With Brexit day being on the horizon, the formalities of Britain’s initial exit from the EU have been given the go-ahead by Parliament. The necessary legislation was given royal assent last week, meaning it has been written into law and the government can now turn its focus to negotiations on the future relationship with the EU. Yet there is still some controversy.
One might think that three and a half years of arguing would be enough, yet the country still finds itself dogged by division over the referendum result. This time the disagreement is over how Britain should mark the moment it leaves Europe, with arch Brexiteers wanting Big Ben to chime to celebrate the occasion.
The bell tower is currently out of action for refurbishment, meaning that it is not in use day-to-day, but the eurosceptic MP Mark Francois asked the Prime Minister for arrangements to be made so that the clock could chime on a one-off basis. However, this would have an estimated cost of between £350,000 and £500,000 million pounds (BBC) so it is debatable whether such a divisive issue should have so much taxpayers’ money spent on it.
Francois and the StandUp4Brexit Campaign responded by setting up a GoFundMe page so that members of the public could choose to donate to raise the money, while Boris Johnson suggested that members of the public should ‘bung a bob for a Big Ben Brexit bong’. With just under a week until the 31st January, the campaign had already raised nearly £275,000. If the target cannot be reached, the money will be donated to Help For Heroes instead.
It remains to be seen whether the crowdfunding campaign will reach its target, and whether Big Ben will chime even if it does. With a variety of other events being planned, including a countdown being projected onto 10 Downing Street and a celebratory event in Parliament Square (Sky News), it is difficult to see why so much trouble should be gone to for what would be little more than virtue signalling.
One of the central motifs to the Prime Minister’s speeches since winning a majority at the general election has been healing divisions and bringing the nation’s people together, so it would seem counterproductive to incite the anger of the portion of society which would prefer to remain in the EU. Perhaps that is why Johnson has tried to distance himself from his initial backing for the campaign to make Big Ben chime for Brexit.
The campaign’s public backers have tended to be committed Brexiteers, the likes of which Johnson would be wise not to associate himself with too closely if he is to realise his ambition of uniting the country. Mark Francois, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrea Leadsom are all parliamentarians who have spoken in favour of Big Ben chiming, while the businessman Arron Banks, who was heavily involved in the referendum campaign, pledged £50,000 to the crowdfunding campaign.
Instead Johnson will address the country with a statement on Brexit night, and his tone will be revealing for the early part of his premiership. Hopefully the statement will be conciliatory and will focus on Britain’s future outside of the European Union rather than lauding the achievements of the Leave campaign over the heads of remainers.
If Britain’s divisions are to be eased, effort will need to be put in over time to show that the country has moved on from past disagreements and that everybody should focus on the future. Therefore, publicity stunts such as ringing Big Ben on the 31st should be avoided.
By Mark Docherty