Dani Garavelli: Big Ben fiasco shows the worst side of Leaver Britain

The Union flag flutters near the clockface of Big Ben during ongoing renovations to the Tower. Picture: AFP
The Union flag flutters near the clockface of Big Ben during ongoing renovations to the Tower. Picture: AFP
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Boris Johnson’s ‘Bong a Bob for a Big Ben Bong’ shows the worst side of Leaver Britain – empty rhetoric, lack of forethought and a farcical celebration of our arrogance and insularity, says Dani Garavelli

The last time we had a celebration of what it means to be British was the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 – or forever ago, as it now seems. And what a crazy carnival of delights it was. Danny Boyle’s extravaganza showcased the best of the country: green hills and maypole dancers were juxtaposed with factories and foundries; the NHS with Mr Bean; the Queen with Dizzee Rascal. It was an expression of nationalism, yes, but an inclusive, outward-looking nationalism. And it was delivered not with bombast, but with a self-deprecating humour. “Here we are,” it said, “in all our weird, well-meaning glory.”

In less than a fortnight’s time, it appears we are to be forced to witness a display of an altogether more pernicious brand of nationalism. We may have been spared the bongs of Big Ben, but a clock ticking down the minutes until our departure from the EU will be projected onto 10 Downing Street, and the buildings around Whitehall will be lit up in tribute to our arrogance and insularity.

The poles in Parliament Square will all carry Union Flags – a testament to an enduring love of Empire – as political adventurists revel in the havoc they have wreaked and the rest of the world laughs at our folly.

In Brussels, our leaving will be marked with a more dignified, but equally symbolic, ritual. While Johnson, Nigel Farage and Mark Francois continue to bicker over who loves Brexit most, the Union Flag, which has flown outside the European Parliament for 25 years, will be lowered and taken to the House of European History. It’s difficult to conceive of a more emblematic moment.

Ditto the Big Ben shenanigans. Last week’s arguments over how to festivalise the opposite of D-Day may have been a distraction from all the misery to come, but they were in tune with the entire Leave project. Tragedy rendered as farce. What more fitting way to ring in the new era of empty rhetoric and shallow bluster than with the suggestion we should raise half a million pounds for the sounding of a bell?

Johnson’s “Bung a Bob for a Big Ben Bong” soundbite – in which he said he was working up a plan to encourage public donations for 11 chimes at 11pm on January 31 – encapsulated everything that is wrong with his premiership. Following on from his simplistic take on growing tensions with Iran – “let’s dial this thing down” – the phrase, with its sly drugs innuendo, was the essence of tabloid reductiveness.

But, as with so many Johnson quips, it was also policy-making on the hoof, with no regard to either public perception or potential consequences. And a demonstration of how little he relates to the struggles of ordinary people. How would half a million pounds on fixing a clapper feel to those on zero hours contracts or relying on food banks? And what would happen if the all money was raised? Or if it wasn’t? He didn’t care. He doesn’t have to.

The outcome was the worst of both worlds. Enough money was donated to make the nation look ridiculous; but not enough to cover the cost of the exercise. Oh, and then a Big Ben engineer turned up to quibble about the £500,000 figure which he said had been vastly inflated. So Johnson either didn’t know what he was talking about or wanted to prevent it taking place. But none of this matters, because he has his majority and is somehow exempt from the rules that apply to other politicians. He can say whatever he likes in the manner of his choosing without suffering any reputational damage whatsoever.

There is something off, too, about the very notion of 11 bongs at the 11th hour, with all the echoes of Armistice Day the timing carries. Big Ben rang out at the end of the First World War and again on to mark its centenary. We oughtn’t, of course, to be comparing Brexit to the end of the Great War. But perhaps the proposed gesture was in recognition of all the pointless sacrifices that have been and will be made by ordinary people in the service of ambitious leaders pursuing a vanity project. Lions led by donkeys, innit?

As the Brexiteers were indulging in a bout of triumphalism, while simultaneously appealing for the healing of divisions, Scotland was engaged in its own debate over how to mark – or not mark – the inauspicious occasion.

The decision by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) to stop flying the European flag outside the Scottish Parliament building from January 31 has angered those who see it as a capitulation to the Brexiteers.

There is no political imperative to remove it. As has been pointed out, the flag is also the flag of the Council of Europe, which the UK will continue to belong to after Brexit. And there is a symbolic value attached to its continued presence.

As demonstrated by the 2016 referendum and reinforced by last months’ general election, Scotland has a very different attitude to the European Union than England. A total of 62 per cent of Scots who voted in the referendum wanted to Remain. It is galling enough that we should be dragged out against our will, without being told that the last symbol of our attachment to this post-war peace project should be taken down.

Far from marching to the Tory government’s tune, we ought to be emphasising our intentions to maintain and strengthen our relationships with the EU after Brexit. This ought to be as true for Unionist Remainers as pro-Indy ones. Continuing to fly the European flag is a means of articulating an alternative version of national identity: one that looks outwards, instead of inwards; one that doesn’t rely on cheap xenophobia to bolster its self-esteem. Going against the Brexiteer flow would also be a gesture of solidarity with our EU citizens who feel marginalised and threatened by the toxicity of the last few years.

Though the SPCB vote is said to have been unanimous, with even SNP MSP Sandra White and Green MSP Andy Wightman backing its removal, SNP Constitution Secretary Mike Russell is pushing for the issue to be put to a full parliamentary vote.

While not a fan of flags generally, I hope the decision is overturned. The EU wasn’t perfect, but those yellow stars on a blue backdrop remain, for many, an expression of hope for a better, more collaborative future.

Making his last speech to the European Parliament, Alyn Smith asked his fellow MEPs to “please keep the light on so we can find our way home”. Refusing to take the European flag down from outside the Scottish Parliament would allow us to distance ourselves from the festival of jingoism we are about to see unleashed in London. But it would also be a means of keeping the faith; of continuing a spiritual alliance with the 27 member states until the current madness passes. Or until we are able to free ourselves from it and make our own way in the world.