Big Ben’s timely reminder that Britain’s political system needs fixing



On Friday, I climbed the 334 steps of the Elizabeth Tower. It may mean little to readers. Yet it is, under another name, Grand-Ben — the most famous clock tower in the world. In the middle of the 19th century, when it was built, the clock was a technological feat. But it is also a globally recognized symbol of Britain and its system of government. This is the clock tower of parliament.

It was only known as the Clock Tower when it was completed in 1859 to Augustus Pugin’s design. Big Ben was a nickname (of uncertain origin) for the 13½ ton bell, whose tone has accompanied countless broadcasts since 1923. In 2012 the tower was renamed after Queen Elizabeth, to celebrate her jubilee of diamond, thus corresponding to the Victoria tower at the south-west end of the Parliament, named after the ancestor of the queen during her diamond jubilee. For the world, it remains Big Ben.

Visits can only be arranged through a Member of Parliament. Regardless of the fun of completing the climb, it is fascinating to see the huge mechanism and stand in the belfry as the bell rings with a temporarily deafening volume. Alas, the tower is now closed for restoration.

When built, it was the “largest and most accurate four-sided buzzing and chiming clock around the world”. It was also a product of British amateurism. George AiryAstronomer Royal, created the specifications. Edmond Beckett Denison (later Baron Grimthorpe), a lawyer and amateur watchmaker, designed the works. The fact that an amateur won such a large commission tells us a lot about the risk-taking culture of senior Victorians, as does the innovative nature of its clockwork of unprecedented accuracy. A touch of eccentricity remains: they use old pennies to modify the center of gravity of the pendulum, if necessary.

The mechanism is more than a reminder of when the UK was the world’s center of innovation. It is also a monument to political innovation. The right of an elected parliament to govern the country was established by force of arms in the 17th century. But the long journey to universal suffrage only really began with the Great Reform Act of 1832. It abolished rotten boroughs, granted representation to industrial towns, and expanded the franchise. In 1859, parliament was on its way to universal adult suffrage, completed (for those over 21) only in 1928.

The tower, clock and bell are symbols of the idea of ​​parliamentary democracy – among the UK’s greatest contributions. Standing at the top of the tower, overlooking the Houses of Parliament, I was moved by the strength and subtlety of this idea: that of a government by people chosen by the votes of all adult citizens. I understand why the cause of parliamentary sovereignty is so powerful. For all the mistakes of current politics and politicians, it’s magic.

Yet British parliamentary democracy, like the Elizabeth Tower and the Palace of Westminster itself, needs to be renovated to meet the challenges of the new times. Brexit makes this more urgent. Here are four necessary changes.

First, the UK chose (wrongly, in my view) to use referenda to resolve constitutional issues. If so, the barrier to change must be greater than a simple majority of voters. It could be set at 50% of eligible voters or 60% of votes. Most constitutions are protected in this way.

Second, the first-past-the-post system yields grossly unrepresentative results in a multiparty country. The question of electoral reform must therefore be reopened.

Third, the House of Lords has become a sprawling mess. If the UK is to retain an appointed chamber (an idea that has merit), the power of patronage must be better controlled.

Finally, with an aging population, power is too concentrated in the hands of the elders. The future of a country managed for the benefit of the past cannot be bright. The solution is to give parents votes on behalf of minor children.

Big Ben is a powerful symbol of the role of parliamentary democracy in the UK’s past and present. But the future of the British parliamentary system depends on its renovation today, as is the case of the tower which symbolizes it to the world.

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