The Grenfell Tower catastrophe calls for a radical overhaul of land ownership in the United Kingdom
The Queen (channelling David Graeber & Matt Mellen)
In my speech on Saturday I paid tribute to the victims of Grenfell Tower, and reflected on the enormous pain which we as a nation feel about such tragic and unnecessary deaths in midst of one of the world’s richest and most powerful cities. I know that some see speeches like this as mere formalities, as something put in my mouth, or that i feel I have to say, lacking true depth of feeling, I can assure you this is not the case. I have reflected long and hard on this tragedy, it has tormented me, robbed me of my sleep and peace of mind.
The thought of families incinerated together, mothers dying clutching babies in their arms, survivors left with nothing, except the knowledge they will be forever haunted by the terror and the screams… I have spent many days crying and agonizing over how this can come about. Do not think for a moment that I am not a human being with human feelings, much though I am obliged by social convention to disguise those feelings on many public occasions. It is after all the role of a monarch to present a calm and dignified exterior, to set an example for the nation, even when one’s soul screams out in pain. But the death of so many innocents is too much for me. I have decided, that on this occasion, I will reveal my true thoughts.
I was sad. I was angry. I decided very quickly after that fire that I simply do not wish to be the monarch of a kingdom in which such things can happen. After spending several days in disconsolate depression, I decided to take action, to get to the bottom of the situation, to determine how these things can happen and to consider what I, as Queen, can do to address the situation.
Taking decisive action, I found, was the only way to overcome my inner pain. Let me tell you what I have done.
One of my first acts after Grenfell was to quitely assemble a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI), a panel of historians, social scientists, and legal experts to understand its true causes. I insisted that rather than a superficial report about the particulars, they really get to the bottom of things this time, and have intervened myself periodically to ensure that they broaden their scope to consider the larger forces that let a tragedy like Grenfell come about. This is what I have learned.
Grenfell Tower was as many now know, wrapped in flammable cladding to make it appear more visually palatable to wealthy people living nearby. At the same time, residents repeated concerns about under-investment in safety in the block where ignored. The Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea not only refused to consider their appeals for sprinklers and additional stairways, despite the fact the council, the richest in the kingdom, was running a considerable surplus, they actually threatened legal action against residents who protested their refusal to do so!
After the fire, their response was so lackadaisical that most of the relief work had to be performed by churches and spontaneous neighborhood groups and to this day, six months on, scores of survivors languish without permanent accommodation – despite the fact that the borough is famous for being full of empty mansions held only as financial investments by overseas billionaires that could have been easily appropriated by eminent domain. (I could have done this myself. It was within my power as Queen to seize any of these properties and turn them over to the victims and it now fills me with profound guilt and sadness that I did not have the courage to do so.) In my investigations with the RCI, I have come to see what happened to the tower is iconic of society as a whole. It did not happen despite the wealth of the borough. It happen because of the wealth of the borough. The problem is not the bad decisions of a few low ranking officials, the problem is too much money, and hence power, has been concentrated with too few people. This has undermined democracy and created a situation where those who do not own land or financial resources simply cannot make their concerns known. I demanded that the RCI explain: how this had happened? What are its historical origins? How far does it go back? They explained to me that the current situation can probably best be traced back at least to sixteenth century and the enclosure of common lands.
We like to think of England as the place of the birth of modern private property, individual ownership, small-holders, shopkeepers, stout yeomen, enterprising individuals, but that’s never really been the case. In the Middle Ages, though, most of the dwellers in these islands had rights in their village commons, to the use of fields and rivers and forests. The great lords like myself might have held ultimate title but people were guaranteed access to the resources needed to keep themselves alive. All this changed over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, common lands were enclosed, and suddenly, wealthy landowners could turn the poor away to starve – and ultimately had no choice but to rent from the rich, and work for the rich, under any conditions the rich demanded.
I had really little idea of any of this because, frankly, I was not a very assiduous student as a teenager and did not pay much attention in history class, and the history I have learned in my role as Queen has been rather one-sided, but remarkably, it appears that what we’ve created is a society that’s actually much more unequal than it was in the Middle Ages. England led the way to creating a structure whereby the richest 1% hold over 50% of the world’s wealth. What’s more I was shocked and mortified to discover that I myself, along with my close family, have played a central role in bringing all this about!
As part of my research I commissioned a new Domesday book, a total breakdown of all property rights in my kingdom. The results again surprised and disturbed me greatly.
Consider London itself. What we discovered was that almost all the land, and even buildings, are owned by members of my own family. London’s top landowners are the Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Cadogan, and myself, and together we hold nearly 700 acres of central-London between us. Needless to say we don’t give away the rights to live there for free. And we all know how high land prices in London have become! Since it’s mostly the poorest who pay rent, that’s money passed directly to the richest of the richest. To people like myself. But at the same time laws are arranged in such a way that fellow aristocrats, tycoons, and other oligarchs pay much less in taxes than those very renters, and even that small bit they are supposed to pay, as someone explained to me was recently revealed in the Paradise Papers, they tend to avoid by shifting as much of the proceeds as possible to other countries.
Well, that’s not very patriotic of us, is it?
My dear subjects, please, you must believe when I say: honestly I had no idea of any of this. I don’t do my own bookkeeping. I had assumed that the money to pay for all those parades and shiny outfits came from some sort of decent, honest, enterprise! But apparently I am picking the pockets of the most needy families in my kingdom on a regular basis, and not even allowing any of the proceeds to be reinvested in social services if I can possibly avoid it. Needless to say I am furious with those who have been doing this in my name, since they have, without my knowledge, forced me to behave in ways totally unbecoming to my royal dignity and morally outrageous for one of royal blood.
It is also abundantly clear that it was this very structure of wealth and power which allows for the poor, for renters, for wage-labourers, to have their desperate pleas ignored by those who claim to represent them, for the Kensington Council to fail so absolutely in assisting them after the tragedy, for the millions of pounds donated for their relief to be spent on endless ranks of parasitical officials and their offices while only the tiniest trickle ever gets to those to whom it was supposed to be directed.
I will have no more of this. I am the head of state and I bear ultimate responsibility for what happens in my kingdom so I intend to do something about the situation. I am tired of serving as a figurehead for a system of hereditary wealth. Another shocking fact I discovered in my work with the RCI is that I myself own quite a number of large, empty, well-appointed buildings in London that I have never myself set foot in. In fact, in most, no member of my family has ever set foot in any of them either, and most have not been employed for any purpose whatsoever since I acquired them. The thought that this is happening while so many of my loyal subjects are sleeping, and even dying, on the streets is outrageous to me.
Why was I not informed of this? Why was this preposterous situation allowed to go unremarked by my closest advisors? I can assure you many will now be getting the sack. (Indeed, I have considered erecting a gallows in the palace courtyard and possibly restoring drawing and quartering for such officials, but others have convinced me there might be human rights issues involved.) But in the meantime, of course these properties will be opened as shelters and eventually, permanent homes for survivors of Grenfell, the homeless, migrants and other refugees. I am particularly interested in the housing of war refugees since so many members of my own family have so frequently been displaced by wars and political upheavals in the past.
It has also come to my attention that my own house, Buckingham Palace, has 775 rooms. Many of these rooms I am not sure even I have ever visited. They simply lie unused. Obviously this too will change henceforth: I think at least a couple hundred of them could be repurposed as schools and clinics, and, of course, any Grenfell survivors who have not been found permanent accommodation even now, in the holiday season 6 months after the fire, are certainly welcome to take up permanent residence with their families in such rooms as they find amenable for as long as they like.
Further announcements will be forthcoming shortly. In the meantime, allow me to end by offering my sincerest apologies. I honestly did not understand my own role in this tragedy, but now that I do, I can assure you, these matters will be addressed.