With Brexit just days away, Britons are fighting over the chimes of Big Ben. And the White Cliffs of Dover are a battleground.
As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union on Friday, people are divided over how to mark a historic moment that some are relishing but others are dreading.
Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership split the country: 52 per cent opted to leave the 28-nation bloc, 48 per cent voted to remain. The intervening years of political wrangling over the departure terms have not healed the divide.
For pro-Europeans, departure at 11 p.m. (2300 GMT) Jan. 31 will be the melancholy moment that Britain abandons a project that brought once-warring nations together, created a vast free-trading zone of half a billion people and let Europeans study, work and live across the continent.
For Brexit supporters, it will be the instant the U.K. once again becomes a sovereign nation after 47 years of membership in the bloated, bureaucratic EU club.
“It’s a momentous occasion,” said Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice, who plans to join party leader Nigel Farage and thousands of supporters for a party outside Parliament on Friday night. “It’s a great celebration of the democratic will. And it’s right to celebrate it.”
Organizers are promising music, songs, speeches, a light show and a New Year’s Eve-style countdown in the shadow of Parliament’s clock tower. But, to their chagrin, Brexit probably won’t be marked by the sound of the giant Big Ben bell, whose hourly bongs are a world-famous symbol of British democracy.
Big Ben has been largely silent since 2017 while the clock tower is being repaired, and House of Commons authorities said bringing it back for one night could cost as much as 500,000 pounds ($654,000).
Undaunted, Brexiteers launched a crowdfunding campaign, encouraged by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said “we’re looking at whether the public can fund it.” But Johnson’s Downing Street office quickly distanced itself from the idea, and Commons authorities made it clear they considered it impractical to have Big Ben bong for Brexit.
Tice chided “the bureaucratic blob” for hobbling the plan. But never fear: “We have a Plan B.”
“We will play the sound of Big Ben chiming, that wonderful sound, loudly through our excellent speaker system,” he said. “And in 50 years’ time … this will be the image of the U.K. leaving the European Union (on) 31st January 2020.
“It’ll be a sense of coming together, of pride, of patriotism, of belief in our country.”