Mary Dejevsky: Firework fun alongside the orange-jackets

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The Independent Online

The new year firework display in London was the best I can remember. The shapes, the colours, the luminous reflections in the river put us right up there with Sydney, Athens and Edinburgh – if international competition is how you judge these things. Mayor Boris did everyone a favour with his upbeat message, projected on to City Hall. Thank goodness someone in charge is looking on the bright side.

The Great British Public did their bit for cheerfulness, too. On a bitter-cold night, almost half a million people descended on and around the Thames embankment, with their folding chairs, thermos flasks and – more in the spirit of the festival, if not the temperature – real glasses and real champagne. What was that about the Blitz spirit, again?

So if we can do it, why can't the authorities? Why do they seem so curmudgeonly, so obviously anticipating the worst? Of course, they have a responsibility to be vigilant in the face of possible attack, even if many of us are more neglectful of the terrorist threat than we used to be. But the preparations for midnight had a hint of Romania under Ceausescu in their counter-human and apparently kill-joy intent. It seemed all about control.

As dusk gathered, lorries were depositing mountains of crowd barriers that were then erected by a veritable army of orange-jackets. Controlled viewing areas were where people were supposed to be – or, still better, safely at home in front of the television, and out of the authorities' hair. The big screen in Trafalgar Square helpfully told people that they would be wise to see the fireworks at home, and reassured them that the show would be live on television from 23:50. "Happy New Year", it said.

It goes without saying that any direct road route to the "viewing areas" was cut off in good time (like about 8pm). And that the closest Tube stations, such as Westminster, were shut for the duration.

Having the Tube working until 4.30am, and – as in recent years – free travel from just before midnight was terrific. But it's not quite so terrific if you, and your child-in-pushchair, and your champagne kit, also have to take part in a half-hour forced march to and from Victoria station (the closest recommended).

Oh, and of course, the riverside – except for the controlled areas – was barricaded off; we can't risk people falling into the water, now, can we? The streets swarmed with guardians of public order, labelled crowd control or some such.

Off-licences paired their big posters advertising special deals with little posters – never seen in normal times when we natives might appreciate them – warning that anti-social drinking in Westminster could attract a fine of £500. Could, but invariably doesn't. The Metropolitan Police seem to have no difficulty vanishing from the streets 364 nights of the year, why don't they just make it 365?

In the end, despite their best efforts the massed forces of law and order could only muster 70 or so arrests. There were many fewer emergency calls in the hours after midnight than last year. Perhaps it was because the economic crisis restricted what the powers-that-be would call "irresponsible drinking". Or perhaps it was because, despite all official efforts to thwart it, a sense of good humour prevailed among those who had come to celebrate.

Helen Suzman showed courage and iron principle

Helen Suzman, the anti-apartheid campaigner – how gloriously historical those words now sound – has died, full of years, as an eloquent Russian expression has it, and full of honours. She was one of those women of a certain generation, whose determination was second only to the force of her convictions. The obstacles such strong-willed women faced, whether in standing for political office or simply making their voices heard, only inspired them to redouble their efforts. We will see fewer and fewer like her; social progress means that women no longer need to show such outstanding courage and iron principle to make their way in politics.

For better and worse, women politicians no longer have to be exceptional. It is not the fault of Ms Caroline Flint that, as Europe minister, she was called upon to set out the Government's position on the euro in a BBC interview yesterday. But, my goodness, what a patter of platitude and followership she produced. No, Britain would not have done better with the euro; No, there was no prospect of membership in the foreseeable future. And, by the way, an opinion poll showed that the vast majority of voters agreed. Lily-livered pandering to a tremulous public is not how Helen Suzman helped bring down apartheid.

Blunder did not stop Sir Anthony's rise

Among the end-of-year releases of public records were documents revealing how grievously Britain's then man in Tehran, Sir Anthony Parsons, misjudged the mood in Iran on the eve of the revolution that swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power. He believed, despite mounting and dramatic evidence to the contrary, that the Shah could survive the popular rebellion. He also declined to acknowledge the physical danger faced by British and other foreign nationals, even as his embassy was under siege.

I have a slight personal interest to declare here: my late aunt, a former missionary living in Isfahan, could have been among those arrested by the new regime but was exempt by virtue of her dual nationality. Others were much less fortunate.

To give the late Sir Anthony his due, he was open about his mistake in retirement. And you could argue that a once-headstrong diplomat who has made such an error will be more circumspect thereafter.

At a time when the knives are out for bankers who rushed headlong into dubious financial "products", however, I cannot but note that Sir Anthony's career seems to have been unaffected. He was knighted and glided serenely onwards and upwards, becoming ambassador to the UN (during the Falklands War) and later Mrs Thatcher's foreign policy adviser. Yes, adviser.

It is said she appreciated the fact that he dared to answer back. But why is it that the "how" in public office seems to be more highly regarded than the "what" – whether the judgement was sound and the forecast accurate? I also wonder whether, had Sir Anthony still been alive, those particular Foreign Office records would have been opened. Wouldn't it be nice if there was personal accountability?