Don’t mess with Big Ben
A Finnish visitor to London says MPs are mad to rebrand Big Ben as ‘Elizabeth Tower’.
Back in the early 1980s, I read an article about the greatest bands of all time – a list which included Adam and the Ants. ‘Stand and Deliver’ is a perfectly good pop/rock anthem and gives a decent musical representation of the time it was made. But today, no one would argue that it deserves a place in the pantheon of popular music.
The case of Adam and the Ants shows how difficult it is to assess a future legacy. And that is why Big Ben should remain Ben. The clock tower at the UK parliament building, the Palace of Westminster, is commonly called Big Ben by everyone, even though the name really only belongs to one of the bells that make its distinctive chimes. Now, however, MPs have decided to christen the London landmark ‘Elizabeth Tower’, in honour of the current queen.
Queen Elizabeth II is a perfectly good monarch, and her reign (if you can call waving to people reigning) will no doubt be remembered for its exceptional length. But in time, her importance and, more importantly, her relevance to the British public will wane.
The same cannot be said for Big Ben. The tower is not exceptional because of its height or because of any unique architectural features. It is exceptional simply because people over the years have decided that it is. Big Ben is an institution because of its name, not because of its edifice. To change that name to Elizabeth Tower – or anything else for that matter – is to rob it of its identity. And once that is done, it will simply be just another clock tower.
One also has to wonder why on earth the queen herself needs to be commemorated in such a way. The whole point of modern royalty is the institution, not the person. That is why the bank notes change when rulers change. Surely Elizabeth herself would cringe at the idea of renaming established landmarks after celebrities.
Royalists are always arguing that the monarchy is a boon to trade and tourism, that the pomp and ceremony created around the sovereign are part of Britain’s brand. Changing Big Ben’s name would be a move in the other direction. Big Ben is a brand in the best sense of the word; that is, many people feel a connection with its Londonness. It has always been a symbol of London, not of royalty.
A tower in Elizabeth’s name would be a fleeting gain for the House of Windsor, but a permanent loss to London. Big Ben forever!
Eero Iloniemi is a political consultant and a frequent visitor to London.