For a long time, like many others who have followed the case closely, I have had a general understanding of which parties supported return of the Parthenon Marbles and which did not. However, with the upcoming General Election in May, I thought it would be interesting to see if the figures actually backed this up.
To the best of my knowledge, none of the parties in the UK currently have an official policy on it, although past statements actions have given a relatively good idea of where the main parties stand on the issue. As followers of British politics will know though, this election, more than any in recent years is as much about the rise of other smaller parties as it is about the main parties. Predictions are that the share of votes cast for smaller parties will far exceed what has been achieved at any previous elections.
In 2010, I took a look at the policies of the main parties  and based this on historic information. As a result of this, I know that we had people in the government who strongly believed in the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece, but they were unable to express these views, as they believed that there were more major issues that needed to be tackled with their coalition partners, before time was invested in things such as this.
This time round, I have looked at the information on support from various parties using two entirely different methods.
The first analysis is based on the incumbent MPs and their previous expressions of support. The majority of these come from Early Day Motions, although there are additional instances where people have been added to the list (either for or against) based on public statements, replies to letters or direct conversations.
The second analysis is entirely new and is based on a survey of candidates on Twitter. I started this exercise following the dissolution of Parliament at the end of March 2015. I targeted a wide range of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, some of whom had been MPs in the previous parliament and many others who had not. This helps us to better gauge levels of support not just from those who have been elected in the past, but also from those who have yet to be elected.
Because people were asked a question on twitter, it meant that the replies could be more nuanced than a simple yes or no. This made it harder to categorise the results, but led to some additional categories and could form the basis for development of new campaign strategies in the future.
Anyone who looks in detail at either of these methods will see that they both have their flaws. However, if we bear in mind these issues, there are some interesting things that can be learned from the data, some of which backed up my expectations, while others were unanticipated.
Survey 1: Indications of the opinion of MPs in the previous parliament
- Nearly all the data here is collated from responses to Early Day Motions. Prior to the 2010 election, my data covered more MPs, but so many stood down at that election, that there have not been enough significant events since then to gauge support from new MPs so clearly.
- The results skew towards those who sign EDMs. MPs that are in the Government (e.g. ministers, junior ministers etc.) tend not to sign EDMs. There are others out there too, who never sign EDMs on principle – often because they believe them to be a waste of time, which does not achieve anything directly. While this may be true up to a point, there is no denying, that they allow other MPs to gauge levels of support for a cause, which may then be utilised in other ways. And MP may know of a few other strong supporters of a cause, but often EDMs add to their list others who they barely know, or who they had never considered as being potential enthusiasts in the same issue.
- Results can be skewed for smaller parties. With a larger (hypothetical) party, 20 supporters out of 100 MPs can give a clearish indication of 20% support within the party. With a party of 1 or 2 members though, it is easy for them to come out as being 100% in support, whereas the reality is that the sample size is smaller & therefore the results potentially less accurate.
The data is based on the 649 MPs (the speaker is not counted) at the end of the previous parliament. This is to say – the 21 by-elections during the last five years have been factored into the results. Data has been collected both during the previous parliament and in the case of those who were MPs prior to that, from EDMs dating back as far as 1991. In total, the results of 24 pro-restitution and 3 anti-restitution EDMs have been taken into account.
249 MPs were new to Parliament in the 2010 election (an unusually high number, in part due to many retirements) or have joined through by-elections since then. As only two EDMs have referred to the Parthenon Marbles since 2010, results skew in favour of those MPs who have been in parliament for longer.
Of the parties with more than ten MPs, the highest level of support is from the Lib Dems, at 46%. Labour is next at 23%. Finally, there are the Conservatives with 2%.
Of the smaller parties (where results may hold less accuracy), the SNP has support at 33%, with 2 out of 6 MPs. The SDLP both show 60% support with 2 out of 3 MPs. Plaid Cymru has 100% support with 3 MPs Respect show support of 100%, but only has a single MP.
There have also been some anti-restitution EDMs tabled – generally in direct response to the pro-restitution EDMs that the above results are based on. Of these, the only signatories are from the Conservatives, with 20 MPs indicating that 7% of their MPs have specifically stated that they are against reunification of the sculptures.
As these results do not go against what my more recent survey showed, I will deal with the conclusions of both sets of results together.
Survey 2 – Twitter survey of PPCs
As mentioned before, there are a number of potential flaws to this study.
- There is an election on – as a result, many PPCs have other things on their mind as well as answering questions on twitter, so well thought out responses would not necessarily be forthcoming. Results may skew towards those who have more time available, which is likely to mean those who are not part of the incumbent government.
- Some MPs have a twitter account purely as a PR tool, which in managed for them by their office staff on an occasional basis.
- The results as a whole will skew towards those MPs who are on twitter – something that I would imagine ties to a younger demographic, although as more and more expand their online presence, this becomes less of an issue.
- Perhaps most importantly, when related to the results of the first survey, my findings from the twitter poll suggest that those who are against the return of the sculptures are less likely to reply than those who are.
I messaged 1174 PPCs who were on Twitter. From this, I received 138 responses – a reply rate of approximately 12%.
351 of those contacted had been MPs during the previous Parliament, (equating to 54% of the 650 constituencies) so there was a good representation amongst those asked of both current MPs and potential new ones (particularly when one bears in mind that 89 from the last Parliament are retiring of have been deselected – bringing the number of incumbents asked to 63% of those who are standing again).
The candidates selected were based on various lists of twitter contact details I came across, so were somewhat random in their nature, involving a selection of all the parties expected to win seats in Mainland UK. None of the Northern Irish Parties were represented by this list.
With the exception of SNP members, all others came from a single list of Twitter handles that I located, so the balance of parties comes from there. It is skewed a bit heavily in favour of Labour, but all parties are represented by enough members to constitute a reasonable sample size.
The question I asked initially in my tweets was:
In run up to election, was wondering what your views are on Parthenon Marbles return? Many voters feel strongly about it
After I had sent out the first 200 or so messages, a number of people queried the use of the term “many people”. I still stand by my use of it – perhaps not as a percentage of those in the UK it is not many, but worldwide, we are talking of numbers in terms of millions.
To avoid getting side-tracked by queries and to tie the question more closely to current events, for the remainder of those questioned, I asked:
In election run up, was wondering what your views are on Parthenon Marbles return? & of UK rejection of UNESCO mediation
It rapidly became clear once I started getting answers that a simple yes or no was not going to cover everything.
Many people added more detail to qualify their answer; I will cover some of the key points from this later.
Quite a few of the answers were not yes or no, or even maybe. I created a separate category for cases where their intent was completely unclear. It also includes those who only reply to queries from those in their constituency.
Others were undecided, so fell into the maybe category.
Finally, a surprising number (enough to create a category of its own) stated that either that they had no answer or did not have the time to consider it, because they did not see the subject as being an issue. No constituents had ever asked about it in their years of campaigning, or they did not have the time to think about it.
The results of this survey are shown below:
Views of PPCs from different parties on whether the Parthenon Marbles should be returned - May 2015
There was quite a lot of data to digest there, but it can be made simpler if those from the maybe, unclear and unimportant categories are ignored. It seems safe to assume that if it came to a vote, these people would be likely to at the very least follow a 50 / 50 split, or to follow the split of opinions of those in their party who have already made their views known, meaning that the overall trend in the results should still be relatively similar.
As you can see from this table, the results are fairly clear cut. With the exception of the Conservatives, in all other parties the clear majority of respondents support return of the Parthenon Sculptures – in most cases by a massive amount.
UKIP is perhaps the most erratic in their responses, with no definite trend. As with most of the other parties, there is no set party policy on the issue, but in their case, members seem more divided on whether or not they want the sculptures returned.
What is interesting is to interpolate these results to match the actual breakdown of the MPs in parliament. The breakdown of each of the parties questioned is taken as a percentage of their number of seats multiplied by their percentage of yes votes. Other parties not covered by my survey are included as zero support, although we already know from the first part of this study, that Respect (with a single MP) supports the return of the Marbles. The total number of MPs used for calculating the percentages is 650 minus the speaker (who does not vote) and minus the 5 Sinn Féin MPs (who do not take their seats in Parliament) Giving a total of 644 voting MPs. This same methodology (in terms of voting and non-voting members) is used to calculate how many seats are required for a majority in Parliament.
Interpolated outcome for a hypothetical vote in the final session of the previous parliament (2014-2015) based on a Twitter survey of PPCs - May 2015
|Party||MPs||As %||Yes %||Aggregate|
Not all parties are included in this survey and it relies on a lot of assumptions, but based on the information available, it still represents a surprising outcome, that even with the Conservatives forming the largest block in Parliament (albeit not an overall majority), 62% would support return of the Marbles. This result is notable, as it indicates that support for the issue amongst members might well be higher than the party leaders acknowledge. Bear in mind though that this result, excludes those who are undecided or gave unclear answers, on the assumption that their decision would either match that of others in their party, or not be enough to alter the overall balance.
Additional comments received
Various twitter responses included more detail in addition to the yes / no answer, and from this a number of themes emerged.
From those in support of the return of the Marbles:
- A solution mediated by a third party (e.g. UNESCO) would be the most sensible way of overseeing a fair outcome.
- While Parliament can take a view on the Parthenon Marbles, it is important that they also respect the independence of the British Museum.
- The Loan to the Hermitage in St Petersburg of one of the Parthenon Sculptures weakened the British Museum’s position, both because a loan was made of one of the sculptures and because of the fact that the loan was made to a country with which Britain is not on good terms with at present.
- That the basis for a return agreement could be the previous offers made by Greece (when Venizelos was Culture Minister) for some form of reciprocal loan of new artefacts to display in place of the Marbles.
- The importance of context was seen – that the Marbles were intended to be displayed in a certain place and under Greek light – something that can never be replicated in London.
- That the New Acropolis Museum strengthens Greece’s argument.
- That the UK could keep copies of the sculptures if the originals were returned.
- PC PPCs raised the issue of the Mold Cape as one that they see as having parallels to the Marbles, but is relevant to them.
- That the Marbles are a part of world heritage and as a result are best located in the country where they were created.
- That they had concerns over whether other artefacts would have to be handed back too if the Marbles returned.
Out of those that opposed the return of the sculptures, arguments raised justifying retention included:
- The fact that the Marbles were legitimately purchased by Lord Elgin.
- That Greece has greater problems to deal with at present.
- That they are “happy with them where they are at the moment”.
- That if Elgin had not taken them then they would have been destroyed.
- That Greece would just sell them if they were returned.
- That they are safer in the British Museum.
This analysis is not the place to try and refute these assertions, but many of these statements are factually incorrect and other articles on this website have already explained this in more detail.
Others suggest that some MPs do not really see the return of the Marbles as an issue.
Finally, I was surprised to hear from some that despite the recent loan to Russia, the presence of Amal Clooney in Athens and previous comments by both George Clooney and Stephen Fry, some said that they had never heard of the case.
At the level of which parties support or are against the return of the Marbles, both surveys present broadly similar results. Although the level of support indicated varies (in part due to the very different methods used in each survey), the indication is that there is support from all the major parties, with the exception of the Conservatives and possibly UKIP.
Because of the nature of both surveys, it is hard to translate the survey results to an exact level of support, although my attempts show that it may well be high enough that a majority in Parliament would be in favour of their return if an un-whipped vote was taken. Factors to consider are whether those who do not reply / do not respond to EDMs do so because they are against the issue, or because they do not have the time, or any one of many other possible reasons.
One thing that surprised me was the numbers that did not see is as an issue of importance. I put this largely down to a lack of understanding of how the other side might feel – while it is easy to be in Britain and happy with the current situation, or uncaring about it, it is harder to take this point of view if you consider how those on the other side of the argument (in this case, the citizens of Greece) feel about the situation. While we might have concerns here about the transport system or the NHS, return of the Marbles is something that relatively easily rights a historical wrong, and at the same time would show that Britain had moved on from an imperialistic viewpoint and increase our standing internationally.
The issue of understanding the other side of the argument is perhaps what produces the high level of support from Plaid Cymru and SNP PPCs. There are various relevant intra-national cases that affect both these areas, the most notable being the Mold Cape and the Lewis Chessmen, which allow them to far more easily understand how another country in a similar situation might feel than for many British MPs who are more comfortable with the status quo.
While there were some inaccuracies in the understanding of the situation by those who supported return, it was clear from the responses that the amount of misinformation within the retentionist camp is far higher. This highlights that education is key to resolving the issue – many are against restitution in large part only because their understanding of the situation is built on factual inaccuracies. No inaccuracy in the media should go unchallenged, but at the same time spurious arguments that might weaken the reunification cause should be dropped.
In a separate message endorsing the cause that I received from a former Tory councillor, I queried that his opinion was at odds with the majority in his party who I spoke to and whether there was a reason for this. He suggested that a major reason was that many people did not know the history of the case well enough.
So, to sum up, anything other than a Conservative Majority on May 7th 2015 will increase the chances for the return of the Marbles. Once the election is over, I will re-visit this Analysis, both in terms of how the breakdown of parties has changed, and in terms of how many of those questioned have become MPs both within the new Parliament and within the Government.
As a closing comment, one of the PC PPCs who I spoke to noted that: “Finders keepers should be remain a playground chant & not form part of government policy.”
Perhaps this is the simplest summary of the reasons for return of the sculptures.
Key to abbreviations used
APNI – Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
Con – Conservative
DUP – Democratic Unionist Party
Lab – Labour
LD – Liberal Democrat
PC – Plaid Cymru
SDLP – Social Democratic and Labour Party
SNP – Scottish National Party
UKIP – UK Independence Party
PPC – Prospective Parliamentary Candidate
EDM – Early Day Motion