Big Ben has gone silent for what will be the longest period in its 157-year history.
The British are meant to be reluctant to show emotion but at midday on Monday, when the bell rang for the last time for four years, one MP shed a tear. He was at a vigil - yes, a vigil - where politicians, tourists and media gathered and some had, as one convenor described it, “heads bowed and hope in our hearts”.
It follows an explosion of outrage in the press. The Daily Mail called it a “death knell for common sense” and said “yes, it’s all down to Health and Safety!”
Below, we try to explain to non-Brits why a not-that-loud bell that sits atop a not-that-tall tower and makes a not-that-useful noise has got so many of us freaking out.
Why are so many people upset about Big Ben going quiet?
Stop talking Britain down.
Sorry. It’s a fraught time in British politics and accusing people who ask sceptical questions of being unpatriotic is kind of instinctive these days. I’ll start again. Big Ben and the whole of our 19th-century parliament are in desperate need of a costly and long restoration. Part of that means shutting off the UK’s most famous bell for four years to repair it.
Stop talking Brit- sorry. Yes, it is sensible. If we kept the bell going, the people doing the repairs would go deaf. But we’re British. Don’t let the stiff upper lip and Keep Calm And Carry On poster fool you. That’s only on stuff that matters - like fighting wars and running empires. When it comes to stuff that doesn’t matter at all, we’re addicted to getting sentimental.
And that’s why so many people are losing it?
Partly. Another reason is British politics at the moment. Last year, 52% of people who voted said we should leave the EU. This was the starting gun for an acrimonious time. To give you a sense of what things are like here, three judges were branded “Enemies Of The People” on the front page of our most powerful newspaper (the one that called Big Ben’s silence “the death knell of common sense”) because they said parliament should vote on how we should formally start leaving the EU. The phrase “stop talking Britain down” has become a meme of our national conversation.
But what’s Big Ben got to do with Brexit?
More than you’d think. Big Ben is the internationally-recognised symbol of our parliamentary democracy. Our claim, credible or not, to have modelled parliaments for the rest of the world plays a huge role in our national self-esteem and the place we see for ourselves in the world. That’s what the Brexit referendum was about. The argument over who gets to define British is raging.
One of the first MPs to get upset about Big Ben’s silence said it was “switching off democracy”. Another called the hourly bongs a “democracy lamp”, to much derision on Twitter. As the argument grew, pro-Brexit MPs said the bell should ring again to bong us out of the EU in March, 2019. As MPs bowed their heads on Monday, others turned up to wave EU flags to remind everyone else there are still Brexit opponents out there. Indifference doesn’t feel like an option. This might explain why people who claim not to care about Big Ben have been loudly saying they don’t care.
Has it gone quiet before?
Never for this long. This period of silence is longer than when it went silent in the last two years of the First World War for fear German zeppelin pilots would hear it. It last went quiet in 2007, when maintenance went on for a few weeks. In 1976, during another fraught time in our politics, it stopped because of metal fatigue and didn’t chime for nine months - the only time it has actually broken.
Ask any Brit about Big Ben and they’ll probably tell you it bonged all through the worst of the Second World War. This touches another nerve in our psyche: We’re committed to keeping things normal, even when the Nazis are trying to blow us up.
Aren’t there more important things to have a vigil for?
London has had many vigils in this difficult year. A lot of people pointed out that MPs didn’t line up outside the Grenfell Tower to mourn the 81 people who burned to death there in June. One MP bristled when asked why some seemed to care more about the sound of a bell. Peter Bone told Sky News: “That is a nonsense... That is wrong on so many levels... This is iconic for the world. It’s a huge, huge tourist attraction. Why would you want to damage that?”
Why does Big Ben need fixing?
It’s an incredibly intricate machine that dates from 1859. The whole of parliament needs to be repaired at a cost of some £3.5Bn. The work will take so long that parliament’s own committee on its building has recommended they all move to another place while it’s done.
This sounds like it was announced at short notice.
It wasn’t. People got angry at short notice. Last year, parliament’s committee on the Palace of Westminster said the building “faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore”. The building has never had a major renovation of its electricity and mechanics, they said, adding there was a growing risk of a catastrophe, like a major fire, or a succession of failures in its systems that would render it unusable as a building. We’ve known since last year that Big Ben was going to fall silent for a time, though not for this long. Scaffolding started going up in June.
How will you tell time?
We have iPhones, wristwatches and other clocks - there’s an even bigger one just up the Thames. But parliament’s clock will still be working. We’ve been assured that at least one of its faces will be visible and operating throughout the work, driven by an electric motor. Remember, Big Ben is just the bell.
Yes and the clock is part of the Elizabeth Tower.
I didn’t realise Americans had such detailed knowledge of our parliament’s buildings.
Why are you assuming I’m American?
Stop talking Britain down.