What's in a name?



As Big Ben finished tolling 3 pm yesterday, the Speaker began an understated ceremony to rename the Clock Tower. Calling it Elizabeth Tower celebrates the Queen’s Jubilee.  It does not mean we have to abandon the name for the bell, Tobias Ellwood, the MP who originally proposed the change, reassured us. Paul Flynn, however, tweeted: @Paulflynnmp “Act of profound futility in 're-naming' of Big Ben. Could the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal or Empire State Building be re-named? Big Benn better.” And another MP joked “so its Vic and Liz now is it?”, referring to Victoria Tower at the other end of the Palace. Names have social and political significance.

Malcolm Rifkind talked like an anthropologist last week, telling me that names signify distance or intimacy and formality serves a purpose. He heard that when Prime Minister Tony Blair said to an official, “call me Tony,” the senior civil servant replied, “I don’t think so, Prime Minister.” Informality brings the impression of friendship and intimacy, making unpopular or awkward decisions more difficult. He warned against intimacy between newspaper editors and Ministers too; such closeness always breaks down. Addressing people in a formal way underlines safe distance.

Formality and deference have been in decline since the 1960s. When PM Harold Macmillan and Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd came back from a trip there was a single BBC journalist who greeted them when they stepped off the plane, “Prime Minister, do you have anything to say to the BBC?” The PM asked the Chancellor, “do we have anything to say.” “I don’t think we do”, he replied. So Macmillan confirmed, “not at this moment, thank you.” No PM would dare to remain as distant these days. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of political opinion.