Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford. He is Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group.
On 31st January 2020, we will, once again, become a free country. The struggle over the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has dominated the political agenda in this country for the past three years. For many, the 31st of January will therefore be a celebration. But regardless of allegiance to Leave or Remain, this will undoubtedly be an iconic moment in this country’s history.
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. To mark this momentous occasion, I, along with 50 other Members of Parliament, am now campaigning to allow Big Ben to chime our freedom as well.
By way of background, I first raised this issue with the previous Speaker, John Bercow, this Spring. Our exchange on the subject in the Commons (in the run up to the original 29th March exit date) is below:
“You chair the House of Commons Commission, Mr Speaker, and today is D minus 11. If, as a result of these historic events, we do leave the European Union at 11 pm on 29 March, will you, Sir, use your influence with the House of Commons authorities to ensure that Big Ben chimes at 11 pm, so that we can celebrate our freedom?”
“I shall take the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question as rhetorical. I do not want to rehearse that particular matter. Suffice it to say that—as the right hon. Gentleman may know, but may not—the idea was canvassed in the House of Commons Commission, but did not enjoy support beyond, if memory serves me, one person, who was perfectly entitled to that view. I am not knocking the person who expressed it, but it was not more widely shared. I absolutely admit that if the right hon. Gentleman were himself a member of the Commission, the support for it would obviously have doubled.” (Hansard, 19th March 2019)
Not to be deterred, I have again resumed my campaign. With this in mind, following the Conservatives’ thumping win at the General Election earlier this month and an emphatic mandate to Get Brexit Done, I have been canvassing my colleagues to sign what is now Early Day Motion (EDM No. 2), the wording of which is as follows:
“That this House notes the ongoing refurbishment works on the Elizabeth Tower and the fact that during this period Big Ben currently only chimes for Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve; further notes that the United Kingdom will now leave the European Union at 11:00pm GMT on the 31st January 2020 and calls upon Mr Speaker and the House Authorities to make arrangements to ensure that Big Ben will chime at 11:00pm GMT that evening, to provide an appropriate national focus for this truly historic event.”
In summary, Article 50 specifies that we will leave the European Union at precisely 11:00pm GMT on the 31st January 2020. Given that many people across the country will want to celebrate this event, they will obviously look to a clock to mark the occasion – and it seems inconceivable to me and many of my colleagues that the clock should not be Big Ben. If you would like Big Ben to chime our freedom, then I would urge you to write to your MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion No. 2 as well.
In addition, since the EDM was tabled, the new Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has given a very positive interview about how he intends to carry out his role, going forward –
“Sir Lindsay, who has always declined to confirm how he voted in the Brexit Referendum, indicates that he plans to be less political than his predecessor. More than 50 MPs have signed a motion calling for the bells in Big Ben’s clock tower to ring out to mark Brexit on Jan 31. A committee chaired by Mr Bercow blocked a similar move in March. But Sir Lindsay says: ‘My view doesn’t matter. If the House wishes to do that, so be it. I won’t personally block anything.’ ”
The article formed the basis for the Sunday Telegraph’s encouraging headline “Speaker: Big Ben Can Bong for Brexit.” I certainly hope so – and I and my colleagues will be working hard in the New Year to try and ensure that this is so.