In his 1961 novel Unconditional Surrender, Evelyn Waugh gave a typically waspish verdict on the Festival of Britain, staged 10 years earlier. “To celebrate the opening of a happier decade,” he wrote, “the government decreed a Festival. Monstrous constructions appeared on the south bank of the Thames ... but there was little popular exuberance among the straitened people.”
Given his Tory sympathies, and distaste for the egalitarian spirit that swept the country after the war, Waugh would have knocked anything that the Labour government of the time came up with. The festival, masterminded by Herbert Morrison, was in fact well-attended and a qualified success. It left a permanent legacy in the shape of the Royal Festival Hall. We will have to wait and see whether Festival 2022, conceived by Theresa May as a post-Brexit jamboree and modelled on the 1951 event, makes a similar mark.
The £120m celebration, billed as a tribute to the United Kingdom, has already been dubbed a “festival of Brexit” by critics. For those who dread that prospect, there are more immediate horrors in store at the end of the month. Nigel Farage and the Conservative MP Mark Francois are leading calls that Big Ben should be brought back into service to chime at 11pm on 31 January, marking Britain’s formal departure from the European Union. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has backed the idea of a crowdfunder to “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”, raising the £500,000 that would be required to pause the clock tower’s ongoing refurbishment.
From Leave.EU there are suggestions that church bells should ring out across the land on the morning of 1 February, as on Victory in Europe Day, when the nation celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Meanwhile Mr Farage can’t stop talking about “Brexit night”, which he perhaps hopes will become a fixture in the national calendar, a bit like 5 November. Anyone who objects, says Mr Francois, can stay in and “watch Netflix”.
Where to begin? The reference to VE Day manages to be both fatuous and offensive. Testimonies from that May celebration in 1945 suggest a bittersweet event. A six-year national trauma was over, in which over 450,000 Britons had died. Amidst the parties and the singing, lost loved ones were remembered and mourned. To compare the present with that time, when the country was united in its relief but also in its grief and exhaustion, is shameful self-aggrandisement. In their self-promoting determination to dramatise the politics of the present, Mr Farage and his allies are trivialising the history they claim to identify so deeply with.
As for the church bells, the Bishop of Buckingham puts it neatly: “It’s deeply divisive to ring church bells for something like this,” he said. “Churches are there for the whole community, not for a political faction to crow over people they have beaten.” The same surely goes for a national symbol such as Big Ben.
There is always something to be said for a party. In Noel Coward’s 1951 song, “Don’t Make Fun of the Fair”, the playwright and composer defended the Festival of Britain from the likes of Waugh: “Take a nip from your brandy flask,” went one verse, “Scream and caper and shout/Don’t give anyone time to ask/What the Hell it’s about.”
On this occasion though, the purpose – gloating – is all too obvious. After his election, Mr Johnson promised to be the prime minister of remain voters and well as of leave voters. If he’s serious about that, he will forget about the “bong” and the bells will stay silent.