Andrew Vine: Silence of the bongs sets tone for a nation ill at ease

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The most evocative soundtrack to Britain’s way of life fell silent yesterday, and there could be no more potent symbol of the uncertain future the country faces.

The most evocative soundtrack to Britain’s way of life fell silent yesterday, and there could be no more potent symbol of the uncertain future the country faces.

After striking noon, Big Ben was silenced in readiness for a four-year restoration costing £29m.

The sonorous boom of the great 13-ton bell will be heard marking 11am on Remembrance Sunday, and ringing in the New Year, but when it will strike regularly again, nobody can be sure.

The plan for it to remain largely silent until 2021 will be reconsidered when Parliament returns next month amid much huffing and puffing from rent-a-quote MPs along the lines of “the Luftwaffe couldn’t silence Big Ben, but jobsworths have managed it”.

That’s unfair to the highly-skilled people who are safeguarding the 157-year-old clock and tower for the future, but there is a point to the criticism that goes beyond mere sentimentality.

Big Ben is a quintessential emblem of Britishness, of stability and continuity.

It’s like the Royal Family appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, or the Changing of the Guard, one of those great reassurances that some things never change, and that’s the way we like it.

Big Ben chiming is part of the DNA of everybody who lives in Britain, even though most of the population rarely come within earshot except via television or radio.

The bell has marked moments in history, and its striking carried a weight of symbolism that far outweighs simply marking the time. Its chimes at 11am on November 11, 1918, signalled the end of the slaughter of the First World War.

A generation later when Britain was fighting for survival, the sound of Big Ben preceding the BBC news was a nightly reminder that however grave the peril, the country remained free.

And to the people of occupied Europe listening to those same chimes covertly on illegal radios, they represented the hope of liberation one day.

Through good times and bad, there has been a comforting sense of certainty about hearing the hours struck by the clock that stands at the very heart of the nation.

That’s why the absence of Big Ben from the daily life of Britain is strangely unsettling, and underlines the mood of uncertainty gripping the country.

The silence is symbolic of the sense that everything isn’t carrying on as normal and that it’s perfectly possible things won’t turn out all right this time.

Brexit lies at the heart of this mood. Whether the country would have voted as it did to leave the EU had it any inkling of the morass of uncertainty into which we have been plunged over the past year is debatable.

The shape of the deal that Britain gets with EU for life after membership remains a mystery, despite the flurry of position papers published by the Government over the summer.

They amount to nothing more than a wish-list. The increasing bewilderment of the EU about what Britain’s negotiating position is speaks volumes about the uncertainty of where Britain is heading as Big Ben ticks – silently – on towards the departure date of 2019.

Will there be an end to mass immigration? Will we remain in the single market or customs unions? Will there be a mass exodus of foreign-owned businesses from Britain with consequent job losses? Will we face a massive legal bill?

Who knows? The Government doesn’t appear to, and the longer the lack of clarity persists, the more likely it becomes that the eventual deal will please no-one, whether they voted to leave or remain.

And the state of the Government only reinforces the mood of unease. The autumn is not likely to bring forceful leadership and clarity of vision from a lame-duck Prime Minister, who appears to have no authority over a Cabinet riven by rivalries and divisions.

Instead expect infighting, an unceasing round of plots, and an administration that staggers from crisis to crisis, in hock to the deeply unlikeable Democratic Unionist Party for its survival.

Maybe the whole ramshackle deal will collapse and there will be another general election. That is not a prospect to settle anybody’s nerves about what lies ahead, because where do voters naturally drawn towards moderate centre-ground policies go?

To a Conservative Party being dragged relentlessly to the right, or to a Labour Party already positioned on the left?

It isn’t just politics that people find unsettling. It’s about the way the country seems to be drifting, the state of the NHS and our apparent inability to fund proper care for the elderly and vulnerable.

It’s about the terrorist threat lurking in some of our communities, and a growing viciousness in others that sees acid hurled in people’s faces.

We’re not a country at ease with ourselves, confident or comfortable, and a very noticeable silence only serves to underline how loudly that uncertainty resonates.

The absence of Big Ben is strangely unsettling. The silence is symbolic of the sense that everything isn’t carrying on as normal and that it’s possible things won’t turn out all right.