Owen Thomas on ‘Searching for Grenfell Tower’s guilty secret’

Project PI, Dr Owen Thomas, appeared on an episode of the SPIN podcast in 2019, created by the secrecy, power and ignorance research network, to discuss the Grenfell Tower fire and broader issues of state scandals, wrong-doing, and cultures of secrecy.


The scrutiny and revelation of secret information is assumed to be an important part of safeguarding a liberal-democratic, rights-based society. But sometimes this quest for revelation does not so much expose wrongdoing as obscure it.

Often, calls for transparency are loudest in the wake of a scandal or crisis, in which something harmful and widely agreed to be wrong has, or is alleged to have happened. Today I’d like to focus on just one of these: the Grenfell Tower fire. On 14th June 2017, seventy-one were killed and seventy injured by the fire at Grenfell Tower, a block of flats in North Kensington, London. It was the deadliest fire in the UK for at least 30 years, possibly since the Second World War. After a recent renovation, the tower had been covered in a cheap, flammable cladding. For years, residents had raised concerns about a lack of fire safety, and absence of fire extinguishers and blocked fire exits. 

Such scandals often result in lengthy investigations and inquiries – promising to establish facts and lessons so that the wrongdoing can be prevented from happening again. Grenfell was no different. Days after the fire, the Prime Minister announced an independent public inquiry, she said, “to be chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible…to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly… no stone will be left unturned in this Inquiry”, the Prime Minister said, “and for any guilty parties, there will be nowhere to hide.” “It should never have happened, the Prime Minister said, but “we’re going to discover why it did.” 

The inquiry promised to get to the bottom of Grenfell’s secrets.  

Let’s consider what we mean when we talk about a ‘secret’. Most of the time, I think that when people use the word they are referring to what some scholars call the ‘secretum’. The etymological root of ‘secret’ is secretum, meaning that which is separated or set apart. Secrecy, in this sense, refers to a relationship of difference between those who know something and those who do not know but suspect that there is something to know, without knowing anything about what the secret might be.  

For those of us beyond the veil of secrecy, in others words, all we know is that we know we don’t know. 

And since the emergence of liberal political philosophy, the existence of perceived secrecy in politics has been regarded with suspicion, even fear. A belief that behind every secret is a potential abuse of power, 

The result is a societal obsession with revelation. 

Exposing secrets was and remains widely assumed to be way of ensuring justice and fairness. Furthermore, unearthing and revealing secrets is and was seductive, interesting and amusing. 

We should remember, however, transparency is not an act of resistance against power but the enactment of different power relations. While openness in politics has an important function for ensuring and protecting democratic government, my point is that a focus on transparency and ‘leaving no stone unturned’ leads us to conduct our politics in a particular way. 

In context of the Grenfell inquiry, and post-scandal investigations more generally, an emphasis on secrecy leads us to focus on individuals, their knowledge and their intentions. What did people do? What did they intend to do? What did they understand about their actions? 

The secretum is at the very root of alleged wrongdoing, because the allegation of a transgression is – necessarily– a claim that someone did something when they knew, or should have known, that it would be wrong.  

Revealing, or exposing a secret on these terms offers nothing more or less than an imperfect insight into the intentions and knowledge of individual agents.  

Sometimes, exposing secrets of this type can be helpful to understand the reasons why a harmful event occurred. Lying – that is, where someone tells someone else a statement that they know to be untrue – relies on secrecy to function. A cover-up – in which people conceal their mistakes – also relies on secrecy. Searching for the secret, the smoking gun, may reveal a moment in which some people acted in a way that they knew, or should have known, would be wrong – maybe politicians and bureaucrats in charge of housing, who cut safety regulations in the knowledge that it would endanger life, or maybe contractors that built the tower with cheaper materials that they should have known wouldn’t be safe, and others would have told them if the details had been public. These are the ideal secrets that may or may not be found. So far, this seems unlikely, In her report, one expert Barbara Lane told the inquiry that she could find “no evidence that there was any understanding by any member of the design team or construction team, nor by the approving authority, that the cladding system was either combustible or in breach of the Building Regulations.” 

But when it comes to the violence of Grenfell, foreseeable premature death, can such secrets give us a satisfactory explanation of why the fire happened? 

Focussing on what people knew and intended to do – which is all the secrets can tell us – only reveals a small part of the story about human behaviour.  

Brenna Bhandar has recently suggested that we might think of Grenfell as a consequence of “organized abandonment”, taking the form “over a period of decades … the government and the local council …embrac[ing] a mode of governing that prioritised the efficient running of businesses whose sole task, in turn, was profit maximisation [and] underlying this mode of governance and organisation, there was a pre-existing and profound disregard for the lives of those living in social housing…what is of key significance here is…an intention to harm is not a necessary precondition for rendering them vulnerable to premature death. It is simply the status quo. And it is this  fact of history, and it is this history of our present in the UK that renders the search for individual intention rather beside the point.” 

Searching for the secrets of Grenfell in this context seems less significant. Perhaps one or two bad apples or honest mistakes will be uncovered. But on Bhandar’s account, shared by many others, the road to the Grenfell Tower fire is visible for all to see: a preoccupation of efficiency in public services and, by privileging this task, an accompanying loss of concern for the life chances of those within the tower. There is not secretum here. And if the fire hadn’t happened at Grenfell, it would have happened elsewhere. Perhaps it already has, as one study suggests that by 2017, austerity policy may have caused over 120,000 extra deaths. 

Rather than secrecy, perhaps we ought to turn our attention to how we frame the un-concealed world around us. In the days after Grenfell, commentators were quick frame the fire as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘disaster’. Both of these terms are significant. Disaster denotes an eruption, an unexpected and sudden event. But, as I have suggested, Grenfell may have been a long time coming. Similarly, a tragedy occurs when harm and suffering happens, unavoidably, despite everyone’s best efforts and ethical behaviour. No one is to blame for a tragedy. But was Grenfell a tragedy? I’ve suggest that there may not be a smoking gun secret to be found, but what the ethics of successive governments and the publics that supported them in removing the safety nets of regulation in favour of efficient public services. 

I think leads us into a discussion of what Taussig called public secrecy. Things that are generally known but not spoken. Things are ‘publicly secret’ when people avoid giving an impression that they have knowledge of it. This phenomenon of ‘not knowing’ can manifest in different ways. On the one hand, people may understand the importance of, and actively participate in maintaining the public secret for fear of the consequences of not upholding it. On the other hand, people may be ‘taken over’ or caught up in the charade, sincerely believing in fiction created by the public secret. 

For Taussig, public secrets help to maintain social order.  

We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm.  

So what’s the public secret here? Perhaps it’s one of inequality. A fiction of a society in which we strive to give everyone, regardless of race, class or gender, equal life chances, when in fact the machinery of governance, and particularly that of public services, is creating a society that is ever more unequal and divided. 

This claim has been made around the Grenfell inquiry. Imran Khan QC, a legal representative for some victims and families of victims of the fire has tried to characterise the causes of the inquiry through the rubrics of institutional racism and class. At the opening of the inquiry in June 2018, Khan said that the inquiry’s focus “on the construction and refurbishment of the tower which led to the fire …will not be the full story“. Race, religion and social class should be considered, Khan claimed, because the inquiry will otherwise not “explain why it was that these particular people were the ones that died and will not explain what led them to their death. 

Very quickly, however, Khan’s claims have been interpreted, and rebuffed, as a claim that the local authority and emergency service workers acted with intentional prejudice to ethnic minorities and poor communities. I don’t think that this is what Khan meant, but it was the obvious interpretation for an audience that was thinking in terms of the secretum – of justice served by leaving no stone unturned and by looking for the guilty party. 

So I think the public secret of Grenfell is the idea of the guilty secret itself. The idea of the guilty secret promises to lay the blame for injustice at the the bad apple or the honest mistake. It’s a convenient fiction for some; it’s a comforting one for others. Jodi Dean claims that the idea of the guilty secret, the object of the ‘liberalism of fear’, sutures together a polity that would otherwise be divided by inequality and injustice. In this ways, Tassuig himself says that says, “the public secret as fated to maintain the verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to a revelation that does justice to it”. 

So to conclude, revelations of individualised wrongdoing, in this case, offer a convenient distraction from the society’s complicity in harm. We are already aware of preventable harms that, while many of us are comfortable to ignore, we are less comfortable of being reminded. The public secret of the guilty secrecy helps us do that. Perhaps this sort of hypocrisy is necessary for the functioning of a modern liberal security apparatus: a society that prides itself on openness, transparency, and freedom of speech but where there are some things, obvious material things are just not discussed. And perhaps the ultimate taboo is that, in Basham’s words, the desire of liberal subjects to have everyday lives free from insecurity may call into question the ability of others to have, not only an everyday but any life at all. 

Let’s not keep waiting for Grenfell’s secret. We might be better served by keeping in mind Brecht’s poetic lines: 

The headlong stream is termed violent. 

But the river bed hemming it in is 

Termed violent by no one. 

Bertolt Brecht, “On Violence”