To bong or not to bong – that is the question. At the end of this month, the UK will finally leave the European Union and Brexiteers are adamant that the chimes of Big Ben will sound as a tribute.
Predictably, a majority of MPs in the House of Commons have voted against any state funding of the bonging.
The 13.7-tonne bell in Parliament’s iconic clock tower has been largely silent for the past two years due to renovation work. It has rung out, however, on big occasions such as Remembrance Sunday, Armistice Day and New Year’s Eve.
I can think of another big occasion that deserves the Big Ben treatment – and it isn’t Brexit Day.
Next Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the death of one of the most influential British writers of all time. It is the demise of George Orwell that we should be marking this month, not the demise of our 46-year relationship with our European partners.
Documentary-maker Phil Tinline is presenting a Radio 4 series all next week with the intriguing title Orwell in Five Words. I am pretty sure that these words will not be Division, Rancour, Toxicity, Anger and Frustration. Which, as even the most fanatical Leavers will admit, are associated with the last three years of political discourse.
The Eurosceptics tend to portray Orwell as a quintessential Old Etonian who would have supported this historic liberation from the shackles of Brussels. They believe he would have stuck two fingers up at the pinko Remain establishment.
Yet his novels, essays and journalism are notable for their attacks on the kind of ideological extremism which has infected British politics ever since David Cameron called the EU referendum back in 2016.
This has not stopped Manick Govinda, writing in Spiked magazine, referencing the Nineteen Eighty-Four author in an article extolling the virtues of the so-called Brexit Festival planned for 2022. “Inspiration could be drawn from everyone,” notes Govinda, “from Morrissey, Gilbert and George, David Hockney, David Bowie and George Orwell to VS Naipaul, Sam Selvon, Zadie Smith, Edward Burra, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.”
Has he not read his Orwell? A writer who berated “the insularity of the English (and) their refusal to take foreigners seriously”. A democratic socialist committed to a United States of Europe; in his post-war essay Toward European Unity, Orwell argued this was the only way to avoid another international conflict.
So, as we prepare for a new chapter in the nation’s history, let us accept our fate outside Europe. But let us not rewrite history, distort the truth and introduce alternative facts in the process.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, written 227 days before Orwell died of tuberculosis – aged only 46 – is famous for prophesying a nightmarish regime which takes pride in such things.
It might sound a tad depressing to commemorate Orwell Day every January 21. But it is important to remind ourselves, as we lurch towards right-wing populism, that he was a principled prophet who railed against the mass transmission of lies, the misuse of power and media brainwashing.
When we think of Orwell, we should not simply marvel at his capacity to predict fake news, telescreens, doublethink, thought police and other bleak, post-truth abominations.
We should also rejoice in his love of the quirky aspects of our national culture. He wrote with great affection about tobacco, tea and pubs. Even when he was in frail health towards the end of his life, warning of the continent’s descent into fascism, the brutality of communism and the mass manipulation of language, he would take time out to reveal his thoughts on English folkways or the common toad.
Orwell would certainly not have approved of Brexiteers hijacking his name for propaganda purposes. He was a patriot not a jingoist and, being a champion of European unity, would have been horrified at the thought of Big Ben bonging away to celebrate severing ties with an institution that would have been close to his heart.
“Democratic Socialism must be made to work throughout some large area,” he wrote in one of his last essays. “But the only area in which it could conceivably be made to work, in any near future, is Western Europe.”