Saturday 2 December 2023

Ending the silliness


Most of us would understand that if we buy a television from a person who previously stole it from the house next door it doesn’t suddenly cease to be stolen, and nor does it become ours, even if we get a proper paper receipt from the thief. Once stolen, always stolen; and it remains, legally, the property of the original owner. And receiving stolen goods is an offence in its own right. As a general rule, that is the viewpoint of the UK government – except, apparently, when it comes to cultural treasures, in which case possession becomes nine-tenths of the law. There isn’t really much doubt that the Parthenon marbles held in the British Museum were looted from Athens by Lord Elgin, and arguing – as the British government does – that he took them with the consent of the Ottoman rulers at the time rather overlooks the fact that the Ottomans had simply helped themselves to the whole of Greece in the first place. The subsequent sale to the British Museum, covered as it is by a proper paper receipt, doesn’t make the original theft go away.

Sunak claims that the issue is “long-settled”, and the Greeks should stop raising the issue. It seems to me that for a dispute between two parties to arrive at the status of ‘settled’, one of two things has to happen: either both parties agree that it is settled, or else some mutually-agreed outside body, court, or mediator makes a judgement. In the case of the marbles, the Greek government has never agreed that the issue is settled, and the UK government has refused all offers of mediation and dispute resolution – presumably because it recognises that it would lose. A unilateral declaration that the issue is ‘settled’, of the type made by Sunak, is a product of magical thinking of the sort at which English exceptionalists excel.

They do, of course, have an act of parliament to back up their refusal to consider repatriation of the looted materials. But the belief that a law passed by the English parliament prohibiting the British Museum from ever disposing of any of its treasures, howsoever they were acquired, will somehow stand up in any international court is as silly as believing that an act of parliament can make an unsafe country safe. (It’s also inconsistent with the core principle of the English constitution that no parliament can ever bind its successors, but consistency isn’t exactly a strong point of the current government.) It is, though, the sort of silliness that flows inevitably from an unshakeable belief that the English parliament, uniquely on the whole planet, has absolute sovereignty and can pass any law it wishes, as well as ignoring any international treaty or body that it chooses, because that sovereignty was bestowed by God in person on the monarch. It is also the sort of silliness which transcends any change of government, and to which all previous governments have fallen prey, and we have seen from Starmer’s response to Sunak’s approach that the next government will be no different.

A change of government is never going to be enough to stop the silliness; the whole system and structures of government also need to be changed. A written constitution recognising that sovereignty belongs to the people not the monarch would be a good start, closing down unelected law-making institutions would be another, and an electoral system which didn’t put absolute power into the hands of a extremist fringe on the basis of a minority of the votes would be a good third step. (And banning the alumni of certain schools, which seem to actively promote magical thinking, from ever standing for election or holding any positions of power might help as a stop-gap until the bigger issues could be addressed.) None of this will we get from Labour. Yet all of it is available any time that we take the decision to do things ourselves. We really don’t have to allow ourselves to be dragged along by the silliness.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Final two sentences provide the answer/escape route.

dafis said...

First of all, welcome back. I don't know whether you were unwell or just away in the desert busy "thinking" even more deeply about our present predicament. Have you figured out how some people seem to want to dig even more deeply into the hole in some perverse hope that you can get out through the bottom of a hole ! The Marbles were looted like so much of the UK Anglo Brit "treasure trove"I'm sure that if Rishi's Indian uncle came claiming some baubles the P.M would get a hernia heaving the cart full of goodies down to the freight terminal. Man is a feckin' lightweight along with the rest of the Party leaders and "influencers". They have hardly struck a decent blow in years - buggered up Brexit ( no planning) cocked up Covid ( driven by greed and ignorance) drove a final set of nails into an ailing economy ( Truss' expensive few weeks) immigration off the rails ( not just Suella) and more if you care to engage in long lists. It's a low bar for Starmer but has he the guts to get stuck into some of the stuff that needs hitting from the outset ? I had hopes for Wales to go off on its own but our Bay Regime is hardly inspiring either.