In defence of David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism

Yesterday’s voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifti

Some reactions to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday have been the best evidence for the point he was trying to make.

Let us put aside the use of contested terms. As if bandying about the term neoconservativism – in a rather "muscular liberal" way, may I add – were any less emotionally charged than the term "multiculturalism". Let us put aside the coincidence (and the subsequent unrealistic demand arising from it) that the speech was made on the day of an EDL march in Luton. As if the machinery of an international conference of heads of state and a prime minister's agenda were that easy to move around. Let us put aside the way that media pundits have reported it, as if sensational reporting were ever controllable by anyone, let alone the government. Let us put aside the typical sidestep (regularly resorted to by people who have themselves received government grants) that Quilliam, my think tank, "receives government grants" and hence will naturally "defend" the speech. In case you missed it, Quilliam has had its public money completely cut under Cameron's coalition government. And I am rather known for challenging and debating government representatives on a range of matters, such as my opposition to banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, to censorship and to profiling – just search the web.

Indeed, let us stop clutching at straws, and for once actually focus on the content of the speech itself. And that is possible if we read it rather than automatically adopt the victimhood caricature that has embarrassingly come to be associated with so many Muslim commentators. I for one find it hard to conclude that this time the Prime Minister's speech is anything but balanced, nuanced and reasonable. Some ideologues will never be happy, and for them it is this very nuance that has now become the problem.

Here we have, finally, a speech which recognises that there are more than Islamist forms of extremism. Here we have a speech that acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between two extremes: of Islamism and anti-Muslim fascism. Here we have a speech that criticises minaret and headscarf bans, and asserts that conservative practice of the Islamic faith is not the same as extremism.

I say to my fellow Muslim commentators, seriously, what more could you want from a Conservative prime minister? Coming out wholeheartedly against this speech, in an atmosphere of increasing community polarisation, is a self-defeating form of victimhood that only serves to further the very polarisation Cameron is worried about.

The fact is that there is a serious problem of extremism with minority groups within Muslim communities. The fact is that there is a similar level of far-right fascism on the rise. The speech addresses both, and the EDL march only reinforces this point. The fact is that our communities are growing together and apart. Visit Tower Hamlets, and then visit Dagenham, preferably in the course of the same day. Aside from the socially mobile urban elite, are Britons really living together, or are we living in mutually suspicious monocultural enclaves? And yet surely that is exactly what multiculturalism was supposed to bring to an end, whatever one's interpretation of the term?

As with Egypt, we are living in a world where comfortable parameters steeped in colonial assumptions are shifting very fast. Gone are the old frames of reference, Islamism or secular dictatorship, multiculturalism or fascism. Yesterday's voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifting.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.