Bonfire night ‘waste of money’, councils say

Councils across the country have reduced or cancelled this weekend’s celebrations in response to public spending cuts. Are firework shows any better than setting fire to money?

The residents of Ottery St Mary in Devon were awoken at 5:30am yesterday by the sound of locals firing rock cannons. It was one of the town’s unusual rituals which take place on 5 November every year, when people also carry blazing barrels of tar through the streets.

They are among millions of British people marking the 410th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot this weekend. But in some areas, bonfire night has been called off. Councils in areas such as Birmingham, Lambeth in south London and Broxbourne in Hertfordshire have cancelled their firework displays this year. Elsewhere, for example in Gateshead, revellers face entry fees after private sponsors took over the events.

The decisions have prompted anger. In Birmingham, the Conservative opposition said it was ‘incredible’ that the largest city council would not be hosting an event. But the councils say they are responding to funding cuts. According to the Local Government Association, councils have had to reduce their expenditure by 40% in real terms since 2010 and need to find £2.5bn of savings in 2015-16.

UK spending on bonfire night celebrations will exceed £350m this year. The national fireworks industry is worth £64m, around £40m of which is spent in early November. Expensive firework displays also take place on New Year’s Eve (London’s event this year cost £1.8m) and at traditional celebrations around the world.

Bonfire night is a chance to ‘remember, remember the fifth of November’. In the early hours of that date in 1605, a disenchanted Catholic called Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar under the House of Lords, preparing to light 36 barrels of gunpowder. The explosives would have blown up parliament during the state opening, with King James I in attendance. The 14 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors and the anniversary of the discovery was declared a national day of thanksgiving.

Up in smoke

Some would be pleased to see the end of bonfire night, a pointless waste of money, they say, at a time when 795 million people around the world are hungry and six million UK workers are paid less than the living wage. We would be outraged if £20 notes were burned for a bit of fun. And the protection of a monarch who persecuted a religious minority is hardly worth celebrating.

Lighten up, respond others — extravagance enhances the human experience. Life would be dull without fine food, beautiful buildings or ornate paintings; bonfire night just gives ordinary people a taste of the spectacular. Besides, it brings communities together, boosts local economies, connects us to an important historical event and marks the defeat of a terrorist plot. We will miss it when it is gone.

You Decide

  1. If you had £10 to spend this weekend, would you spend it on fireworks or something else? Why?
  2. Is extravagance ever a virtue?

Activities

  1. Make a list of three activities that matter to you which someone could see as extravagant.
  2. Write a short sketch in which the Gunpowder Plot conspirators meet some modern terrorists (you may need to do some brief research before you write this). How would they agree or disagree with each other?

Some People Say...

“Spending money should be celebrated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not celebrating — does this affect me?
Bonfire Night may well affect you anyway: the noise from firework displays can disturb people and scare animals. The spending cuts are also important: cancelled events or less purchasing of fireworks mean reduced employment, giving people less money to spend. But no municipal or government event is truly free — the cost must be funded from public money, meaning more taxes have to be paid.
How else has the Gunpowder Plot been remembered?
John Milton wrote the famous poem ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder treason and plot’. More recently, Guy Fawkes’s story inspired the novel and film V for Vendetta. The masks of Fawkes from the film have now become associated with resistance and protest movements, such as the Occupy movement.

Word Watch

Millions
The Guardian reports 20 million people attended displays in 2013; The Grocer predicts £386m will be spent on fireworks and parties this year (YouGov).
Celebrations
Fireworks often mark anniversaries of independence: a major part of Bastille Day (14 July) in France; in Sydney, seven tonnes were exploded to greet the most recent new year.
Disenchanted Catholic
Catholics were persecuted during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, particularly when England was at war with Catholic Spain. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were angry that this continued under King James, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603.
36 barrels
Enough to destroy anything within 500 metres of the Palace of Westminster.
State opening
In a ceremonial act, Yeomen of the Guard still check parliament with lanterns when the state opening takes place.
Hanged, drawn and quartered
Those convicted of treason faced a gruesome form of execution. The condemned was hanged, cut down while alive, disembowelled, castrated, beheaded and cut into quarters. Fawkes, who jumped from the scaffold, died before the executioner could cut him down.

Subjects

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