Nul points for Britain in the EU revision bong contest

Fintan O'Toole
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

There will be no chimes at midnight. Anglican vicars have declined the suggestions of Brexiters that they should ring the bells of their churches to hail the beginning of the “golden age” that, as Boris Johnson has assured us, will be inaugurated by Brexit on 31 January. And Big Ben will not bong. The silence that Westminster’s great clock tower has maintained since its clapper was removed while restoration works are in progress will not be broken. Johnson claimed that he was “working up a plan so people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”. The plan turned out to be like all his other Brexit plans, which is to say nonexistent. So at this moment of destiny the prime minister will surely adapt John Donne. Ask not for whom the bell doesn’t toll. It doesn’t toll for thee.

The problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom

Never mind that the bongs would, rather deliciously, mark the supremacy of Brussels time: midnight in the EU’s capital being the rather less resonant 11pm in London. Never mind that the £500,000 cost of a temporary restoration would work out at £45,000 per bong, surely the most expensive rings since Richard Burton bought jewellery for Elizabeth Taylor.

Still, like some fan fiction version of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the true believers cry: “The bells! The bells!” Tory MP Mark Francois has donated £1,000 to a crowdfunding appeal for cash to pay for temporary works on Big Ben. Business secretary Andrea Leadsom’s rather more curbed enthusiasm has yielded a contribution of £10 – enough presumably for a millisecond micro-bong.

But the underlying point of the campaign seems to lie not so much in the expectation that the chimes will actually sound to herald the new dawn of British greatness as in the hope that they will not. This will prove again that the elites will stop at nothing to stifle the joy of the risen people of England. (The joy of the people of Scotland being unconfined by virtue of being almost entirely absent.)

Why, even in their moment of triumph, do the Brexiters need this self-pitying narrative? It is another episode in the blame game that has been implicit from the start of the Brexit saga. Brexit is inherently anticlimactic. This is not just because the botched process of negotiating withdrawal has turned the gush of liberation into a dribble, with Independence Days (29 March; 31 October) coming and going like a millenarian preacher’s predictions for the end of the world. It is not just because the special memorial 50p coins had to be melted down. It is because the act of liberation itself is fundamentally spurious.

Revolutions unleash euphoria because they create tangible images of change and inaugurate, at least in the fevered minds of their supporters, a new epoch. Brexit can’t do either of these things. The problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom. How do you actually show that the yoke of Brussels has been lifted? You can’t bring prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps back into the shops, or release stout British fishermen from the humiliation of having to wear hair nets at work on the high seas, or unban donkey rides on beaches, or right any of the other great wrongs that fuelled anti-EU sentiment – because all of it was make-believe.

And so is the golden age to come. Almost no one actually believes in the dawning of the post-Brexit Age of Aquarius. The real public mood in this month of liberation was revealed in a survey commissioned by the Conservative thinktank Bright Blue at the beginning of January: “The UK public is fairly pessimistic about the next five years. A majority of the UK public expects levels of undesirable trends – poverty (72%), crime (71%), inequality (71%) and national debt (72%) – to increase or stay the same.”

Thus the great moment of departure on 31 January will be like the last lines in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir asks: “Well, shall we go?” and Estragon answers: “Yes, let’s go.” The stage direction is: “They do not move.” Nothing will really move. The entry into a period of transition of unknown duration and the beginning of trade talks likely to be marked by tedium, indecision and a slow climbdown from grandiose promises really doesn’t ring any bells.

All but the most swivel-eyed of the Brexiters know this. Johnson himself has executed a (highly effective) pivot, turning Brexit from a fabulous moment of liberation to a duty that must be “done”, a trial to be endured, a bad period to be put behind us. The logic of his election slogan is that 31 January will mark not a beginning but an end – an end to the torment that has been endured since the referendum of June 2016.

It is striking that the justification for setting aside £120m of public money for a festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022 has changed in parallel with this shift. When Theresa May announced it in 2018, it was meant “to showcase what makes our country great today”. Now, what she hailed as this “moment of national celebration” is repurposed as a moment of national consolation. The recently appointed director of the festival, Martin Green, has said it will have “a big narrative going on around healing and coming together”. You don’t have to come together if you have not been torn apart. You don’t have a festival of healing unless you’re feeling very sick.

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But this downbeat narrative cannot fuel spontaneous overflows of popular emotion. The divisions and anxieties created by Brexit will not end on 31 January, but even if they did, it would be a peculiar mode of national rejoicing: a prime minister celebrating the fact that the pain he is primarily responsible for inflicting is going away. However, as we have seen time and again in this saga, it must be somebody else’s fault that things have come to this strange pass. It cannot be that the anticlimax was always going to be part of the story. It must be that all the inherent problems are merely the result of a failure of will.

Brexit is a matter of faith – when the miracles don’t happen, it is because there are too many of what Johnson calls “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters”. It is not enough that the people who are delighted to be leaving the EU express their happiness at a great victory over their enemies. Since the story is now about “coming together”, the doubters must play their part in a ritual of forced cheeriness. If they do not, it is their fault that the party is not quite so swell as it was meant to be. The bells won’t ring, not because the bell tower is broken, but because the doomsters don’t believe in the message of the unheard bongs.

• Fintan O’Toole is a columnist at the Irish Times and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain