Stephen Fry is wrong

Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles.
Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The BBC runs a recurring programme called the Intelligence Squared debate. The topic for this particular edition was, ‘this house asserts the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece.’

The Parthenon or Elgin Marbles are friezes taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early eighteen hundreds, after purchasing them from the Ottoman Empire. At the time, Greece was a vassal province of the Ottomans. Elgin saved the marbles from target practice, being ground up for lime, and repurposing as building material. These particular examples reside in the British Museum, one of the three great Museums of the world. There are other examples elsewhere.

Over the past thirty years or so the Greeks have, to varying degrees, demanded and requested the return of the marbles. They have never sought legal action to draw these artefacts from the halls of the British Museum. No court has ruled against British interests in this matter. Ownership has, both in terms of evidentiary proof and preservationist effort, been established as lying with the British Museum.

The arguments for the motion mostly revolve around the promise that a follow on effect of demands from other nations would not occur. Other treasures in the British Museum would not be subject to the call for the return of purported antiquities by nations represented in the Museum.

Mister Fry hung his argument on ‘how classy it would be’ if the Elgin Marbles were returned to Greece. He further embellished his view by comparing the purchase of the Marbles from the Ottoman Empire as to a deal done with Nazis. Really Mister Fry, are you wholly shameless in this politically correct desire to see all rights and wrongs past, set to level on a scale of your own making? ‘Classy’ what exactly is that? It is populist drivel. Yes, it elicits a cheer from the dewy eyed who see former empire as a reason for shame; but, in reality it is hardly a valid viewpoint and certainly insufficient foundation upon which to base both legal and educational policy. Moreover, Mr Fry’s selective view that this only applies to the ‘Marbles’ because ownership is clear (in his mind at least) is ridiculous. Another example brought up in the debate referred to the Rosetta Stone – ‘no one knows who owns that’, proclaims Mister Fry. It was Egyptian, taken by the French and similarly wrested from them by the British. All objects in Museums had ownership at one time or another. Sir, if we are to apply your ‘classy’ logic equally and freely, the halls of every museum would be emptied by the petty desires of local politicians. In their yearning to embellish their own positions by pointing to recovered treasures they, have neither the ability to appreciate or properly care for, they would with the satisfaction of having law on their side, repatriate carefully maintained history to internment as tourist kitsch and devices of political self aggrandisement.

That ancient Greek civilization is the seat of democracy and that Britain likewise the seat of modern democracy, has nothing whatever to do with the Marbles – the assertion there is a debt owed by Britain for this noble example is flawed. Moreover, Mister Fry paints a picture, falsely; that the taking the Marbles is analogous to Britain taking your neighbour’s treasures while his house is on fire, for safe keeping, then refusing to return them upon the departure of the Fire Brigade. No Mister Fry. Britain did not renege on any such arrangement. Regardless of the revisionist history being lofted as the cruel machinations of Lord Elgin, the Greeks were in no position to, nor did they behave in a manner that suggested, they sought to preserve their historic treasures. Centuries of neglect preceded Elgin and no tradition of preservation existed. Elgin saved the Marbles. They are rightly maintained and protected by the British Museum.

Stephen Fry’s pitch however suits the time. There is a strange tendency amongst some to want all to do penance for the past. The British Empire was a cruel and barbarous agency and acts committed by it should be addressed, nay compensated for by today’s government. Pardon? While I would decry certain behaviours of the past as no less cruel and inhumane than those perpetrated today by the likes of Syrian politicians, I would not seek out the resulting progeny of the Iroquois who were provided with Small-pox ridden blankets to dole out millions in compensation any more than such a claim would hold validity in a court. Our lesson from these behaviours is prevention and we have no guilt to bear lest we permit the reoccurrence of such atrocities.

Stephen Fry is wrong, to return the Marbles will set a policy and legal precedent that will see the Machiavellian efforts of tin-pot dictators and local politicos trump sensibility and obtain the return of artefacts preserved with care for decades. Mr. Fry and his followers fail to recognise the understanding garnered from these efforts, the otherwise impenetrable barriers lifted due to this gathering and study. It is folly to return the Marbles or any other artefacts to boost Greek tourism or prestige. The former will not save Greece its debt and the latter will not be restored by displaying stones from a temple long left to rot by the predecessors of those who now claim their value.

I have a great deal of respect for Mister Fry. He is clever in the best sense of the word. In this matter however he has been short sighted, succumbing to a populism that frankly should be a serious concern for all. It is a failing to condemn the past in lieu of establishing the preventions needed for the future. Populism encourages this self-flagellation. It is unhealthy. Surrendering our protections of antiquities for the sake of populism and political correctness is wrong and must be stopped.

The result of the debate – For the motion a significant win! – Populism wins over common sense. Mister Fry tweeted – ‘Justice for Greece’. Hogwash, more grease for the populist wheel.

Kind regards,