Some Tories said this week they wanted to raise £500,000 so Big Ben could ring out on January 31st to mark the UK leaving the European Union; Boris Johnson said people could “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”. But if I could borrow the PM’s alliterative style for a moment, my response to the idea of the Brexit bong would be this: claws off the clock, Conservatives.

The idea stinks for various reasons. First, lots of people (and lots of Remainers) feel affectionate and protective towards the clock, including me. I remember being taken to see it as a kid; I remember building it from Lego; I remember Robert Powell hanging from it in The 39 Steps.

There’s a kind of easy symbolism in popular culture ¬- a quick, albeit slightly clichéd, way to sketch in who we are, or some of us are - and the clock’s part of it. Write a sentence about British culture and Big Ben is in there, like a national exclamation mark.

I realise, of course, that not everyone feels this way and there are some Scots, particularly anti-unionist ones, who feel antipathetic towards British architecture and symbols.

The idea that the clock should be independent of any political causes is also problematic because it’s been associated with political causes in the past – in 2012, for example, the building was renamed the Elizabeth Tower to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee even though there are millions in Britain who are republican.

The big clock can never be truly free of promoting some ideas over others.

Fortunately, we seem to be dealing in hypotheticals anyway because the idea of using Big Ben to mark Brexit has ended with a clang – the campaign to raise £500,000 managed to get together just a few hundred quid. However, the Brexiteers’ idea got me wondering whether the role, and importance, of collective British symbols like Big Ben is changing. I suppose what I’m asking is: are they as important as they used to be?

First off, I do think the idea of Big Ben as a shorthand for British culture does still apply for many people, but I also think the way we behave as a country may have changed. I’m thinking of all the war veterans I’ve spoken to over the years and what they told me about VE Day - the street celebrations in Whitehall, the parties, the dancing, and above it all: Big Ben. I’m also thinking of my neighbour telling me about the coronation in 1953 and the bonfire that was lit on the hill above our houses. It burned bright all night, he said.

Would that kind of collective British celebration happen now? Perhaps the last glimpse we got of it was at the Olympics in 2012 when it was difficult – even for crabit Scottish nationalists preparing for a referendum – not to enjoy the spectacle of it, and feel a part of it. The focus was on Britain’s achievements, such as the NHS, but the symbols were also there: Bond, Big Ben, buses, the Beatles.

Sadly, I think what we’ve been through in the last few years – the Yes and No of 2014 and the Leave and Remain of 2016 – has made these expressions of collectiveness, such as the Olympics, less powerful and important and that may be because there’s been a decline in a sense of Britishness.

If there was once a fellow-feeling based on the idea that the British, particularly in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, were designed and riveted together by industry, architecture and empire, then there are fewer of us who feel that way now.

But I wonder if it’s not so much a decline in a sense of Britishness that’s happened as a rise in other identities? Our sense of ourselves as British used to be powered by collective experiences on TV and radio and in newspapers, and Big Ben was part of that as it chimed the hours on Radio 4.

However, increasingly, our identities and values are expressed in other ways – by who we follow on Instagram, by who we follow on the street during demonstrations, and by what we call ourselves.

We are all still British, but perhaps more of us feel other labels more powerfully: gay, goth, trans, vegan, nationalist. The people who belong to these groups now look to their own symbols and icons and may not care much about a big clock in London. But Brexiteers who think this gives them an opportunity should remember this: the indifference of others does not mean Big Ben belongs to you.