At noon on Monday August 21 the steady, sombre bongs of Big Ben will ring out of the Elizabeth Tower for the last time before being silenced by a four-year renovation project on the tower… Maybe… There will be likely be wails, tears, rending of garments, and a lot of selfies.
This week has seen the city of London engulfed in an ongoing scandal surrounding Big Ben, the most precious of bells. The extent of the furore may be partly the result of August being a painfully slow news month — parliament is on recess and many offices are half empty — but it feels like deep national insecurity is also at play.
On Monday August 14, some MPs apparently discovered that the £29 million renovation of the Elizabeth Tower that they had approved would involve silencing Big Ben until the works were completed in 2021. This was quickly denounced by Tory MP Charles Gray as “entirely bonkers. It is ridiculous to silence the bell for four years. I am very sceptical about the whole thing.” It remains unclear why this came as quite so much of a surprise, especially given that Gray was on the Committee that approved the repair work, but passion seems to be overtaking the practical.
There is little debate that the renovation itself is desperately needed. After years of analysis, a Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster declared last September that England’s most celebrated and photographed of buildings “faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore”. The report concluded that the ‘patch and mend’ approach to the Palace of Westminster was no longer sustainable. Given that the last time the building had a major mechanical and electric renovation was when it was built in the 1800s, it is at risk of a series of failures to the water, gas, electric and sewage systems as well as deterioration of stonework and even a major fire.
But the thought of silencing Big Ben struck a chord — even to protect and maintain Westminster Palace, a Victorian gothic masterpiece and enormous draw for the over 19 million tourists who visit London and spend billions. The bell weighs 13.7 tonnes. Every hour it strikes an E note and every 15 minutes four ‘quarter bells’ chime out. When it was built, Big Ben was the biggest bell ever cast. It is said that Big Ben was drawn through the streets of London to Westminster to the cheers of crowds, what one student of history describes as, “a symbol of the technocratic precision of the machinery of government that powered the British Empire”.
Since May 31, 1859 Big Ben has marked the hour with almost unbroken service. As many a MP has pointed out, Big Ben tolled through the Blitz, defiant in the face of Luftwaffe, now muted by Health and Safety (one key reason for the bell to be silenced is that it would be unsafe for workers, both because of the sheer noise level and because it would interfere with communication). The bell fell silent for shorter periods during both the First and Second World Wars, for maintenance between 1983 and 1985, and most recently in 2007, but a silence of four years now seems interminable.
As one young Englishman living in London said, Big Ben “represents the character of the British people”. The tolls of Big Ben are unwavering, and they unify around a great example of political, historical and cultural strength. This strong association of British character (and superiority) with Big Ben’s bongs seems to lie behind much of the animated backlash coming from various sides. Labour MP Stephen Pound similarly told BBC London that the tolling of Big Ben is “a symbol of stability, it’s proof that we are one country. That sound ringing across the city, uniting all of us, is symbolically massively important.”
Especially important given the stagnant, divided and uninspiring state of British politics and Brexit negotiations. Each Brexit headline seems to be lamenting a blocked attempt at a bad deal or lambasting future consequences and complications of a given move, and the current government proves unable to effectively act or inspire. Big Ben seems a better cause to take up. When Theresa May returned from holiday she waded right in, saying “it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years”, as many pointed out, taking a clearer and harder initial line on the renovation than on Donald Trump.
After such extensive input the renovation plans are now under review, so Big Ben may live to toll again for Britain. In the meantime, we can still mourn its possible passing Monday at noon GMT, just a few hours before the full solar eclipse arrives on the northwest coast of Oregon, USA to begin its path southeast, covering the country in darkness.