If Big Ben could speak, he’d sigh.
Three years of cocking about, millions of pounds spent, and still Mark Francois can’t be made to see sense. Perhaps some form of cranial surgery is in order.
But let us ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for the nation’s sanity. And, the way it looks at present, it can’t even be bothered to bong for that.
To recap: with 2 weeks to go before Brexit Day, a group of pro-Brexit windbags have demanded fireworks, road closures, and a party for 10,000 friends at an upmarket central London venue. My 3-year-old requests much the same every time she puts her new Elsa dress on, and her reaction when told such things are not possible has many similarities as well.
The headbangers have gone one step further, though, and requested 11 bongs from Big Ben, the bell within the Elizabeth Tower of Parliament which has chimed the hours for 161 years, with the exception of periods of refurbishment such as that which it is currently enjoying.
The result is that, unhappily for some, it is temporarily silent at just the moment they wish it to be as noisily triumphant as they are.
The tower is iconic, and not just as one of Instagram’s top 10 most photographed-landmarks in the world, and subject of 3million posts. It has survived two world wars, excavations for the Great Sewer, and Fathers 4 Justice. It’s witnessed Royal weddings, state funerals, million-strong marches and a statue of Winston Churchill being given a rather fetching grass mohawk.
So Francois, Farage and others of that ilk have asked that it chime to mark the moment at 11pm on Brexit Day when the nation gets its “freedom” from the EU. The Commons authorities dismissed the idea as expensive and silly, so Boris Johnson suggested supporters “bung a bob for Big Ben Brexit bongs” and raise the £500,000 it would cost.
So far, £160,000 or so has been pledged, £10 of it by multi-millionaire Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who clearly decided not to liquidate too many assets for it.
But there is a problem. Well, several. Dozens of crowdfunders have sprung up, much of it is anonymous, and the House of Commons has already said it cannot accept public donations due to that Parliamentary sovereignty thing which has caused Brexit monkeys so many headaches.
As with so many other things to do with Brexit, it’s all a lot more complicated than most of us realised at the start. Big Ben was de-bonged because bonging it stops work on the refurbishment. The team of engineering and restoration experts cannot safely work within range of a 13.5-tonne lump of tin and copper being whacked with a hammer that weighs the same as 5 freestanding copper bathtubs.
Goes right through you, it does.
To re-bong Big Ben requires building a £120,000 false floor inside the tower, lifting that 200kg hammer all the way up from the ground which takes about a day, reattaching it to the clock mechanism, testing it, decanting all workmen from the vicinity, and then doing the same in reverse. It delays refurbishment work for about 4 weeks, and as each will cost a further £100,000 the total cost works out to just under £50,000 per bong.
So far, so bonkersly Brexit. But it gets worse.
For the Bell Enders have left this to the last minute. The costs would have been less had it been suggested the day after the general election, or the day that the Commons passed the Withdrawal Agreement.
It would have come as less of an unwelcome surprise to the engineers, too, had it been mentioned at any point in the past 3 years of Brexit debate. And it could have been factored into the costs of the refurbishment, when MPs were asked to consider them in 2017 – a full 15 months AFTER the Brexit referendum.
It was in September that year the Commons heard a full report about the state of Big Ben and the tower in which it sits. They were told it was worse than feared. That the cost of fixing it had gone from £29m to £61m, and it would be out of action for 4 years, thus meaning it would sail silently past the date it was then believed we’d be Brexiting on.
Not a single voice was raised then to demand bongs for Brexit. In fact, all the Commons heard was complaints about “unacceptable cost and timetable overruns” from, among others, renowned Brexit wingnuts Andrea Leadsom, Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood.
The only way Big Ben could bong for Brexit, now, is in a half-arsed rush at what would quite literally be the 11th hour. The only way it could be done is with taxpayers’ cash, overseen and scrutinised by those MPs who have just agreed to an extra month off from scrutinising things, who would now have to swallow all their objections of 3 years ago and welcome “unacceptable cost and timetable overruns” as being very much in tune with the mood of the nation, the taxpayers’ best interests, and the much-discussed need to heal the festering wound of Brexit.
For Big Ben to bong, those working at extreme height on restoration of iron and stone would need to risk their lives doing it for a further month. For it to symbolise an historic moment in our island story, the iconic Big Ben would have to be more knackered for longer.
It would be a daft and dangerous thing that defies common sense, makes not a jot of difference to the passage of legislation, and may well enrich a small handful of anonymous speculators while costing significant amounts to people who will not personally benefit from it.
So yes, to that extent it’s got ‘Brexit’ written all over it.
If you want a national icon to symbolise Brexit Day, it’d be cheaper and easier to get the Queen to skip naked down Whitehall but for her tiara, shouting: “BONG! BONG! BONG!” The Brexit party that has been demanded will probably end up as unpopular as the actual Brexit Party.
The fact of the matter is that, now the arguing of Brexit has been resolved, those who argued most vociferously have had to find something else to argue about.
They are currently engaged in blaming the House of Commons Commission, which they oversee, and the Speaker’s Committee, which they nominate MPs to sit on. They are arguing with their own actions: the next logical step is Francois telling his own bowel movements they’re not being patriotic enough.
I’d make a joke about someone on the internet blaming treacherous immigrant Europhile nesting birds for the fact the fireworks have been banned too, but someone on the internet is already taking it seriously.
To bong Big Ben when it’s being restored makes things more expensive, complicated and painful than they need to be. It’s been silent before, and time still passed.
But the biggest problem with the bongs plan is that Brexit doesn’t happen on January 31. We don’t leave at 11pm.
We enter a transition period. The same thing Harry and Meghan are currently enjoying, and during which they are not financially independent, still enjoy taxpayer-funded protection, and appear at events as senior members of the Royal Family they wish to consciously uncouple from.
Transition is not departure. We served notice with Article 50, and we’ve finally approved a holding pattern following two general elections, and three meaningless votes.
We now have 11 months to agree trade deals with a union of 27 other nations. And, even if we manage this, we won’t be leaving on December 31, either.
The Brexit vote was for the entire UK to Leave the EU. And Northern Ireland isn’t.
What you’re asking the engineers to do is down tools, build a false floor, risk their lives and burn our money in order to celebrate Northern Ireland leaving OUR union.
Or, in other words, you want to bong for the victory of the IRA.
When you look at it like that, those calling loudest for bongs sound a lot like people who’ve smoked a few too many of them already.