The 2024 UK Elections And The Parthenon Marbles: A Final Reckoning?


The results of the 2024 UK general elections have been profound with the landslide win by the Labour Party of Sir Keir Starmer and the promise of a reset in public policy making and governance and to rebuild Britain after 14 years of Conservative rule.

Prince Charles greets Sir Keir Starmer (credit: Yui Mok/PA)

While the seemingly never-ending debate over the Parthenon Sculptures was clearly not an election issue, the appointment of a new culture secretary and the return of a resolute campaigner to the House of Commons bode well for a renewed and enlightened discussion over the fate of the Elgin Marbles.

The new UK Culture Secretary is Lisa Nandy.

Lisa Nandy was first elected as the Labour MP for Wigan in 2010 and has played a prominent role in the party.  During her time in Parliament, Lisa Nandy has served on the front bench in a number of roles, including Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Shadow Minister for Civil Society.

After the resignation of the former leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 she unsuccessfully contested the Labour Party leadership.  Despite that, she was appointed by Starmer as Shadow Foreign Secretary and by the time the election was called she was serving as Shadow International Development cabinet minister.

Lisa Nandy with Sir Keir Starmer (credit: Danny Lawson/PA)

But a vacancy arose in the important Culture portfolio after the shadow secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, lost her Bristol Central seat to the Greens and the new PM decided to appoint the 44 year old Wigan MP.

Ms Nandy is elated by the appointment, declaring on social media that it is an “unbelievable privilege” to take on the role of Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport:

As Culture Secretary, I will do everything I can to harness the limitless potential of the extraordinary people in these amazing sectors to drive economic growth, unlock opportunities for everyone and change lives for the better.  “The hard work begins today.

Lisa Nandy is a formidable politician and passionate advocate for many causes.

In 2019 during a seminar “Beauty for the many, not the few” conducted by the Policy Exchange on the built environment, Lisa Nandy spoke of the despair of her Wigan constituents confronting a “toxic mixture of nostalgia and decline” as parts of the town’s beautiful but decayed heritage and other fine buildings were being erased from its history.

Because, according to the new Culture Secretary, “places matter to people: they define how we feel about the world, providing us with a strong sense of place and an absolute pride in our history”.

Britannia Pacificatrix Mural (Image credit: Guardian)

In 2020 she famously wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, querying a series of controversial murals commissioned in 1914 to decorate the Foreign Office grand staircase to showcase five large narrative paintings extolling the grandeur and assumed white Anglo-Saxon superiority of the British Empire.

This colonial outlook also underlined a conviction that the sun will never set on Britian’s legion of collectors and antiquarian looters of other peoples’ heritage, including Lord Elgin’s notorious pillaging of the classical monuments atop the Acropolis in Athens.

Edward Dodwell: Removal of marbles from the Parthenon in 1801 (Wikimedia)

In March 2021, in a presentation at a Chatham House webinar “This is what our patriotism looks like” the then Shadow Foreign Secretary reminded the audience that one of a Labour Government’s priorities would be to restore Britain’s reputation as a consistent reliable partner:

“(W)e will start a new national conversation about our place in the world and the sort of country we want to be, grounded in all our nations and communities, drawing on the many great organisations, movements and institutions who are prepared to lift their eyes beyond their own horizons to consider the better country and better world I know we can build. This is how we will build and sustain the support to act as a force for good in the world and earn the support and consent of people at home”.

Lisa Nandy (credit: Jessica Taylor /UK Parliament)

In 2022 Lisa Nandy delivered The Orwell Memorial Lecture and recalling George Orwell’s “The Country That Lies Beneath the Surface”, she articulated her vision:

“(T)hat sense of being part of something bigger than you are, the belief that you have not just a right but a duty to contribute, is Britain’s great untapped asset. That by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.”

In June 2023 speaking in Parliament on the Holocaust Memorial Bill, Lisa Nandy, whose father came from India in the 1950s, spoke of being motivated to enter politics to fight racism and discrimination.  But it remains a struggle and therefore “it falls to every generation to pick up the baton and fight those battles anew”.

She also acknowledged the work of others in respect of the proposed memorial, and in particular Lord Dubs, who arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport and who Lisa Nandy admires for his powerful advocacy for child refugees.  In a potentially historic twist of fate, Lord Dubs is also a passionate campaigner for the reunification of the orphaned Parthenon Sculptures.

Lisa Nandy’s appointment as Culture Secretary has been welcomed.

The Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum and Professor of Museum Studies, Ethics and Material Culture, Laura Van Broekhoven, posted on X (formerly Twitter):

“Great news, much looking forward to welcoming @lisanandy @Pitt_Rivers soon we hope. Bringing so much fabulous experience to DCMS.”

CNN Greece reported that Athens is waiting for her first written declarations as she will be in charge of dealing with the issue of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also sent his congratulations to the newly-elected Labour Government.

This of course comes against the backdrop of statements by Sir Keir Starmer that the new Government has no present plans to change the legislation governing the British Museum (which effectively prevents it from deaccessioning items in its collection) but, at the same time, the government will not try to obstruct any potential deals between the museum and the Greek Government.

At least this will represent a welcome change from the utterings of the new Secretary’s immediate Tory predecessors, Michelle Donelan and Lucy Frazer, who were literally chained to a dismal, colonialist mindset of “retain and explain” and relegated to reading talking points from bureaucrats on Britain’s alleged lawful claims to ownership of the Elgin Marbles.

Ironically, whilst they did not lose their ‘marbles’ during their tenure, both lost their seats at the election.

Lisa Nandy’s appointment as Culture Secretary has also been particularly welcomed by the well-known British-Australian and Philhellene author, David Hill, who is the Chair of the Australian Parthenon Association and was the founding Chair of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.

David Hill has written two memorable books, The Forgotten Children and Reckoning, dealing with the plight of the ‘orphans of empire’, the British children who as part of child migration programs – sponsored by British government, churches and charities – were transported to countries including Australia, and in many cases subjected to child sexual abuse and other degrading treatment.

In 2018 David enlisted the support of the young Wigan MP and she delivered a powerful statement in the British Parliament as part of the ongoing (and ultimately successful) campaign to reveal the full extent of this institutional abuse and to obtain justice and restitution for the many survivors.

Image credit: EMPICS Entertainment

In the House of Commons Lisa Nandy delivered a powerful speech:

I do not think anyone in the Chamber disagrees that the child migration policy was so misguided and harmful and caused such suffering and distress. For us as Members of Parliament in the 21st century, it beggars belief to think that any British Government could think that was a reasonable policy. It clearly caused great suffering and distress to children, who should be protected by institutions of the state. It is crucial that we learn from the mistakes of the past in order to protect and safeguard future generations of children from abuse.

We will not let this go. It was one of the darkest periods in British history, and it affected not just those former child migrants, but their families. They deserve redress; they deserve a full apology; and all of them, whether they are alive today or not, deserve a legacy of ensuring that this never happens to another child.

As David Hill subsequently wrote, “we were lucky to have the persistent support of Wigan Labour MP Lisa Nandy who campaigned tirelessly on our behalf”.

Andrew George in Cornwall

The other revelation in the election was the return of Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP who regained the West Cornwall and Scilly constituency of St Ives as part of the resurgence of his centrist party, having previously held the seat between 1997-2015 and having been the first non-Conservative MP to win the seat in more than six decades.

The renowned local and national campaigner has served in recent times as Chief Executive of the affordable housing charity Cornwall Community Land Trust and was involved in other research and campaign projects.

Andrew George with colleagues of the Acropolis Research Group in Athens under the gaze of an illuminated Acropolis

But he is also well known as the chairman of the British Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (formerly Marbles Reunited) as well as the Acropolis Research Group.

During his initial time in Parliament Andrew George raised the issue of the Elgin Marbles on many occasions, including helping to draft early day motions and bills to amend the British Museum Act and generally to espouse the issue of return of the marbles in the halls of Westminster.

The Acropolis Museum

In 2011, Andrew George highlighted, as others had done, the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens and its profound impact on the dynamics of this long-standing cultural heritage debate  :

For many years, one of the stock arguments used for retention of the Parthenon Sculptures was that Greece had nowhere to put them if they were returned. The New Acropolis Museum has now refuted this reasoning once and for all – few who have visited it would disagree that it creates a far better setting for the sculptures, allowing them to be seen in the context of the Parthenon upon which they were originally designed to be viewed. The sculptures were never loose pieces of artwork that could be located anywhere, but instead formed an integral part of the Parthenon – for this reason, if no other, it can never be claimed with any degree of honesty that they belong in any other part of the world. They were carved from local stone, designed to be seen under the brilliantly sharp Attic light – not to be displayed in a gloomy gallery in London.

We have found that despite the popular perception that it is a Greek issue, there are large numbers of English supporters – who understand the reasons for reunifying all the surviving sculptures in a single place, yet do not find this aim to be in any sort of conflict with being British or even supporting institutions such as the British Museum. In many cases they see it as a possibility of righting one of history’s wrongs. It is rare that the opportunity is present to take an action such as this – surely Britain should be using the opportunity to define a new era in cultural diplomacy, rather than hiding away from any form of serious discussions.

In 2012 he participated in a televised debate “Send them back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens” with the noted author and actor Stephen Fry.

In 2017, when there were credible reports that the former Greek Government was considering a proposal to loan, on a recurring and long-term basis, rare archaeological treasures from Greek museums in exchange for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum.

At the time, with Brexit looming,  Andrew George welcomed the proposal:

Britain has nothing to lose but a deeply damaged reputation – having clung on for over 200 years to such important artefacts which were stolen from the Greeks when they could do nothing to stop it – and has much to gain at the very time Britain’s reputation needs enhancing amongst those countries it wants to do a deal with.

And so, with the appointment by Sir Keir Starmer of a heritage-conscious Culture Secretary, together with the return of an eminent parliamentary campaigner, hope springs eternal that an enlightened resolution of the Parthenon Sculptures may, sooner rather than later, be in the reckoning.

 

George Vardas is the Arts and Culture Editor and is also the co-Vice President of the Australian Parthenon Association and a co-founder of the Acropolis Research Group.

 



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