Week in Review: The madness over Big Ben's bongs is a symbol of the horror to come

A week's worth of debate on Big Ben's bongs.
A week's worth of debate on Big Ben's bongs.
Ian Dunt By

The whole week. They spent the whole week talking about bongs on Big Ben. The sheer scale of the lunacy is difficult to fully comprehend. What you are seeing, more or less in real time, is a nation turn into the clown car model of itself. We're living in the Scary Movie franchise version of Britain, a cheap, lowest-common-denominator satire of the country we used to know.

For a week's news cycle, the country's print, broadcast and online media debated the issue of whether Big Ben, which is being refurbished, should bong to ring in the moment Britain leaves the EU, despite a price tag of £500,000. To even engage in it is to make a mockery of your own intellect. It's like a cerebral hostage situation. The more you read about it, the more brain cells will die. But there is something to be gained from peering into the debate. You get a useful glimpse of how Brexit will be debated over 2020.

Over the course of the year, Britain will negotiate the most important trade deal in its history. It is one which will define the status of this country for years to come. It will affect every part of the economy - from services, to manufacturing, to the basic internal functioning of the UK single market.

During that time the government will try to make sure that we barely mention it. Boris Johnson wants to pretend that he has got Brexit done. It's over. Finished. This is all some tedious irrelevant tinkering you don't need to worry about. It must not, under any circumstances, be seen for what it really is: the system reboot of a country's trading arrangements.


So instead we will be presented with this, a culture war mockery of the technical reality taking place underneath it. It's like someone dressing up Bertrand Russell as a pantomime horse.

The bongs are not just nonsense. They are nonsense as a depository for political thought which might otherwise go in dangerous directions - namely, scrutinising the government.
It also revealed how the prime minister intends to communicate with the public through this period. He will do so according to a time-honoured and highly successful method: he will lie.

"We're working up a plan so that people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong," he said on Tuesday. "We're looking at whether the public can fund it."

The whole thing then fell apart very quickly, with fundraising efforts thwarted by the confirmation from parliamentary authorities that they couldn't accept public money in this way. And then suddenly the 'bung a bob' campaign changed.

"This is a matter for the House, they have indicated they will not accept the money were the public to fund raise for this," the prime minister's spokesperson said. "The PM is focused on the government's plans to mark 31 January."

It was extraordinary. The fundraising effort was the government's plans. The prime minister had literally just announced it himself 48 hours earlier. Now it was someone else's plan on the basis of its failure, or simply because he had decided against it.

On even the most trivial of issues, Johnson's words simply mean nothing. One moment he is asking for money, the next it has nothing to do with him. Reality flickers and changes within the blink of an eye. He might as well go full Soviet and edit himself out of the video where he'd made the original comments.

As the talks go on, this will be the approach - transforming fiendish economic trade-offs into culture war and relentless lying. Politically, it may well be successful. But in terms of the actual project, none of it will work. The talks, on the basis of Britain's existing approach, which shows almost no realism at all, look set to be a disaster. And who will then be blamed? Well, who else? Remainers.

"Remainer stitch up over Big Ben bongs," the Express screamed yesterday. A "Remainer plot" in parliament was responsible for the collapse of the plans, it breathlessly reported.

Project that out and you get a decent impression of how Brexiters will handle the next year of failure. Nothing will ever be their fault, even when they have complete control over the process and how it is handled. Everything is the fault of those with no political power at all.

Why is there such ferocious anger over the bells? Why is it dominating and infuriating the Brexit political class so much, when they should, by all rights, be basking in their victory? For the same reason that they want Brexit stamps and Brexit coins. They want to turn their own divisive tribal campaign into a national one. They want to erase Remainers from the picture, to present their own tribe as the embodiment of the nation.

So they grasp for these symbols of the neutral, non-political universal state, as emblems of their ownership of the whole country. This allows the idea of 'the people', a pernicious idea which has been there throughout the Brexit process, to take full symbolic form. Remainers, in so far as they exist, are reduced to the treasonous plot, the schemers and traitors trying to undermine the great advance of the national project.

It's all there, in microcosm, as both tragedy and farce, in one alarming deranged parable. The Big Ben bongs debate, as insane as it is, is simply a precursor for how we will spend the rest of the year: lost in culture war, lies, accusations of treachery and the ceaseless attempt to erase critics from existence.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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