The British Conservative Party under the leadership of David Cameron have over the last five years been consistent in their trenchant opposition to what they describe as “returnism “.
With the run up to the May general election however, things seem to have taken on a different approach. In leaked draft of the Tory manifesto being circulated on various websites, there is a section entitled repatriation of individuals and items highlights a number of new policies.
It starts making a clear grab for UKIP voters, stating that under a Conservative government, any EU migrants in the country who had claimed unemployment benefit for more than two months would be requested to leave the country. It also outlined other incentives to encourage foreign nationals to leave the country, including lump sum cash payments that can be taken only on the condition that they do not return to the UK for ten years.
The second part of this section however is more intriguing, not least as it completely contradicts many of the actions of the government during the previous five years. Under the subtitle A better reputation abroad for a better Britain at home, the document outlines how in the next term, the government hopes to sell off various state run museums to private operators, making them more efficient financially while at the same time freeing up money for other uses as part of their long term economic plan. It then goes on to explain how this process is currently complicated by the fact that private operators would be wary of purchasing any assets which contained items around which there are ownership disputes, such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. It states that a new entity called the British Institutions Non Governmental Organisation (BINGO) would assess the risk level of each item, and then work out a fair market value at which the item could be re-purchased by the nations that originally owned them.
Clearly anticipating the limited financial means of some of the countries from which the artefacts originate, the manifesto goes on to say that the re-purchase of any items of cultural property could be funded by loan agreements organised by the same companies taking over the management of the museums.
Now, while I have many reservations about the whole process and strong doubts about the likelihood of the government managing to implement these proposals fully, it does seem to indicate a clear shift in approach – that despite the recent rejection of UNESCO mediation , they are tacitly admitting that there is a problem which needs to be resolved.
I am strongly against the idea of selling artefacts back to their original owners, but there may always be scope for negotiation of the exact terms once more details of the proposal became available.
Various websites also have quotes from a number of official, responding to the news about these new proposals.
Pillory Sour from the Department of Culture Media and Sport has stated:
Despite my best efforts to convince the government that relinquishing any disputed artefacts from UK collections was a terrible idea, it appears that the one party we thought we could completely trust has decided to put profit ahead of prudence in their approach to the issue).
In a more carefully worded statement, Henna Biltong from the British Museum noted that:
While the British Museum has for many years aimed for a policy of zero leeway to returning artefacts, wee realise that a new look, more efficient institution could deliver profits for shareholders, while at the same time collecting interest from the purchase loans if many of these artefacts were returned. As such, we see it as a win-win scenario for the museum.
The Greek Government has yet to comment on this story.
As some have already spotted, today is of course April 1st. The Conservative Manifesto has yet to be published, but I doubt it has anything in it about returning cultural property, and hope that it will contain no extreme anti-immigration measures. Neither Pillory Sour or Henna Biltong exist, and any resemblance to real individuals with similar names is entirely coincidental. I am very much hoping that they have no plans to sell off Britain’s national museums to private operators, although nothing would surprise me.