Will Big Ben chime for Brexit? It's a $650,000 question
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Will Big Ben chime for Brexit? It's a $650,000 question
The Union flag flutters near the clockface of Big Ben during ongoing renovations to the Tower and the Houses of Parliament, in central London on January 7, 2020. Adrian DENNIS / AFP.

by Stephen Castle

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- When Britain leaves the European Union at the end of the month, it must secure trade ties to the Continent, revamp its migration rules and reset relations with global partners like the United States, to name just a few looming challenges.

But the question gripping Brexit supporters is whether the moment of departure will be marked by the familiar chimes of Big Ben.

Inconveniently, the country’s most famous clock tower is under repair, like much of the crumbling parliamentary estate, yet that has not stopped a vigorous campaign to bring it back to life for a brief moment of history.

“Big Ben Must Bong For Brexit,” screamed a front-page headline in the British tabloid The Daily Express, which was superimposed on a picture of the clock minus the scaffolding and cladding that conceal it.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that the 500,000-pound cost (about $650,000) of restoring the chimes for the night could be raised by crowd funding. But his office later conceded that there was no official way for the public to contribute.

“Boris’ bonkers ‘bung a bob for Big Ben Brexit bongs’ bid bombs,” was the verdict of another tabloid, The Daily Mirror, as frustrated Brexit enthusiasts hinted of a plot against them and suggested that church bells ring out instead. (The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers has responded with skepticism.)

The debate has exposed the government’s surprising awkwardness over how to commemorate the end of 47 years of European integration, an ambition that helped bring Johnson to power but has also divided the nation.

Although he won a convincing parliamentary majority in last month’s election, he achieved this largely by uniting the pro-Brexit vote in a way that guaranteed victory under the British system. In fact, a majority of voters supported parties that wanted either a second referendum on Brexit or to scrap it altogether.

For days Downing Street has stalled when asked what will happen when Britain officially leaves the bloc, not at midnight on Jan. 31, but at 11 p.m. (The timing is dictated, like much else in the Brexit negotiations so far, by Brussels, which is in a different time zone.)

Johnson seems queasy about the moment being hijacked by Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, who plans a celebration outside Parliament.

But the prime minister also appears to be unsure what note to strike over an issue that has split the nation for three years. Brexit was originally scheduled to happen last March, and previous preparations have had to be scrapped, with commemorative coins being melted down when Britain was forced to make a second request for more time.

To critics of the Big Ben idea, it illustrates their fear that Brexit is motivated by nostalgia and a wish to bask in the afterglow of a long-lost British Empire.

Some Brexit supporters yearn for a restoration of the blue passports they carried in the 1970s (Britain, like other EU nations, adopted a maroon passport), and some have campaigned for a new royal yacht.

“The obsession with Big Ben chiming really highlights the shallowness of the Vote Leave campaign,” Neil Gray, a lawmaker with the Scottish National Party, wrote on Twitter.

Most analysts say they believe that the 2016 vote for Brexit was more about identity and a sense of sovereignty than economics, and according to research by Bloomberg Economics, the cost of Brexit has already hit 130 billion pounds, with a further 70 billion pounds set to be added by the end of this year.

So national symbols are important to many Brexit supporters, and those who want Big Ben to chime argue that despite the renovation work, the bell has been struck on specific occasions — including on New Year’s Eve.

Dozens of lawmakers, including perhaps the most outspoken Brexit supporter, Mark Francois, signed a letter to The Sunday Telegraph urging that Big Ben not stay silent on Jan. 31.

“We believe this would be much to the consternation of many people around the U.K. who wish to celebrate this momentous event,” they wrote.

Farage has weighed in, too, saying that at his planned celebration outside Parliament, he might be forced to play a recording of the chimes.

“I frankly think that, around the world, at that moment at 11 p.m., if Big Ben doesn’t strike, our country looks like a joke,” he told LBC Radio.

The House of Commons says that the clock mechanism that usually powers the hammer that strikes the Great Bell, as Big Ben is formally known, has been dismantled and removed for refurbishment. (While Big Ben is a nickname for the clock, which is called the Great Clock and sits atop the tower, it is strictly speaking the name of the main bell in the clock. The name is also often used to refer to the Elizabeth Tower, the structure that contains the clock.)

For the bell to ring, a temporary striking mechanism used for New Year’s Eve would have to be reattached and tested to ensure the timing was correct.

Alongside this work, a temporary floor would have to be installed in the belfry where Big Ben is housed, and the cost for the temporary floor and installing, testing and striking Big Ben would be approximately 120,000 pounds.

What is more, the delay to other planned work in the belfry would push back the tower’s overall restoration schedule by two to four weeks — with the cost of each week’s delay being approximately 100,000 pounds.

Even though for Brexit supporters some sort of celebration is important, for most Britons, nothing will actually change after Jan. 31.

Under the exit deal, Britain will remain under EU rules until the end of 2020 while the two sides try to negotiate what the future looks like.

So now, although Britain faces tough trade negotiations with the EU, Johnson’s public position is that it is time for the country to move on and change the subject. A triumphalist celebration of a moment that millions of Britons will regret hardly fits with a notion of healing and catharsis.

The Big Ben for Brexit campaign is not giving up, however.

On Wednesday, there were some high-profile pledges of donations, but one online funding page had recorded just 425 pounds.

If necessary, Francois told ITV, he and another pro-Brexit lawmaker would “go up there, whack it and save some money.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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