Full disclosure: my friends and I set off a heck of a display on Bonfire Night and we weren’t alone. The city was alive with the percussion of explosions and colour, but for all the entertainment and festivity, misery and violence overtook several streets and parks in the Capital that night.
Last year, in one part of my constituency of Edinburgh Western, several people were charged with the ancient and almost unheard of crime of “mobbing and rioting” after a major disturbance on Fireworks Night. The police fought running battles with groups of young people hurling fireworks and other projectiles at emergency workers and private homes. This year, in the same area, a police officer was badly burned and hospitalised after a firework was thrown in her face. Our emergency workers do us proud, they keep us safe and come to our aid when we need them most. The least they should be able to expect is to go about their duties without fear of physical violence.
It’s also important to remember that every year, families with dogs spend much of November 5 soothing the anxieties of canine companions, cowering under beds. If you think that’s bad, imagine what it’s like to experience city-wide fireworks when you have severe autism.
Now, I’m not for a minute suggesting that we ban the private use of fireworks, but when something in society starts to escalate beyond our control, it’s time to pause and reflect.
In public policy terms, the control of fireworks is complicated. Legislation around the sale of fireworks is reserved to Westminster, given we’re effectively talking about transactions involving gunpowder. However, Holyrood maintains the ability to bring in a licensing system for their private use.
I don’t have the answers but I want to start a discussion. Say for argument’s sake we put in a measure whereby you can still buy fireworks for private use and display, but you need to present a card which shows you’ve paid £10 for a licence that covers you for five years – with the money used to cover a short police check on your background. That would seem reasonable to me. As a Liberal, I’m instinctively wary about the state reaching further into daily life to impose any kind of control or stricture around something which we consider part of our heritage. However, when a local police sergeant ends up in the burns unit, because of a warped antisocial distortion of such a tradition, then there’s a point at which you have to say ‘enough is enough’.
This is at the opposite end of the scale, but there are themes similar to those at large in the gun control debate in the United States right now. Why should the actions of a few irresponsible individuals impact on everyone else’s freedom to go about their business using a potentially dangerous item in a responsible way?
Mercifully we can be thankful that the debate around the control of fireworks is not resultant from a catastrophic bodycount which grows larger by the year, but their use for anti-social purposes is escalating and we can’t just shrug our shoulders and mutter that “it only happens once a year”.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.