Terrorism, Fire and Brexit Cast Long Shadow Over London's SummerBy and
Attack on Muslims at mosque adds to looming security threat
Death toll continues to rise from inferno in tower block
London, expanding confidently for decades as one of globalization’s great successes, appears unsettled and under siege.
In less than a month, the British metropolis has suffered a terrorist attack claimed by Islamic State, an election upset that undermined the government and the worst residential fire of modern times, which has left at least 79 dead. Then, on Sunday night, a white man in his 40s drove a van into worshipers outside a north London mosque, fulfilling long-held fears of a terrorist assault against Muslims.
“Today’s attack falls at a difficult time in the life of this city,” Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement on Monday, adding that the goal of extremists was to drive communities apart. “We will not let this happen.”
The events feed a growing distrust of the government and of the economic and political models that have helped parts of London to prosper, while others were left behind.
Amid a swirl of grief and conspiracy theories over the number of victims, last week ended with protesters from the gutted Grenfell Tower storming their local town hall, furious over suspicions of faulty construction and a government cover-up. The disaster involved a block of social housing for poorer people and immigrants in one of London’s richest districts.
Then this week started with television interviews with witnesses to the attack at the mosque in Finsbury Park. They were repeatedly interrupted by passersby who insisted the media should describe the attack as “white terrorism.”
It eclipsed the other big story of the day: the start of protracted talks on the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union, the so-called Brexit that so much of globalized London opposed and is now waiting to confront.
Even if they have disparate causes, "these things do tend to cluster," said Jerry White, the author of several histories of London.
It all points to social and religious divisions in a capital that likes to think of itself as a harmonious melting pot of 9 million people, but has the potential to flare into something very different.
Race riots broke out in Notting Hill in 1958, Brixton in 1981 and Tottenham in 1985. In 1990, resentment at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s new charge nicknamed the “poll tax” also resulted in violent protests. In the summer of 2011, parts of London were awash with public disorder again after a man was shot dead by police following a confrontation in Tottenham.
May acted quickly in response to the mosque attack shortly after midnight following prayers during Ramadan. Yet in her weakened state, she failed to convince. It came after calling an election to boost her parliamentary majority, only to lose seats. She then faced a barrage of criticism for not immediately engaging with locals following the tower disaster.
“She just goes on autopilot -- she’s gone,” said Tom Mavro-Michaelis, a 47-year-old self-employed video editor, speaking outside the Finsbury Park mosque. “The only reason she’s still there is the whole Brexit thing.”
The U.K.’s decision to leave the EU remains probably the biggest source of uncertainty for London. A year after that vote, the nature of Brexit remains unclear and could have a dramatic impact on the city’s role as a magnet for finance, migrants and the technology industry.
Leaving for talks on Monday, David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU, described them as the most complicated in history, not least because of events at home.
The Grenfell Tower disaster is becoming the indelible image of London’s summer. It’s also a rallying point for opponents of the Conservative government’s perceived underinvestment in public infrastructure, echoing the 1987 King’s Cross subway station fire, in which 31 people died.
It’s fueling support for a resurgence of 1970s-style socialist economic policies under Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn. On Sunday, he pointed to a widespread belief that many London properties are bought by foreign investors only to leave them empty. He proposed seizing these privately owned properties as a solution to rehousing those who lost their homes.
There’s little reason to doubt the resentment that has grown between haves and have-nots in the capital, most vividly on display in Kensington, where the gutted shell of Grenfell Tower stands amid some of the wealthiest people and properties in the world.
"This country has gone back,” said Rod, 54 who sells copies of the Big Issue magazine, traditionally for homeless people to get back on track. "Everything is money. Governments don’t want to spend money. Councils don’t want to spend money.”
Life, he said, is cheap.
— With assistance by Jeremy Hodges