As Brexit Clock Ticks, UK in Ding-dong over Big Ben Bongs
World. (File Image)

London, Jan 16 (AFP) To bong or not to bong? The question exercising Britons as they face their last few days of EU membership is not about trade or sovereignty but whether Big Ben should ring out for Brexit.

The world famous bell in parliament's Elizabeth Tower has been largely silent since August 2017 while undergoing repairs, but some Brexit supporters want it to sound on exit day on January 31.

The House of Commons authorities rejected the idea after being told it could cost up to 500,000 pounds (585,000 euros, $653,000), which Speaker Lindsay Hoyle noted was about "50,000 pounds a bong".

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an enthusiastic Brexiteer with an eye for a populist campaign, kept the idea alive by suggesting the public chip in through some kind of crowdfunding drive.

Downing Street was careful not to commit the government to making a contribution, but donors to Johnson's Conservative party suggested they would help.

Several newspapers backed the idea, including the Daily Express, which declared in a front-page headline that "Big Ben Must Bong for Brexit".

Alas, Downing Street pulled the plug on Thursday by revealing that parliamentary authorities in fact were not allowed to crowdfund the money.

"There may be potential difficulties in accepting money from public donations," a spokesman told reporters.

Arch eurosceptic populist Nigel Farage, a leading campaigner for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, accused the government of being "embarrassed by Brexit and not proud of it".

Pro-Brexit MP Mark Francois, from Johnson's Conservative party, said it was "inconceivable" that the most iconic clock in the world was not used to mark such a moment.

In the eurosceptic media, there has been speculation of a plot by anti-Brexit "Remainers" to inflate the estimated costs of Big Ben's bongs.

There have also been questions about why the bell has broken its silence for Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve but not for Brexit.

Some Brexit supporters despaired at the campaign, however, which drew widespread mockery online.

A parody of the Express frontpage went viral, questioning that with a climate emergency and thousands of people sleeping rough in Britain, "you want to spend half a million pounds to ring a bell?" Most ministers have perhaps wisely kept out of it, with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay saying he "would not dare" comment.

Downing Street says it is planning events to mark Britain's exit from the EU, which it called a "significant moment in our history".

But privately officials acknowledge the dangers of any triumphalism over an issue that continues to divide the country.

"This is not going to be a moment of celebration for many people across the UK," Scottish National Party lawmaker Patrick Grady warned in parliament.

"Perhaps we should be asking the government: if they do want to hear the bell chime, for whom will the bell toll?"

Bell ringing has a long history in Britain, with celebrations across the country marked by a peal of bells, and deaths registered with a funeral toll.

Eurosceptic group Leave.EU has called for bells of local churches to ring out on February 1 "to celebrate Britain's new-found independence".

But clergy up and down the land said it struck the wrong note and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, a representative body of campanologists, poured cold water on the idea.

"There are historical moments for which bells have been rung -- end of world wars, for example," said spokeswoman Vicki Chapman.

"However the Central Council, as a principle, does not endorse bell ringing for political reasons.

"Individual towers have discretion to ring for such occasions but is on a case by case basis and typically needs permission from the incumbent." Another idea is now taking shape.

Farage is planning a huge rally in Parliament Square on Brexit day, and one leading commentator suggested everyone brings along their own bells to ring. (AFP)

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