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Why Big Ben's bong is such a big deal

Updated 3:07 PM ET, Thu January 16, 2020

Editor's Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - At 11 p.m. local time on the 31st of January, Britain is finally going to leave the European Union. But the British people can't even agree on how their first few seconds of independence will play out, and their Prime Minister, who famously called for "healing" upon his general election win in December, is only making matters worse.

On Tuesday morning, Boris Johnson announced on "BBC Breakfast" -- his first major broadcast interview since winning the UK election in December -- that he was working up a plan to enable the public to "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong."

This roughly translates to: ask the public to fund the £500,000 it would cost to pause the restoration of Big Ben - which is undergoing a £61 million refurbishment -- so that it can ring out, or "bong," as the British sometimes say, on 31st January, as the country leaves the EU.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, after three long years of anguished debate, indecision and general strife, that the British public might have exhausted their capacity to squabble over absolutely anything. But if the reaction to Johnson's proposal is anything to go by, they still can't get enough of infighting.

And, as is so often the case in politics, the discussion around a peripheral issue is drowning out everything else, and exposing the tribalism which underwrites nearly every hot topic.

It is perhaps unsurprising that on Thursday morning, Boris Johnson's spokesman appeared to put the possibility in doubt, saying that House of Commons authorities have said there may be "particular difficulties in accepting money from public donations, according to the Guardian. He also said: "The PM's focus is on the events which he and the government are planning to mark 31 January."

As is also the case with church and cathedral bells, the ringing of Big Ben -- the name of the bell itself, which sits inside Elizabeth Tower -- has always marked significant occasions. On Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast to mark the start of the two minutes' silence. Big Ben has rung out at the state funerals of monarchs on three occasions, a toll per year of each of their lives.

More recently, the bell was rung for three minutes straight to mark the beginning of the London Olympics, and Ben traditionally chimes to mark the start of the new year.

For some, £500,000-- or, just over £45,000 per bong, assuming the bell strikes 11 times -- sounds like a price worth paying. Brexiteer MP Mark Francois and the StandUp4Brexit group have started a crowdfunding campaign so that in order that Britain might, in Francois' words, "mark this historic moment."

The MP has even pledged £1000 of his own money to the cause, and "lightheartedly" pledged to climb up Ben himself and bang the bell with a mallet, if insufficient funds are raised. Presumably, Francois is unaware that a heavy hammer hitting Ben is what cracked it over a century ago.

Nevertheless, the campaign did generate significant support. Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, who is secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, tweeted Wednesday evening: "I admit I've donated a tenner. #loveBigBen The Big Ben must bong for Brexit campaign." At the time of publication, the GoFundMe has reached over £100,000 in contributions.

The campaign has prompted reactions in a similar vein to many Brexit-related issues, with a strong sense on all sides that forces are acting against their interests. Some commentators have questioned the supposed cost of pausing refurbishment, implying that it has been placed suspiciously high.

For the record, the estimate is made up of two separate sums -- bringing back the bonging mechanism and installing a temporary floor, which would come to £120,000, and delaying the conservation work -- which costs about £100,000 per week.

The potential setback is in fact so great that the House of Commons Commission released a statement Tuesday, to explain why it could not justify taking the funds from the public purse. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons and chairman of the commission, was quoted: "The Commission believes it is important to weigh up the costs this would involve if Big Ben is to chime on 31 January. You are talking about £50,000 a bong. We also have to bear in mind that the only people who will hear it will be those who live near or are visiting Westminster."

Even aside from the question of whether Britain needs Big Ben to ring on the 31st, the matter of donations -- though probably a less divisive source than the taxpayer -- has stoked strong opposition outside of Parliament.

Many members of the public have already responded to Leadsom's tweet, asking why she might not have donated instead to sundry homeless charities or food banks. Others have pointed to the climate emergency, the bushfires in Australia, and homeless children, as far worthier causes. A mock-up of a tabloid front page -- the original version of which read "Big Ben must bong for Brexit" -- went semi-viral on Twitter for a day or so. It features a picture of Big Ben, and reads: "Have you lost your ****ing minds?".

For many remainers, these shows of "unity," and their associated tariffs, regardless of the amounts, add insult to injury.

Just last weekend, Martin Green, the newly appointed director of the "Festival of Brexit," vowed that the event will "bring the nation together." The festival, which Boris Johnson gave the green light last year and is planned for 2020, will cost the taxpayer £120 million. For many, this vast sum only celebrates an occasion which tore the nation apart in advance, and represents a tragic waste at a time when institutions like the National Health Service are stretched to breaking point. And it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of Brexit so far for the UK -- now £130 billion and counting.

As is so often the case, emotions about the Brexit bong -- which wasn't even a conversation at the start of the week -- have seen the issue balloon to represent something far beyond itself. Across the country, bells have become an emblem of victory for some, yet another waste of breath for many, and an outright insult for others.

While Leave.EU campaigners call for church bells to toll across the nation on the morning of Feb 1, harking back to wartime victories, the Bishop of Buckingham appeared on national radio on Wednesday to declare the idea "tacky."

As Brexit ticks ever closer, bringing with it a new era of challenges as yet unknown, Boris Johnson seems only to have stoked the fires of the nation's discontent.


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