Sadiq Khan: Culture Warrior | Sajan Suganth


After our annus horribilis, what could be less objectionable than fireworks to mark a new year and a fresh start? It’s perhaps a little worrying that Mayor Sadiq Khan conspired with the BBC and the Metropolitan Police to keep the event secret, but understandable considering the special circumstances of the pandemic. Mr. Khan didn’t want crowds to gather, especially as coronavirus cases spiked in the capital.

That’s not the only thing that was kept under wraps. In addition to fireworks, the display featured brazen political messaging. Most notably, the logo of the BLM movement was recreated with a voiceover: “This is one voice with one message; Black Lives Matter”

Of all the events to hijack with politics, why pick a firework display?

All of us want to leave this year behind, and so the display is a welcome distraction. It removes us temporarily from the coronavirus pandemic, our fraught political culture, and the individual hardships brought on by the exceptional challenges of 2020. In summary, fireworks are universally enjoyable, which makes Khan’s actions particularly egregious.

Even when watching a display of light and colour, the public is reminded of the correct and polite opinions to hold. This demonstrates that there is no longer such a thing as “neutral ground.” There is no place where we can come together and forget our divisions, as every event has become a tool for wielding political change. Even harmless distractions are not beyond the purview of activists. In fact, harmless distractions are an especially crucial target. They help to convert ideas into customs, and it is much harder to question a tradition than an idea.  Players kneeling for BLM before a football game becomes a part of the game. With enough repetition, politics in a firework display will hardly be noticed. 

You can’t question these decisions because “that’s just the way things are.” If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, look at the “coming next week” section on Netflix. We don’t discuss values because streaming platforms take care of it for us; movies and tv shows remind us what to think about sex, religion and politics. People are influenced by what they see and hear; our culture reminds them of which opinions they should have, and which opinions they should reject. Instead of arguing with activists, you’re arguing with cultural norms, which makes you seem obsessive and impolite, even if you’re only pointing out what we all know to be the case; your politics are affected by your cultural experiences. And people generally spend more time watching TV than they do reading political theory. In other words, politics is downstream of culture.  

Therefore, our superficial cultural battles are more important than they seem. It’s framed as an out-of-touch elite looking down on the rest of us, but it’s more than that. Most people will tolerate the zealous antics at progressive-minded institutions. If the ideology is restricted to students at Oxbridge, or employees at The New York Times, you won’t get much of a reaction or even an acknowledgement. Most people are used to this and no longer pay much attention.  But the purveyors of ideas like anti-racism are not content to limit their sphere of influence. They are always looking for new methods of stigmatizing dissent, which means that their dogmas must infiltrate your workplace, your child’s school and your firework display.

The display is the case in point. This was not just about pushing a particular opinion. It was also a reminder that there is only one opinion you are supposed to have. More importantly, it was an act of antagonism, so that we must never forget which ideas are in charge.

An unintended benefit of this fiasco may be a growing realization (amongst the public) of the prevailing orthodoxy in the halls of power, which increasingly makes no attempt to cloak itself in jargon or inaction. Even if there is a backlash, expect to see similar acts soon. Things will get worse before they get better.

“This is one voice with one message” and it speaks for all of us, whether you like it or not.


Photo taken from the BBC’s broadcast of the London Fireworks.

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