Melanie McDonagh

Why did Sadiq Khan politicise London’s fireworks?

Why did Sadiq Khan politicise London’s fireworks?
Drones display the NHS logo at the London fireworks display (photo: BBC)
Text settings

It takes quite a lot to make fireworks divisive, no? A roaring display of noise and light and colour, owed to the technical ingenuity of our old friends the Chinese, reminding everyone who’s ever been in a war of the noise of falling shells… it’s a universally popular way of seeing in the New Year. And in all the displays around the world, it’s London’s on the Thames that draws in a global audience. Normally I watch the display from Ireland; this year I could almost see them on the horizon.

With the year that’s been, this was the chance to cheer everyone up. It’s been a year of plague, of pandemic; people have died before their time, businesses have gone under, lots of us lost jobs and salaries. And to round off this beastly year, we weren’t even able to have our friends round; we were watching the London fireworks in our own little bubbles.

So what does Sadiq Khan do? That’s right; he manages to find a way to divide the nation. Even with fireworks as a medium, he gets his very own message across. Where you were hoping to enjoy mind-bending displays of pyrotechnics, instead you got ‘NHS’ spelled out inside a heart. You got the EU colours just as the country left the Union. You got the Black Power salute as a tribute to BLM. Oh and inevitably, a voiceover from David Attenborough over a frankly ugly image of a sea turtle with a map on its back. Did it not cross the Mayor’s mind that not everyone would warm to this partisan display? Did it occur to him that this might not be an entirely useful way of spending public money – over two million quid, by previous reckonings. Did it not seem like a matter of good taste to make fireworks something that everyone, apart from dogs and babies, should enjoy?

Or, more worryingly, does it not occur to Sadiq that this display was in fact controversial and divisive at home and incomprehensible to a global audience? Does he actually think we all feel the same about BLM, the NHS and Brexit? Earth to Sadiq: we don’t, not even all those who work in the NHS.

There’s another possibility. 2021 is the year of the London mayoral election. It is possible, just possible, that this partisan display is a means for the mayor to get his message across at public expense. In which case, Londoners can add the New Year fireworks to an ever-growing list of areas where the mayor has not been a force for unity, alongside ridiculously expensive bike lanes and his astonishing implication earlier this year that the Met is institutionally racist. Shaun Bailey, the underrated Tory candidate, should keep those fireworks in mind.