UK at loggerheads over Battle of the Bongs

Summoned by bells: Big Ben is the largest bell in the clock tower. It sounds the note E. © Getty

Is Brexit worth £45,000 a bong? A campaign for the chimes of Big Ben to sound as Britain leaves the EU on 31 January appears doomed – though, for some, it remains a cause worth fighting for.

All over Britain yesterday, people put down their cereal spoons and stared at each other across the breakfast table.

What had Boris Johnson just said in his TV interview? One moment he was discussing the dangerous situation in Iran and the crisis at FlyBe, and the next he was floating an idea that we “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”.

Had the prime minister flipped his lid?

Not quite. What Johnson meant was this. The idea for the bells of Big Ben to ring out at 23:00 GMT on 31 January – the time and date that the UK is due to officially leave the EU (it will be midnight in Brussels) – was first floated by pro-Brexit MPs.

But at £500,000, the cost of marking Brexit in this way would be just over £45,000 per bong, assuming the bell strikes 11 times.

The 160-year-old clock has been under restoration since 2017, and the hammer which strikes its main bell has been removed. To make it ring out again, the operating equipment needs to be brought back, and a temporary floor built to hold it – which is why it would be so expensive.

Commons authorities have played down the idea, while a funding plan promised by Johnson to pay for it turns out not to exist.

But pro-Brexit Tories and some newspapers have called for the bongs to go ahead. Several wealthy donors have pledged to help cover the cost of restoring the currently-dismantled clock mechanism for the night.

They also want Britain’s church bells to peal on 1 February to mark “the first morning of our independence”.

“Just as we did to mark the Allies’s victory in Europe in 1945, we’re calling on patriots to ring the bell of their local church at 9:00am on Saturday 1 February, to celebrate Britain’s new-found independence,” said the campaign group, Leave.EU.

However, the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, founded in 1891, said it did not support the calls. “There are historical moments for which bells have been rung, [the] end of world wars for example. However, the central council, as a principle, does not endorse bellringing for political reasons.”

The argument taps into a rich vein of controversy. There is a long history of extravagant funding for important moments of national symbolism in all cultures of the world. There are always naysayers who rail against it. And there are always patriots who feel that any expense is worth the glory.

Take the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, when Henry VIII met Francis I of France near Calais. Each king had a temporary palace built, designed to outdo the other in magnificence: Henry’s covered 10,000 square metres and had two fountains flowing with red wine.

These mighty powers spared no expense. So is Brexit worth £45,000 a bong?

A ding-dong battle

Are we crazy? Of course not! There will be no tangible benefits: the sound will only last for seconds and then all the equipment will have to be removed again. If people want to use their money to mark Brexit Day, they should plant some oak trees. At least they will be around for 100 years.

How miserly, say others. Bells are the original newscasts. We have bells for victories, bells for weddings and (half-muffled) bells for important deaths. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…” The bells of Britain should all ring out for a historic political moment!

You Decide

  1. Can extravagance ever be morally good?
  2. What is the symbol of your nation (most countries have many) that means the most to you?

Activities

  1. Think about a new monument for your country – something that would make you proud. Now draw it and explain it with some notes.
  2. On one side of paper, write about the meaning and power of bells in your life. It can be an essay, a short story or a poem.

Some People Say...

“National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

Richard Rorty, (1931-2007), US philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The House of Commons Commission, which is responsible for maintenance in Parliament, estimates the cost of sounding Big Ben on Brexit day is between £320,000 and £500,000. Its estimate is made up of two separate costs: bringing back the bonging mechanism and installing a temporary floor. The cost of delaying the conservation work is based on an estimate of £100,000 a week. The commission says the floor in the belfry (the part of the tower where the bells are kept) has been removed, and there would be a significant cost to put in – and then remove – a temporary floor. There is also the cost of installing and dismantling the temporary mechanism (an electric bell hammer) to sound the bell.
What do we not know?
How important 31 January or Brexit day will seem in a few years. It may turn out to be one of those dates that people rapidly forget. The real Brexit battles were fought last year. Perhaps there is not much to bong about after all.

Word Watch

Bob
An old fashioned word for a shilling or what is now 5p.
Naysayers
Someone who is always negative.
Miserly
To be mean; not generous.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls…
A line from John Donne’s poem of the same name, written in 1624.

Subjects

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