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A beacon of democracy

The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben are synonymous with democracy and have become a symbol of parliament around the world. An image at the top of a news bulletin is shorthand for “And now to politics...” For many, both the image and the chimes of Big Ben have taken on much significance.  

“As well as merely being a projection of a particular kind of British identity, this short snatch of music carries with it associations of security and power, emanating as it does from the site of parliamentary democracy.”  

These words from Caroline Crampton, written when Big Ben was turned off for four years for conservation, ring true for many Britons. The familiar clocktower is not just a symbol of the United Kingdom and of Parliament but of the British ‘Keep clam and carry on’ spirit and democracy itself.  

Mother of parliaments 

On 18 January 1865 British politician and reformer John Bright gave a speech in Birmingham. The speech was part of a long running campaign that culminated in the Reform Act of 1867 and in it Bright coined the phrase ‘mother of parliaments’ when he said that “England is the mother of parliaments.” While not specifically referring to Westminster, the phrase was reported in The Times the next day and quickly caught on.  

Soon the expression is often applied to the Parliament of the United Kingdom because of the adoption of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy by many countries of the former British Empire. 

MPs and Peers 

15 July 1859, just 4 days after Big Ben first started ringing, the bell was first mentioned in the House of Commons Chamber. Mr Alderman Salomons complained about the tone of the bell and it’s frequency: “As they were talking about the Houses of Parliament, he would beg leave to ask, to whom they were indebted for the funeral notes which every hour struck upon the ear of the House?”  

He hoped that the First Commissioner of Works, or Mr Denison, or Sir Charles Barry, or whoever it was that was responsible, would try to make some alteration in the tone of the bell. It was too bad that the Members of that House and the people should be condemned from hour to hour to hear that dreadful noise, a noise which they could only expect to hear when the great bell of St. Paul's was tolled on the death of a member of the Royal Family. 

Read more about Big Ben's role in our society