Editor’s Note: John McTernan is head of political practice at PSB, a strategic research consultancy. He was a speechwriter to ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and was communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The White House is one of the most instantly recognizable buildings in the world – a global symbol of American values and democracy. It is also a historic building, in need of constant repair and maintenance to ensure it remains safe and sound. It is now into its third century of life.
Imagine if it were announced that an unavoidable part of the essential repair programs was that it would have to be painted gray for the next four years. The outcry would be deafening. Tourists would be shocked, Americans aghast.
But that – in effect – is what is happening in London’s most famous landmark: Big Ben. Repairs to the Westminster’s Clock Tower – formally the Elizabeth Tower since Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – have led to the bell being silenced for four years.
The “bongs” that are famous throughout the world are too much of a danger to the hearing of the builders working on the tower’s restoration.
Many people in Britain are sincerely upset. Some of the responses to the final bongs have been faintly farcical – such as the members of Parliament who wanted to stand with heads bowed, as if in prayer.
Other reactions, such as the claim that “even the Luftwaffe” never silenced Big Ben, reveal a backward-looking Britain, never happier than when recalling past victories, rather than forging a new future.
Yet the truth is something is happening that deeply touches the soul of the nation.
It is not just the passionate traditionalists and Brexiteers, overjoyed at the prospect of “taking back control” of the country from the European Union, who find the prospect of a “bong-less” Westminster disconcerting. This is one of the most iconic images in the world – the establishing shot for so many films and TV shows set in the UK. Big Ben, for so many, is London.
Undoubtedly for some, this emotional reaction is tied up in deeper-held fears about Britain losing its voice and place in the world – which is part of the threat that comes from Brexit.
The once fractious EU now speaks with one voice to argue the interests of the 27 remaining members and against the interests of Britain. The reality of losing a place at the top table is being made manifest.
There is also a nagging sense of disbelief. Four years? Why so long? The Victorians could build a road tunnel under the Thames in that length of time. The lurking fear is that Britain is not just losing its voice, it’s in danger of losing its energy, its ability to build and make things.
Emotional responses by the general public – the riffraff – are often snobbishly and disdainfully dismissed by those who find them distasteful. Twenty years ago that was how they responded when the UK visibly and openly mourned the death of Princess Diana. That was no spasm; it was the beginning of a greater emotional literacy – and a kinder country.
The heartfelt feelings of ordinary people about Big Ben should equally not be disdained. It is a rough world out there, and whatever your views on Brexit, there is no doubt that leaving the EU will be turbulent.
It may feel silly for swashbuckling Brexiteers to demand that Big Ben should bong Britain out of the EU on the day of Brexit, but the loss of a known, reliable – even trusted – part of the British landscape is unsettling for most. Even more so because it is so emblematic.
No doubt the late, great Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist whose essay on the Eiffel Tower is one of the masterpieces of structuralism, would have told us that paradoxically an absence is also a presence – and done so in witty, elegant prose.
But the British are pragmatists, not theoreticians. Silence is silence – though it may speak volumes, it is only about fear and loss.