Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
Big Ben, statues of American confederate leaders, swastika flags and the London Garden Bridge. All of these have something in common. They are symbols which represent something important. For many Britons, Big Ben represents our British spirit, the ringing of which continued through our resistance to Nazi Germany. For many Americans, the statue of Robert E.Lee represents an aspect of their proud history, while for others it represents a past worth forgetting, one of a divided nation and the subjugation of people for no more than their colour. The swastika: well, I think we all know what that symbol represents to most people, and what it means to the few who carry it in today’s America. The Garden Bridge, designed to be a beautiful symbol of London and its desire to be a green, sustainable city; but, for others, representing a pointless vanity project, one that they will be glad has been put to bed for good.
Whatever the symbol, none of them are pointless; challenge people who celebrate them at your peril. But I none the less say clearly that we Conservatives put far too much faith in symbols, and our weird obsession with the ringing of Big Ben needs to be dropped for more important issues.
The last few weeks have seen unprecedented levels of potential conflict between the USA and North Korea – a horrifying situation which has the potential, however unlikely, to return the horrors of nuclear war and millions of dead. In Britain and Europe, Brexit remains a significant challenge, whether you stand in the Remain or Leave camp. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are still areas of conflict, with women, children and men suffering.
Yet where has our focus been as a party? On Big Ben and its bongs. It very much reminds me of the fox hunting issue during the general election where, for all the important and good policies we hoped to deliver, we alienated many potential voters on a pointless and unpopular policy of interest only to some 20 per cent of the nation.
This is very similar to the argument about whether or not MPs should decamp from the Commons because of the symbol that is the houses of Parliament. The argument is that Big Ben should continue to ring out no matter what. Brexiteers cry out that Big Ben must ring out as Britain leaves the EU in 2019 – and the claim that a giant bell of many tonnes ringing next to the heads of people working to maintain the monument that is the Elizabeth tower is derided as health and safety gone mad.
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are wonderful symbols. Both represent the power of Britain’s democracy. But symbols don’t give real power to people or the nation. Values do. No matter how long Big Ben rings out for, it by itself will not create a Brexit that it good for the UK. Whether MPs sit temporarily in the Queen Elizabeth conference centre or in the Houses of Parliament, only MPs values, ideas and the ability to negotiate will create the change we sorely need to deal with the challenges of the future.
When Theresa May stood on the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth, another symbol of power that Britain is proud to project, she spoke out on how Big Ben must keep ringing. Of all the issues Britain and the world faces, is Big Ben’s bongs truly one that our Prime Minister should be focusing on?
I lay no faith in symbols. I only lay faith in values. Let’s stop worrying about our egos and those Party members obsessed with the past, who look longingly for things we once had, and who get excited over whether a bell rings or not for a couple of years. Let’s focus on building our nation for the future instead of crying over the silencing of symbols of the past – a silence designed to ensure that one of these monuments last for many more years.