Is anything safe from Scotland’s bureaucrats?

by | 8 Dec 2021

I have written for years about what is wrong with Scotland's democracy and its institutions. Now they are coming for a tradition which is very dear to me and my determination to change this country has grown

Last night two or three hundred of us braved Storm Barra to attend a vigil in Biggar, my home town. The goal of our vigil was a simple one; save our bonfire. (This campaign to save the bonfire is suddenly sucking up a lot of my time so for a couple of weeks I’ve not been able to write as much on this site as I’d hoped.)

The story contains within it a precise encapsulation of much of what is wrong with Scotland. It sends me off on a never-ending relay race, chasing between anger and despair.

Every Hogmanay, for as long as anyone can remember or records exist, a bonfire is lit in Biggar. In our little motto, it ‘burns out the old year and burns in the new’. Thousands gather by the fire, people of all ages, people from all over the world. There is music and dancing and drinking. There are people who meet each other only at this time of year, families whose disparate members fly in from their new homes abroad to be together.

It is hard for me to express the importance to our community – and to me personally – of the bonfire. It is magical, special. It is one of a small number of times in a year when our community is all together, warm in that almost magical glow.

No-one knows for sure how long it has been going. The first written record anyone has found is from 1836, but it existed long before that. It is believed the tradition may be as much as 500 years old – but nearby Tinto hill was a major druid site long before that and they were known to roll burning logs down the hill to mark their New Year. There have been Hogmanay fire festivals in this area for many centuries.

Then, in 1993, there was an upgrade to our gas main. The then-owner Transco decided to (quite literally) cut a corner and put the new gas main directly under the site of the fire. My father was the councillor at the time and I remember well him raising this directly with them – was it safe? Everyone was absolutely assured it was, that this posed no threat to our town or our tradition.

In fact between 1997 and 1999 South Lanarkshire Council undertook a High Street redevelopment. The position of the fire was moved very slightly by them and a new cobbled pattern installed to mark its new position (it is signposted on the plan as a ‘public events area’). The owner of the gas main was invited to raise an objection to this and did not do so.

We have held our bonfire on that site for 30 years since then, each time being granted a license for the event from South Lanarkshire Council. Now that is under threat. A new local authority committee, the Events Safety Advisory Group was set up. This is made up of unelected representatives of various of the ‘interested bodies’.

These are largely council officials and representatives of the number of private corporations which own and manage Scotland’s infrastructure. None have any democratic legitimacy at all. Scottish Gas Networks started to claim our tradition wasn’t safe. No reason was given or evidence presented, we were simply told this.

And the ‘moderate centrists’ wonder why our trust in politics and public life is declining? Look to yourself technocrats. You are why.

The Fire Service objected too, but it always does because it will not endorse any kind of bonfire anywhere under any circumstances. Which is kind of fair enough. But that was it – we have always had absolutely glowing reports from the police because there is almost certainly no more trouble-free public event to take place on Hogmanay.

(I remember standing by the fire with a policeman a few years ago, chatting. He was from one of the big towns in our local authority area, didn’t know Biggar but said he high-fived his colleague when he heard he was getting the Biggar beat at Hogmanay. It was by far the best place to be – warm, friendly, trouble-free.)

The the police changed their position and started raising concerns too – the same ones raised by their colleagues on ESAG and nothing to do with policing matters.

Our Bonfire Committee is just local people keeping tradition alive. They are not professional negotiators. A couple of months ago when things were clearly going nowhere I offered to help. I looked at the correspondence and as someone who does have a lot of experience of negotiating with government it quickly became clear that they were not negotiating in good faith.

Why do I write that? You can always tell. Someone negotiating in good faith is always trying to work with you to resolve problems while someone negotiating in bad faith finds a new problem every time you resolve a previous one. The risk has changed from ‘there’s no threat to the pipe but if there was a leak’ to ‘there’s no risk of a leak but there is a risk to the pipe’.

That is because Scottish Gas Networks comes out to do a gas leak test the day of the fire to check – and I suspect because SGN doesn’t want to be caught talking like gas leaks are a normal thing.

But the moment I was certain something was up was when the correspondence started raising the possibility of a bomb being planted in the fire. It is surrounded with locked security fencing while it gets built and we offered to install CCTV if they insisted, but that did no good. Can we guarantee no-one will plant a bomb? No. Nor do we check the roofs for snipers or search people for anthrax when they gather round the fire.

I have a first rule in everything I do – never pick a fight you can avoid. My initial advice was to pretend we thought they were being fair and to answer every problem they had in private – while making sure they understood that would not be the end of the matter. That was my second piece of advice and my third. We solved problems for them but made clearer the response if they banned the fire.

It was useless – they aren’t accountable to anyone so they have zero interest in us our our community. We offered a last giant compromise so they arranged a site visit. The young man Scottish Gas Networks sent admitted he had a total of one hour to prepare, knew nothing about the whole case and rejected our compromise anyway.

So we went public because there was nothing left. We held a public meeting. One highly respected member of our community voiced real anger that to his mind South Lanarkshire Council was promising it wanted to help the community hold the fire in public but doing precisely the opposite in private (though to be fair those are different parts of the Council).

What hit me was that he clearly thought this was outrageous, not absolutely normal. You know, like when the Scottish Government boasts about how it is going to pursue a wellbeing economy, close the educational attainment gap or make Scotland a world leader in 5G. I know these are just words without substance.

But I realised people still take the word of officials as a matter of trust and honour and give the benefit of the doubt. And the ‘moderate centrists’ wonder why our trust in politics and public life is declining? Look to yourself technocrats. You are why.

If you find anything of our history or tradition or culture which is beyond the destructive reach of the dead hand of our ruling class, take great care of it, because it’s probably only a matter of time before they come for that too.

This is Scotland in a nutshell. Powerless communities treated with disdain and contempt by managers who’ve never been to their town, insulated from accountability and fundamentally disinterested in us as people. We get to send a single councillor on the 35-mile journey to Hamilton where the officials work – if they’re confident enough to ignore him they can therefore just ignore the lot of us.

After all what can we do? We can (and have) produce a scientific report showing that the risk of the heat of the fire getting anywhere near the pipe is zero, we can point to centuries of holding the fire without a single major incident (and the houses round the fire used to be thatched – kids were paid to sit on the roofs with beaters to beat out any sparks). We can hold vigils. Our children can write letters to the members of the Licensing Committee to say how much the fire means to them.

Because in Scotland we are free – free to do whatever the fuck we like, so long as we don’t inconvenience the people who actually run the country.

More centralised than any other democratic country, less transparent and open with each passing year, ruled by an arrogant management class which pays itself handsomely and never fails to pat itself on the back no matter what the outcome, where the powerful never pay a price but where the powerless pay that price for them.

And fundamentally where we can do nothing about it. The Scottish Government has been fraudulently pretending to consult on ‘reforming local governance’ for about six years now. This is happening only to make sure that local democratic reform definitely doesn’t happen.

All the while the management classes read The Guardian and the New York Times and bemoan how awful it is that democracy is in retreat in Belarus, Russia and Poland, only briefly putting their papers down to replace another democratically-elected committee with an unelected one or to exclude the public from what is left of the democratically-elected committee meetings.

Every year for I think 42 years I have stood with those I care most about and gazed into the flames of our fire. I have fallen in love there and had my heart broken, laughed and one horrible year cried. I have curled up in my father’s arms by that fire and had my son or my daughter curl up in mine. There are people whose lives I know from the tales we’ve told each other by that fire, years passing and our hair greying.

And every year I find myself a spare five minutes to stand alone and look into the embers and think of the year that has passed and the one ahead. I really don’t think the officials properly understand or care what this tradition means to us all.

The Biggar Bonfire is not the only thing in Scotland that I’d like to see burned to the ground. There is so much of our sclerotic polity which is beyond tinkering and mild reform, so much that needs rebuilt from the ground up if it is to serve us properly. Personally I’m beyond sick of it.

Is there anything of our history or tradition or culture which is beyond the destructive reach of the dead hand of our ruling class? If you find it, take great care of it, because it’s probably only a matter of time before they come for that too.

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