Clinton to make her less preferable as president than Donald Trump, a lying, authoritarian would-be strongman who delights in his own ignorance and capitalises on the ignorance of others.

But while the Clinton Foundation smoke machine is no reason to elect Donald Trump, it does paint an even more worrying picture about the quality of decision making and the ethical firewalls which may or may not exist in a second Clinton White House. And it makes one marvel that the Democrats could not follow Barack Obama with a presidential nominee capable of remaining scandal-free at least until Inauguration Day. Nearly every other heavyweight Democrat was intimidated away from the field because 2016 is, we were constantly told, “Her Turn”.

I can’t help but wonder if the Democrats will yet come to regret granting that extraordinary privilege so carelessly and cheaply.

 

Hillary Clinton

Top Image: The Atlantic, Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

How Should A Patriot Act In The Age Of Donald Trump?

Louisiana Flooding - Baton Rouge

Make politics petty and unpleasant enough, and soon all that will be left are the pettiest and most unpleasant of people

Rod Dreher offers this meditation on patriotism, viewed through the dual lens of the US presidential election and the catastrophic flooding currently affecting his home state of Louisiana:

Checking just now, I see that Trump has put out seven tweets in a row this morning, whining about how mean the news media is to him. Not a single word about Katrina.2 here in Louisiana. To be fair, Hillary Clinton hasn’t said anything about it either, but her Twitter feed is managed by campaign drones. Trump does his twitter feed himself. I kid you not, as I sat at the stop light at the corner of Airline and Old Hammond Highway, waiting to turn, I looked over at the spot where those three law enforcement officers where shot dead last month, and I thought about all the poor, desperate people I had just seen at the shelter, and all the good men and women of Louisiana spending their Sunday morning doing whatever they can to help their neighbor, and I thought Donald Trump can go to hell.

Honestly, with so much suffering in this country now — acutely here, right now, in Louisiana, but people are hurting all over (seen the news from Milwaukee today?) — all that fathead can do is gripe about how mean the news media are to him. It’s disgusting. I have not been a #NeverTrump conservative, and don’t really care to be part of that crowd now, even though I cannot imagine voting for Hillary Clinton either. I believe Trump has brought up some important issues that the GOP didn’t care to address. But as of today, I wouldn’t vote for Trump if you put a gun to my head. The vanity and the pettiness of that jackass beggars belief. If he had any sense, he would be on a plane down here trying to help, or at least showing real concern, instead of sitting there with his smartphone, bleating like a baby.

You don’t need to know what I think of Hillary. If you are a conservative, it’s exactly what you think too. But it makes me really angry that this is what the conservative party has to offer America in the fall of 2016: this ridiculous clown. And we have him in part because none of the GOP regulars could make the sale to primary voters.

Till now, I’ve been laughing sardonically at the two repulsive figures American voters have to choose from this November, wondering how it ever could have come to this. This morning, I’m mad about it and disgusted beyond belief.

It’s true. Donald Trump has indeed devoted a number of tweets today to moaning about supposedly biased press coverage of his campaign (while utterly ignoring the fact that he would still be making reality TV were it not for the American news media’s fawning coverage of his every move).

Here he is, moaning about how “unfair” the media are being to him, now that they are actually taking time to fact-check his statements and examine his voluminous past public statements and business dealings:

Donald Trump twitter - media coverage

As Dreher acknowledges, Hillary Clinton has not taken the time to comment on the flooding on her Twitter feed either. One thinks back to Hurricane Sandy, falling in the middle of the 2012 presidential election, and marvels at the contrast – though of course we all know that events matter more when they happen to the coasts. But even from an entirely cynical and tactical political perspective, a half competent Republican Party presidential candidate would have taken care to show the people of the affected state (and the nation) that he sees their suffering, and cares about it.

But then the Republican Party does not have a half competent presidential candidate – they have Donald Trump, a man vastly more interested in nursing his petty grievances and rivalries on Twitter than “appearing presidential”, let alone actually being presidential and caring a damn about the suffering of his compatriots.

Dreher is correct too that the GOP is in this ludicrous position “in part because none of the GOP regulars could make the sale to primary voters”. But it is more than that. There is a reason why none of the mainstream Republican candidates were able to find any traction with primary voters – namely the disconnect between their stale old dogmas (ranting about lower taxes, ObamaCare and calling President Obama an un-American threat to national security) and the very real economic pain and political alienation felt by many of their core voters.

Barack Obama may occupy the White House, but Republicans have controlled Congress entirely since 2014. This is a Tea Party Congress, yet Republicans have pointedly failed to deliver the libertarian paradise they promised, mostly because they are every bit as addicted to Big Government as the Democrats. And when you make yourself indistinguishable from the opposition in terms of political outcomes while stoking public hysteria about a Kenyan socialist terrorist trying to destroy America from within, it is little wonder that people scorned the continuity of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in favour of Donald Trump’s alternative Republican offering.

Dreher is right too to acknowledge that “Trump has brought up some important issues that the GOP didn’t care to address”. The obvious example is immigration. The duplicity of the Democrats and the American Left in general is staggering: deliberately re-engineering the language to draw no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, referring to illegal immigrants as being merely “undocumented” – anything the Left can do to excuse and even ennoble lawbreaking is being done.

Some American cities sanctimoniously call themselves “sanctuary cities” – places where honest American citizens who happen to work for the federal government enforcing immigration law are unwelcome while lawbreakers are welcomed with open arms. And too much of the mainstream media is happy to follow along in this subversion of law and language, particularly in the conflation of legal and illegal immigration.

The Republicans are little better, talking a tough talk while being perfectly content to fight the issue to an acrimonious stalemate preserving the status quo. After all, their paymasters are the last people who want to see an end to plentiful cheap labour. Republicans also shame themselves by pretending to their supporters that the millions of illegal immigrants currently living and working in America can be quickly and easily deported with no adverse impact on the local and national economy.

The right thing to do would be for one party to propose a form of one-time amnesty (perhaps allowing those currently living in America illegally to be granted a pathway to official permanent residency while withholding citizenship in recognition of their lawbreaking) while also pledging to get tough on all future lawbreaking, including enhancements to border security and a “one strike and you’re out” rule on visa overstayers and other violators. This would meld the compassion of the Democrat approach with the commitment to law of the Republicans. It would also force more of America’s immigration back through legal routes, forcing the country to have a political debate about how many legal immigrants they wish to allow in every year, and of what skill type.

But neither party will adopt this position. Both choose to childishly demand everything that they want handed to them on a stick, while the reasonable and pragmatic option sails past unheeded. Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans get to strut and preen in front of their respective voter bases, acting as though they are the sole custodians of compassion / defenders of the rule of law while making a complete mockery of American hospitality, compassion and the rule of law.

This is why Donald Trump is now a major party presidential candidate – because on issue after issue (immigration is but one example) both parties have chosen to play to their respective supporters, shoring up the base by playing on their fears, rather than daring to lead, educate and step outside of their comfort zone. The Republicans could have prevented the Trump takeover by being the bigger person and making a bold proposition on immigration or trade or any of the other issues where they have been holed beneath the waterline by Trump. But they didn’t. Like a petulant six year old, they wanted to have their cake and eat it – to go on chanting angry mantras about immigration while doing nothing to fix it, and then winning votes based on public anger. And then Trump came along and offered an alternative (if equally bogus solution), and the mainstream Republicans were left with nothing.

And so the Republicans deserve Donald Trump, just like the Democrats deserve Hillary Clinton. But it does not automatically follow that the American people deserve either of them. They deserve a better choice, as this blog has consistently argued. And I think this is what prompts Rod Dreher’s instinct to withdraw from engagement with America’s toxified national politics:

What is my country? Today, to me, it feels like Louisiana. Washington is very far away. Baton Rouge is right here. Nothing against America, you understand, but this hot, wet, miserable piece of ground is where my heart is. I feel that this morning in a way I never quite have. Maybe if I had been here during [Hurricane] Katrina and seen it with my own eyes, I would have come to this realization earlier. But I didn’t. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I did.

The only politics that really matter to me is the politics of this community — that is, the politics of being a good neighbor. Look, I know that politics as statecraft matter. I’m talking about what matters to me. I’d rather be there with the people from the churches and the community, we who are in dry houses today, helping those who have nothing. If that’s the Benedict Option, then I choose it. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have nothing to say to me that I care to hear. For me, this is here and this is now. Hillary, Trump and the rest of them are people from TV Land.

This is an important point: what happens when the Donald Trump freak show finally succeeds in driving the remaining good, temperate people out of politics?

The Washington Post published a long piece this weekend exploring the views of millennial voters toward the presidential election. The short version: naked contempt for both parties and candidates, unlike the strong preference for Barack Obama in 2008/2012. They could soon be a generation lost to political apathy for the next few electoral cycles.

Rod Dreher speaks of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as though they are alien, disconnected people from “TV Land”, with their own feuds and motivations which are utterly alien to the majority of the country. He’s not wrong. And I think the temptation will be strong, as this tawdry election campaign drags on, for normal people with political inclinations to focus their efforts either on single issues or at the local level rather than on national politics, which has rarely been more hyper-partisan and dysfunctional.

Make politics petty and unpleasant enough, and soon all that will be left are the pettiest and most unpleasant of people. If honourable people feel that they cannot make a positive contribution at the national level without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of email scandals, conspiracy theories and vacuous Twitter feuds then America will soon be led by the people who thrive in that atmosphere.

What an utterly depressing, eminently avoidable state of affairs.

 

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Presidential Election 2016

Top Image: The Advocate

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.