The vanity and the bonfire

by | 12 Jan 2024

If you want to understand why Scotland gets so little value for its public spend, a wee look at a pile of old wood on fire is a useful primer...

One of the themes I intend to return to repeatedly this year is to give you case studies of what I tried to explain at the time of the Scottish Budget – that we get crap value for money from the public finances we spend because so much of it is absorbed and wasted by the bureaucratic class.

I’m a little late to this example as the return to work post-Christmas has been pretty intense. But it remains a very good example of how something good and safe and happy and (crucially) cheap became something tense and unhappy and expensive. It is Biggar’s Hogmanay bonfire.

A very quick catch-up – while the origins aren’t entirely clear, we know that Tinto Hill (close to Biggar) used to be an important Druid site at which fire festivals were held to mark the start of a new year. The best guess is that this somehow translated itself into the Biggar Hogmanay bonfire.

The first recorded mention of the bonfire is way back at the beginning of the 19th century but it is believed to be a lot older than that – possible as old as 500 years. In that time there is not a single recorded serious incident at the bonfire – at least not related to the bonfire itself (I can think of a heart attack and a nasty fall, both elderly people and neither related to heat or panic).

I’ve been at every Hogmanay bonfire since I was a child in the 1980s. My dad was the councillor for Biggar which meant I knew a fair bit about its organisation – it is run by the local Cornets’ Club (recently with a bonfire committee added) and my brother and many of my friends are Cornets. The basis on which it was run was simple.

The council (first Clydesdale and then South Lanarkshire) put down some aggregate on which the bonfire was built. An official would check on the bonfire once it was built to make sure there were no clear safety problems. The police (we had a local sargent based in the town who knew the town) simply closed the road just before the start of the procession and, as soon as the procession had moved far enough up the street (about ten minutes) opened the road and diverted traffic up an alternative road.

Cars would still use the diversion until the early hours but it is a fairly narrow road so by later in the evening when everyone was still there and the fire was burning away, lorries and buses would simply drive through slowly between us. In fact waving at tourists from other countries as they crawled past in luxury coaches was almost a tradition. Many stopped spontaneously and joined us.

The fire was left to burn out by itself and everyone went home. It was cleared up two days later. The end. The worst damage was a few cracked windows from heat which led to the building having its windows boarded. That’s it. No serious burns, no serious incidents, no serious damage. Five hundred years.

My response to this was simple; should we sweep the rooftops for snipers, or are we completely committed to the bomb theory?

Then South Lanarkshire Council created the Events Safety Advisory Group. This is a large committee of officials, utilities companies, police and fire services and so on. There can be 20 or more people sitting on this group, all on very high salaries. They are there to see fear and danger everywhere.

The bonfire was cancelled during Covid and they seem to have believed this was their opportunity to close it down permanently. They said they would no longer approve the bonfire because there was a gas pipe under it, a gas pipe put there decades ago after hundreds of years of clear knowledge that this was a historic site and based on 100 per cent assurances that there was no risk.

We had to fight this as a community – I had to organise a heat scientist and an oil engineer to do a detailed technical report on why the fears over the gas main are ridiculous (the physics didn’t seem to be understood by the Council) and we had to protest and lobby for months and months. Our victory was far from complete – they reduced the footprint of the bonfire by three quarters.

And they put barriers everywhere, many, many metres from the fire. We managed for years without barriers to no negative effect (the fire is hot – no-one goes anywhere near it, barrier or no barrier). But if you think this is about safety, think again. This was all about control and back-covering.

How do I know this? Because at the point I became involved I had months of paperwork to look over. I do this for a living and I know the difference between a negotiation and a hatchet job. Every single time we had provided all the information on how we were mitigating their concerns, another half a dozen new concerns arose – over and over. That is not a negotiation.

The point at which it was apparent that this was farcical was when ESAG called for 24-hour staffed security at the fire for days in advance because (I kid you not) they wanted to make sure that no-one planted a bomb in the fire.

My response to this was simple; should we sweep the rooftops for snipers, or are we completely committed to the bomb theory? Honestly, someone who wanted to plant a bomb in Biggar wouldn’t really find it all that hard. The fire is just about the worst place to do it as it is worked on extensively all day on Hogmanay.

The outcome of this is exactly what you would think. The barriers are so far from the fire that you could barely feel the heat at its peak. The point of all of this is that the community can be out and together on a frosty (if we’re lucky) or wet (if we’re not) night and it’s fine because there is this bonfire to warm us.

And because this fire is so small now it burns down pretty quickly. Within an hour it was freezing. We were looking at a modest little fire burning about 15 metres away from us as we were all kettled behind a load of barriers. I tripped over one at one point as I didn’t realise I was trapped on all sides except backwards. My mum nearly fell. I saw others struggle to navigate.

The point with all of this is that nothing has got better and everyone has got angrier. We all stood there shivering, watching some warmth from a great distance and cursing our ‘democracy’. The barriers seemed to me to increase risk, not decrease it, certainly in the insane extent to which they were deployed.

Spending ten times as much money to make things worse by imposing self-serving bureaucratic hurdles in the way of anyone trying to make Scotland or their own community better is now the Scottish way

But the whole point of this is that this actually has nothing whatsoever to do with our democracy. Because this is the reality; ESAG has no statutory basis, no legal powers and no democratic mandate. It is only supposed to ‘advise’, but that is crap. The councillors are all petrified. What are they supposed to do when a load of professionals on salaries a councillor could only dream of intimidates them with a ‘we say no – go ahead and if anything happens you’re all fucked’.

That’s basically what they do. Unpaid officials make unchallengeable decisions which need neither have democratic legitimacy nor any basis on the laws of physics and certainly not based on empirical evidence or (heaven forfend) the views of the community itself. Having made that decision they are perfectly capable of using their legal might to intimidate everyone into backing down.

And they cost an absolute fortune. This group meets again and again to look at a handful of events which never had any problem in the past. These are all people on salaries north of £60k so you will quickly work out what a dozen meetings or more of 20 people costs.

They now close the whole road like a bomb has gone off. There is nothing pragmatic or sensible about their approach. The cost of the installation of the mountains of barriers is extensive staff time. The number of police standing around, twiddling their fingers and chatting amiably to a good-natured crowd has doubled or more.

(I know a couple of cops in South Lanarkshire and they all tell you that if they’re working Hogmanay, Biggar is the gig they want as its by far the easiest and most pleasant.)

Rather than an official popping out, a very senior group of officials come out a couple of times and suck air through their teeth. And of course they go mental and expect us to insure this up to our arses because of their fucking gas pipe that they installed assuring us that there was no need for higher insurance.

I’d love to calculate the real-terms cost hike of approving/spoiling/running Biggar Bonfire. If it has increased ten-fold in real terms I’d hardly be surprised. And nothing got better, everything got worse.

What is really telling is that over the course of the night I chatted to loads of people. Among them were a care worker, a nurse, another medical professional, a police call centre operator, a council official (off duty) and a couple of teachers. Every single one of them complained about the farce, and every one of them drew a straight line between why their job is becoming unmanageable and why our bonfire is becoming a bureaucratic nightmare.

Spending ten times as much money to make things worse by imposing self-serving bureaucratic hurdles in the way of anyone trying to make Scotland or their own community better is now the Scottish way. Not a soul on ESAG is there to represent the community. They are there to suck up salary and cover their arses. There is nothing left-wing about this, nothing progressive. This is an unelected coup taking place in civic life across Scotland.

It is costing us a fortune. It is burning out our frontline workers. And it is making Scotland a total mess. And all of this is vanity – the vanity of a self-serving empire that believes it earns the big money because the rest of us need protecting from ourselves.

It’s a quite different kind of bonfire Scotland needs…

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