47 years ago we were just recovering from all the celebrations. The first week of 1973 saw the “Fanfare for Europe” after the UK joined the European Economic Community on January 1st. A concert took place in York Minister given by the Great Universal Stores Footwear Band. The V&A put on a display of bronze age wind instruments that had been dug up from a Danish bog. A special European edition of Opportunity Knocks was broadcast on the TV.
Not everything went smoothly. An idea to borrow the Bayeux Tapestry from the French and display it in London was abandoned as it was felt Saxons and Normans fighting was unsuitable. The French refused to lend the Mona Lisa on the grounds that the British Museum had refused to let them borrow the Rosetta Stone.
But still, there were “demonstrations of continental cookery in gas and electricity showrooms” across the land. Lord Goodman took charge. He was assisted by Lord Mancroft who told The Times:
“A few local authorities have refused to take part. But we found a much greater number who, while not very enthusiastic, have accepted that Britsh entry is going to happen and are prepared to join us and do their best.”
But what of the celebrations for Brexit?
There will be the commemorative 50p coin we have been waiting for.
The cross-party campaign group, Leave Means Leave, is organising a celebration party in Parliament Square on 31st January from 9pm which will finish just after we leave the European Union at 11pm. Nigel Farage will be there and the Brexiteer comedian, Dominic Frisby. There will be music and fireworks. This is subject to the Mayor of London giving consent for the event to take place.
Yet how will the revellers know that it is 11pm? Mark Francois, the Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, feels the signal should be from the obvious source at which historic moments are marked. He has tabled an Early Day Motion which has attracted 55 signatures.
Last month he wrote for this site:
“With the Elizabeth Tower currently undergoing a period of renovation, Big Ben has been silenced to protect the hearing of those working on the project. Nevertheless, the iconic bell does still ring for moments of national significance, such as New Year’s Eve and, quite rightly, for Remembrance Sunday too.”
Yesterday, in the debate on the Third Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. Francois added:
“Under the Bill, and specifically under article 50, we will leave the European Union at 11 pm GMT on 31 January. As we leave at a precise specified time, those who wish to celebrate will need to look to a clock to mark the occasion. It seems inconceivable to me and many colleagues that that clock should not be the most iconic timepiece in the world, Big Ben. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the House of Commons Commission, whose decision it is, that Big Ben should bong for Brexit?”
Steve Barclay, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, replied:
“My right hon. Friend will know that my opposite number often talked of a clock ticking. He will also know that that decision is for the House authorities, but I am sure they will have heard the representations he makes. This is an important moment in our national story, and I am sure they will want to reflect that in the appropriate way.”
While John Bercow was hostile to the proposal, his successor, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is more open-minded – saying it is a matter of whether “the House wishes it to be so.” The maintenance and repair work to the clock mechanism, and repairs and improvements to the clock tower building, mean Big Ben is not due to resume regular operations until next year.
Kate McCann of Sky News tweets that “if cost is the concern Francois’ willing to take a big hammer up there and bong it himself.”
Symbolism matters. Whatever view one holds of Brexit, few can dispute it is of historic significance. No very convincing objection to allowing the chimes has been put forward. One Tory MP I spoke to felt the Government might be reluctant to “rub the Remainer’s noses in it.”
Francois is not the most consensual figure on this issue. He was one of 28 Eurosceptic Tory MPs who voted against Theresa May’s deal three times. At the time, Brexiteers were told that holding out for anything better was unrealistic. Yet Francois and his fellow “Spartans” have been vindicated. All the same, it might have been prudent for the bongs to have a less combative champion.
A House of Commons spokesman tells me:
“The Speaker has indicated that this is a matter for Members of the House of Commons. The House of Commons Commission will respond to any decision of the House on this matter. In the absence of any such decision, the Commission’s position on the sounding of Big Ben remains unchanged.”
A supposed impasse arises as the Government says it is for Parliament to decide – then Parliament then says a vote of MPs is required. But that needs the Government to provide MPs with the chance for a vote. Boris Johnson is understood to be personally supportive. But that is not enough. We should let the MPs resolve the matter. It could always be a free vote.
In future years though, for me, the important anniversary will be June 23rd, the date of the referendum in 2016. An incredibly exciting time. I will always think of it as Independence Day. But it is 11pm on January 31st that sees the start of a new chapter in Our Island Story. It is reasonable to recognise it as such.
Let the bells ring out.