The symbolism of Big Ben finds its voice

Big Ben’s bongs are back. The great bell and clock tower are on the site of parliament in Westminster. Together they are often seen – and heard – as symbols of Britain. Yet since 2017 the bell has been silenced for restoration work which cost an estimated £80million. Historical accounts suggest that a clock tower was erected on this site as early as 1367.

The current tower and bell of Big Ben date from Victorian times, although several bells have been replaced due to cracks. In the 1920s the bell was used to celebrate the New Year and by the 1930s its sound was broadcast worldwide on what is now the BBC World Service. The tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but ongoing renovations are rooted in long-term issues dating back to 2007. The result is now both beautiful and traditional, using the designs originals and color scheme, Prussian blue and gold.

In the past, bells have rung to mark wartime commemorations, including Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, as well as New Year celebrations, although a year ago a program to celebrate Brexit had to be abandoned as restoration work had not been completed.

Bells rang to mark wartime commemorations, as well as New Year celebrations

And so this year, the bang of this powerful symbol finding its voice was a powerful and optimistic moment. But the story of the restored Big Ben, the bell and its problems, of the failure to act sooner, adding to the damage rather than repairing it, is part of a pattern for other struggling UK institutions. There is a complacent attitude that Britain’s aging institutions are in perpetual glory, when the evidence may suggest they are no longer functioning well and need urgent attention.

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These institutions include (but are not limited to) the BBC, the UK parliament, the military, the National Health Service, the judiciary and the monarchy. All, in various ways, are part of our public life and have historically made Britain look great. Everyone in 2022 is under pressure to change, modernize and improve. And yet all of them may, again like Big Ben, only receive real attention when their problems become critical.

The BBC, for example, is under siege. The Conservative government has forced society to fund free television licenses for the elderly, costing the BBC around £250m a year. Given Britain’s divisive post-Brexit politics, there are also fears that the editorial independence of the BBC could be undermined by a hostile government determined to limit the reach of state-funded broadcasting, or even to privatize it.

Many British newspapers are also extremely hostile to the BBC, as it competes with – and is far more reliable than – their own commercial operations. BBC insiders fear a long slow death from underfunding. In terms of cash, the company is already finding it increasingly difficult to compete with new players like Netflix.

Queen Elizabeth II follows the Imperial State Crown along the Royal Gallery, while being escorted by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales during the official opening of Parliament in the House of Lords on May 11, 2021 in London , in England.  WPA/Getty Pool

Then there is the monarchy. Big Ben’s boom in Elizabeth Tower comes as Britain is set to celebrate the Queen’s 70th anniversary on the throne. But it inevitably raises questions about how the monarchy will reinvent itself for a new generation when Prince Charles becomes king. It also comes as her brother Prince Andrew faces a US court case involving very salacious and potentially very damaging allegations regarding his friendship with convicted pedophiles Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

Affection for the Queen may not be easily passed on to the next generation without urgent restoration work by the institution itself. Then there are the British Armed Forces.

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These remain one of the most truly professional military services in the world on land, sea and in the air. But following the chaotic exit from Afghanistan and a reorganization of defense priorities, it is unclear to what extent British military forces can somehow ‘punch above their weight’ as the claimed the politicians. Their “weight” is greatly reduced.

Or what about the justice system? The Law Society and other organizations representing lawyers openly speak of the English justice system as another Big Ben in the making – neglected for years, inefficient, time-strapped and therefore potentially unfair.

Meanwhile, the National Health Service is also facing unprecedented pressure. The coronavirus, of course, has pushed NHS services and staff to the limit of endurance. There are severe shortages of key workers and funding for hospital beds.

Pedestrians walk past a government advertisement promoting the NHS Covid-19 Vaccine Booster program in central Manchester on December 31, 2021. AFP

Then there is the parliament itself, housed in the building below Big Ben. In poll after poll, Britons are growing increasingly disillusioned both with the work of Parliament and the kind of people who find themselves there.

Overall, trust in UK public institutions is at rock bottom and, as Big Ben has shown, public investment and coherent modernization programs are urgently needed but lacking. Public institutions need more than just good wishes and a superficial lick of paint to spruce them up for the 2020s. The bells of Big Ben are ringing in Westminster, but time is running out for other institutions too. ICT Tac.

Posted: January 4, 2022, 7:00 a.m.

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