Let’s do a Brexit deal with the Parthenon marbles

Published in The Guardian on 4th April 2017, at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/04/brexit-deal-parthenon-marbles 

Not yet a week since the triggering of Article 50 but already hope of cordial negotiations seem over optimistic. At the weekend, amid early jostling over the post Brexit fate of Gibraltar, Lord Howard, the Tory grandee, implied that one way to resolve that situation could be a war with Spain.

Thus far, the focus has been on the politics, the pounds, shillings and Euros and the colour of passports. But in the search for common ground, it’s worth remembering that the European Union Treaty itself places a duty on both sides in Article 50 negotiations to take into account the need to “ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.” Here there is scope for a gesture that may allow talks to proceed more constructively.

The most important symbols of Europe’s cultural heritage are the Parthenon marbles, half of them in the new Acropolis Museum while the other half, ripped off the Parthenon by a Scottish diplomat, sit in a British museum gallery dedicated to an art fraudsman. Putting the return of Lord Elgin’s stolen marbles on the Brexit negotiating table would lead both to a boon for Britain and a triumph for European enhancement of its heritage.

Re-uniting the marbles is a cultural imperative, not so much for Greece  as for Europe. United, they will stand as a unique representation of the beginnings of civilised life in Europe, 2,500 years ago. It will be like putting together a photo long torn in half, recording people walking and talking, playing and (particularly) drinking, in the first society – the first European society – that can truly be called civilised. United in the custom-built modern museum beneath the Parthenon, the marbles will be the greatest artistic and architectural treasure on the continent.

There is no doubt that they were stolen by Elgin. His licence to remove “stones” specifically prohibited him from pulling down the superstructure of the building to rip off the metopes and sculptures. Before a parliamentary committee he lied outrageously, pretending to have acted only when he saw with his own eyes how they were being despoiled by the Turks. This was a demonstrable falsehood because he did not arrive in Athens until most of the Marbles had been torn down by his workmen for his own profit, in breach of his duty as British ambassador. They are now vested by the 1963 Museums Act in the trustees of the British Museum. But parliament can unvest them, by a simple amendment or a line in the “Big Brexit Bill” and send them back to Athens as part of our final deal with Europe.

It cannot be said that the trustees have kept the Marbles responsibly. They covered up the cleaning scandal for decades, after the Marbles were scoured and striped and scratched on Lord Duveen’s orders. They still exhibit them in a gallery which commemorates Duvveen – the worst art fraudsman of the twentieth century. As for Neil MacGregor’s claim that they belong in a “something for everyone” museum – a quick thrill for tourists before they pass on to the Egyptian mummies via the Isle of Lewis chessmen – this is risible. Now is the time to offer to return them, as part of the Brexit deal. There is no more significant cultural heritage than the Parthenon Marbles, so the negotiators on both sides are bound to take re-unification of the Marbles into account. They are, of course, priceless, and a UK offer to return them should be accepted in return for major concessions. It could become, in that dreadful phrase, a “win-win” situation: the European negotiators would be congratulated on a unique cultural achievement, and the UK would earn not only large discounts, but also gratitude through an action that most of its people agree with anyway, according to opinion polls. And the deal would have the advantage of not depending on the Greek government, which has been unavailingly requesting return, through diplomatic channels, since 1833.

Jean-Claude Juncker and his bureaucrats, and the governments of Germany, France and Italy in particular, often refer to the importance to Europe of its culture – if they miss this opportunity to enhance it, no-one should take them seriously again. The treaty itself, in my view, obliges them to put the re-unification of the Marbles on the negotiating table, and to give as much ground as possible to achieve their return to Athens. As for the UK, a willingness to surrender Elgin’s ill-gotten gains will win goodwill as well as concessions.

Britain is leaving Europe, so it should leave Europe with its Marbles.