Big Ben, the iconic bell in the Elizabeth Tower of the British Houses of Parliament, has fallen silent. Its familiar chimes will not be heard again for four long years.
The last extensive works were carried out 31 years ago, and officials have since found numerous significant problems – and could yet find more. There are cracks in the masonry, leaks, erosion, and severe rusting. The clock is to be dismantled and its hands and pendulum repaired. The tower will also be brought in to line with modern fire prevention guidance, and health and safety measures.
It has been decided that after years of neglect, Big Ben is in need of a big fix.
Since it first rang in 1859, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the bell has stood proudly at the heart of the Palace of Westminster. The clock tower came to symbolise not just the seat of government, but London – then the capital of the British Empire.
It’s true that Big Ben has been silent on a number of occasions since – but never for such a long period of time.
During the Blitz of 1940-41, when the Houses of Parliament were badly hit by bombs, Big Ben stood defiant. It was damaged, but the clock kept on ticking, and the bell continued chiming. Like St Paul’s Cathedral nearby, it symbolised a spirit of defiance and survival, no matter what the fascists threw at the city.
Prefacing BBC wartime news reports, its deep booming peals resonated across Britain and on the BBC World Service. They were the reassuring sound of a democracy under siege, overcoming the enemy. Since the war, Big Ben has continued to mark BBC radio news bulletins, and was part of the soundtrack, as it were, of ITV’s News at Ten on television. Big Ben has chimed its way into the British national consciousness.
The media interest in Big Ben’s four-year silence is a strong indicator of its importance. Television news channels have run features on it. Broadsheet and tabloid newspapers have questioned why the bell will remain dormant for so long. Prime Minister Theresa May argued that “it can’t be right for Big Ben to fall silent for four years”. Even experts in the clock-making industry have stated forthrightly that the bells don’t need to go quiet for so long.
MPs who approved the £29m renovation project claim they weren’t informed that Big Ben would be out of action for so long. On the first day of the bell’s silence, a small group of politicians, calling themselves “traditionalists” stood beneath the tower, heads bowed, in protest. (Meanwhile pro-Brexit MPs want to organise a pause in the renovation schedule that would allow Big Ben to sound out on the day Britain leaves the EU.)
The renovation contractors argue that Big Ben’s deafening sounds would create health and safety problems for those carrying out the essential maintenance work. They say it wouldn’t be practical to sound the bells once the workers have gone home for the night.
So unless there is a change of plan, the live reassuring chimes of Big Ben will be denied to London residents and to the tourists who flock to Westminster.
No doubt recordings will continue to be used to introduce news bulletins. But the actual silence is somehow symbolic of something that isn’t right with the world – or more specifically, with Britain.
The current UK government is in disarray, and the seriousness of the maintenance issues affecting the clock tower appear to reflect that. How could the houses next door have let the problem reach almost critical proportions?
The neglect of Big Ben symbolises a failure of management in the heart of Westminster. Britain is facing huge problems over the next few years. The government has proved incapable of devising a clear policy on Brexit. Almost every month the capital city and other towns and cities across Britain and Europe are threatened by another form of fascism – religious terrorists who hate modern democracy and want to impose an authoritarian theocracy across the world. And now, thanks to neglect and poor management, a much loved bell tower, once a symbol of victory over extremism, will fall silent.
The sonorous booms of Big Ben are the sound of tradition. They are a sonic reminder of the gravitas of parliament (albeit a gravitas undermined by recent incompetence). Those who mock or misunderstand the significance of shared national icons across a multicultural landscape fail to grasp that in a fast changing and insecure world, Big Ben appeals (no pun intended) to people from many different countries and cultures.
It is an essential component of the landscape of London, and of the pantheon of national icons that present “Britishness” to the rest of the world. Its silence will be a soundless reminder of current insecurities – and an interruption to the projection of Britain as a self-confident nation.