Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Few voters will be swayed one way or the other by the location of the Elgin Marbles. The British have been arguing among themselves for more than two centuries over whether the exquisite stone sculptures belong on the Athenian Acropolis, and Jeremy Corbyn’s demand that they be handed over adds nothing new to that debate. But perhaps it adds something to the public’s perception of the Labour leader, confirming a view that has been building since last year’s election, namely that he will always and everywhere back another country against his own.
There are honourable arguments for and against shipping the Parthenon marbles to Greece. The strongest case for their restitution is aesthetic. Reuniting the original sculptures would create something resplendent. That was, broadly speaking, Byron’s point back in 1812:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that the marbles were properly bought and paid for. Lord Elgin sought and obtained permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove the carvings, and later sold them to the British Government, which placed them in the British Museum where they have been drawing huge and appreciative crowds ever since. Property rights do not lapse simply because an artefact is considered culturally significant. Nor should private ownership be trumped by vague collective claims. That principle is one of the foundations of an open society.
For what it’s worth, there seems to me a good case for displaying a unified set of marbles on Athena’s temple. Even bare and ruined, the Parthenon is a thing of beauty. Restore its metopes and its magnificent frieze, and it would be dazzling. I’d be happy for the British Museum, while maintaining legal ownership, to display its prize possession permanently on the original building. That, though, is not the Greek demand. Fears of pollution and earthquakes led to the removal of the remaining marbles to the nearby Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. There is far less of an argument for moving the marbles from one museum to another.
Not that Jezza shows much interest in either the legal or the aesthetic claims. Instead, unhesitatingly and unthinkingly, he has taken what he sees as the anti-British side. In his simple view, it’s all about the evils of colonialism. Here is how he put it last week: “As with anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession – including artefacts looted from other countries in the past – we should be engaged in constructive talks with the Greek government about returning the sculptures.”
For what it’s worth, Greece was never Britain’s “colonial possession”. Indeed, within a decade of Lord Elgin’s purchase, idealistic young men were flocking from these islands to fight alongside Byron in the cause of Greek independence – a struggle financed, in no small measure, by British Philhellenes. But Corbo doesn’t care about details like that. The foundational principle of his world-view is that Britain Is Always In The Wrong.
This peculiar national masochism has led him to support some truly nasty causes over the years: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Soviet Union, the IRA. Today it makes him side, in effect if not in intent, with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad – two quasi-fascists. He couldn’t even bring himself to back Britain in a defensive war against General Galtieri, whose military junta had murdered dozens of trade unionists and Left-wing agitators.
Plainly the Greek demand for the marbles is not in that category: no one is suggesting that they be seized by force. Still, the claim has an ethno-nationalist tinge that sits oddly with the Labour leader’s other views. The restitutionist argument boils down to the idea that Greeks have a hereditary claim to something that was carved on their territory 2,400 years ago. We don’t normally think in these terms. If you buy a painting by Georges Seurat, it’s yours. It can’t be seized by the French state on grounds that Seurat’s nationality makes it part of France’s patrimoine culturel.
For what it’s worth, I think the hereditary argument is weak even in its own terms. Who knows where we might find the descendants of the original sculptor, Phidias – if, indeed, any survive. Greece, like every country, has experienced vast population movements over the past two millennia. For example, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, wrote in the tenth century that Greece had been overrun by Slavs “even as far as the Peloponnese” and had been “lost to civilisation”. The British writer Auberon Waugh used regularly to recycle a column about how Greeks had no claim to the stones because you could see from their physiognomy that they were not descended from the men who had carved them.
Waugh was a provocateur with a puckish sense of humour, but such arguments can quickly become inflammatory. Once you start arguing that nations have collective claims, and that those claims trump individual rights, including that of private ownership, you can quickly find yourself having eerily 1930s-style arguments about who belongs to which group. You’d think that Jezza would steer well clear of all such quarrels. And, indeed, you’d never hear him aver that, for example, Jews have a hereditary right to the West Bank because it contains Joseph’s Tomb. But, as usual, the claims of a perceived victim group, for Corbyn, trump everything else.
The rest of us should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Just as we consider collective punishments to be a war crime, so we should steer clear of collective entitlements. The elevation of the individual over the group is the basis of our liberal civilisation. Remember that.