New Year 2002: Where’s the party?

Why have the authorities turned public celebrations into a damp squib?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The British comic Julian Clary, while performing as the Joan Collins Fan Club, had some great put-downs for audience members. ‘What’s your name? John? Just the one syllable for you then, John. And who does your hair for you? Is it the council?’

Everybody gets the joke about the council straightaway. Local councils in the UK are notoriously bad at doing anything in a sophisticated way. It’s usually all they can manage to empty the dustbins and maintain the streetlights. What a shame they haven’t realised, therefore, that council-organised celebrations are every bit as bad as John’s haircut, particularly at New Year. Before you can say ‘street-sweeping’, all that hilarity gets buried under concerns about safety and the need for family entertainment.

I lived in Edinburgh for most of the 1990s and the change there has been dramatic. Back in the Old Days (ie, 1992), crowds would gather at the Tron Kirk on the High Street and listen for the bells, with any available high vantage point occupied. At midnight, there would follow lots of drunken snogging (of other people) and bottle-throwing (at the church). People would jump up and down on bus shelters. A few people would lie prostrate on the ground having fallen off bus shelters. Then everybody would go off to parties. A few split heads, the odd unplanned pregnancy and an awful lot of hangovers.


Then the council decided that all this spontaneous drunken activity was both highly dangerous and a missed opportunity for tourism. So they decided to put on a funfair and concerts in Princes Street on the basis that Hogmanay is a peculiarly Scottish event and Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland. Soon, the city was claiming the biggest New Year events in the world. But at New Year 1997, the popularity of the events created a crush in the city centre which almost lead to a number of deaths. As a result, the city centre is now cordoned off from early evening on 31 December through to the early hours of the New Year, with admission by pass only.

So, having spent a lot of money getting people away from the Tron Kirk and into a bigger space with entertainment to distract them, the council were then forced into draconian measures to prevent an even greater threat to safety. New Year, once an opportunity to get into a good-natured crowd and have some spontaneous fun, now has to be planned months in advance to have any hope of getting a pass. Local residents are only allocated about half the passes, which means a lot of people can’t get into the city centre at all. Social control and risk avoidance go hand in hand. They’ve even put anti-climb paint on the bus shelters. What on earth is anti-climb paint, anyway?

And what is all this fantastic entertainment? Well, those concerts at first tended to feature such crowd-pullers as the New Rollers (featuring one former member of the Bay City Rollers). And as the acts got bigger, the more they were kept separate in Princes Street Gardens to make sure you paid for the privilege. Okay, so people still snog at midnight and get drunk, but the hassle now far outweighs the fun, in spite of the presence of 100,000 people.

We made our own fun in the Old Days. Now people stay out longer with the expectation of being entertained, and are often disappointed. That free entertainment always seems to come down to having fireworks. This used to be very exciting, but since you can now guarantee a fireworks display at the opening of an envelope, the novelty is wearing off.

The same kind of thing has been going on for years in London with the fountains in Trafalgar Square cordoned off. Now the only excitement is the slight risk of being mugged. For the millennium, the three million people that lined the Thames were promised a ‘ring of fire’ over London but got what looked suspiciously like a bog-standard fireworks display. Last year, the government announced there would be a big fireworks display every year in the capital, only for it to be cancelled at the first attempt, essentially because of the fear that the event would be as big as the millennium again.

This year, the Greater London Authority has abandoned any attempt to organise any large central event. On the one hand, there is a desire to control ‘informal and often unruly gatherings’ such as those in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. On the other hand, there is panic at the prospect of taking responsibility for so many people. The result is that responsibility has been handed over to individual boroughs to organise their own events (1).

It’s a sad indictment of the ability of government to get its act together. However, it’s probably for the best, even if nobody gets to jump up and down in the fountains anymore. At least we won’t have a mini-police state operating in London as they do in Edinburgh. And as Adam Ant sang in Antmusic, ‘So sad when you’re young to be told you’re having fun’. Especially when it’s the council doing the telling.

(1) Future major events in London (.pdf 91 KB), Greater London Authority, March 2001

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Topics Politics


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