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Debate erupts over whether London's iconic Big Ben bell will bong for Brexit

"This golden moment must be celebrated — and what better way to celebrate," said Rebecca Ryan, the founder of the #StandUpForBrexit campaign.
Image: FILE PHOTO: British Union Jack flies in front of the clock face of the clock that houses the Big Ben bell in London
A Union Jack flag flies in front of the clock face of the tower that houses the Big Ben bell in London.Toby Melville / Reuters

LONDON — A fierce debate has erupted among British lawmakers over whether Big Ben will ring in the new Brexit era when the clock strikes 11 p.m. on Jan. 31 — the moment the U.K. officially leaves the European Union.

After more than three years of wrangling and two elections the U.K. is formally set to leave the 28 nation bloc and members of Boris Johnson's Conservative Party and others in favor of Brexit were hoping to celebrate with chimes from London's iconic landmark.

An attempt by some MPs to enshrine these chimes into law was dismissed in the U.K.'s Parliament last week.

Big Ben — the name of the bell itself — has mostly been silenced since it was closed for renovations in 2017.

Rather than chiming every 15 minutes, the bell, which sits inside Elizabeth Tower, has only been used on significant occasions like Veterans Day, which is known as Remembrance Day in the U.K., and New Years Eve.

The brouhaha over whether it should ring to celebrate Brexit heated up last week, when a fundraising website was set up to seek donations to fund a halt to the restoration work, by a campaign called #StandUpForBrexit.

The campaign is aiming to get the currently-dismantled clock mechanism reinstalled for one night, enabling it to ring 11 times, on the eleventh hour.

The website appeared Thursday, two days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his first major broadcast interview after winning December's general election, told the BBC that people should "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" on the night of Brexit. A "bob" is British slang for money.

At the time of publication, more than 13,000 donors had pledged more than $339,000 towards their $650,000 goal.

The campaign was endorsed by conservative pro-Brexit lawmaker Mark Francois — who pledged over $1,000 of his own money — and the multimillionaire co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, Arron Banks, also donated $65,000 to the cause.

If the campaign is successful and the bell rings 11 times, it will cost around $58,000 per bong.

“This golden moment must be celebrated — and what better way to celebrate than with Big Ben chiming in our bold and brilliant new future," Rebecca Ryan, the founder and campaign director of #StandUpForBrexit, said in a statement on the Conservative Home website.

Much like the debates about Brexit itself, the campaign for the bell has proved contentious.

Rachael Maskell, a member of parliament for the left-leaning Labour Party, told NBC News: “In the light of the magnitude of the issues facing the UK, I find it unbelievable that politicians saw it appropriate to suggest that money should be paid — public or private — for Big Ben to be struck.”

As Brexit would mark the termination of a deal that has kept peace across the E.U. and had resulted in a rise in hate crimes, it was "disturbing that some believe that this is a cause for celebration," she said.

The House of Commons Commission, the parliament's supervisory body also question the fundraising campaign's unprecedented approach.

"Any novel form of funding would need to be consistent with principles of propriety and proper oversight of public expenditure," it said.