We've known this was coming since April last year—so why has it become yet another opportunity for certain members of Parliament to revel in archaic traditions (and, of course, bring up the war)?by James Cooray Smith / August 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Monday, a cross-party group of MPs gathered outside on a cold, wet, summer day to witness the last time for a number of years that the chimes of ‘Big Ben’ would ring out—at least as a matter of quarter hourly routine. By doing so they—seemingly quite deliberately—sustained into a second week the curious political embolism surrounding the ‘silencing’ of the bell.
It should be a classic summer silly season story, but ‘Big Ben’ is a potent symbol of, if perhaps not the country, then certainly its politics. And our politics, if perhaps not the country, is struggling to find a new normal in the aftermath of the EU referendum. (A struggle of which June’s General Election is a symptom, not a cause.)
In this period of intense discord, of fundamental and wide-ranging disagreement over who we are, and who we want to be, the country’s signs and symbols are up for grabs. The self-described “vigil” of MPs, carried out according to Labour’s Stephen Pound “with heads bowed and hope in our hearts,” is a deliberate, wholly symbolic act of the kind that fill British public life, from the state opening of Parliament down. This one in particular, perhaps because of its extemporised, ad hoc nature, has quickly revealed itself as little more than yet another opportunity for members of Parliament to make the entire country look ridiculous.
That ‘Big Ben’ (it’s not its name but we’ll stick with it) must this week fall silent for maintenance work to be carried out has come as a surprise to both members of Parliament and to the general public. Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of the Commons, has been convening emergency meetings with House Speaker John Bercow to see if the expensive and longstanding plans can be in some way revised or amended. More surprisingly, the Prime Minister took time out of her busy ‘being invisible’ schedule to go on television to say that it wasn’t right that the bells would fall silent for such a long time. If she didn’t actually say she was shocked by the news, then her demeanour and choice of words indicated that she was, as she urged “the Speaker… To look into this urgently so we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”