Have the Greeks lost their marbles (again)?

Selling off Greek state property is a desperate measure that isn't going to meet debtor's demands or solve the country's terrible problems


At the beginning of the 1970s, the British government owned the travel agent Thomas Cook and all the pubs in Carlisle. It still owns an ancient aqueduct in Rome, the Tobermory garage, and Pauline Bonaparte’s palace in Paris. Oh, and, among 10,000 other works of art, a photograph by Ryan Gander entitled A Very BIG Bean I thought to myself, currently hanging in the Ministry of Justice.

What governments possess is naturally going to come to mind when a country finds itself on its uppers. Like one of those daytime shows where contestants are invited to hawk their dusty gewgaws to the auction house, governments in dire need are going to start thinking this: do we need this or that island? Why do we have that very expensive house? What are we doing, spending money on a rail network when we could sell it to the Chinese?

The latest and most urgent of these sell-offs is currently proceeding in Greece. No one can say they don’t need the money. Their debt was 165.3 per cent of nominal gross domestic product in 2011, reduced through restructuring to a mere 132.4 per cent of GDP in the first quarter of 2012. No wonder they are casting round, and wondering what they possess, and what could be sold off to rich foreigners. There might be a game show here – a not very amusing one, if you happen to be Greek. The name of the game show is “Cash in the Attic”.

There’s a Holland Park townhouse for sale, among a lot more consular property, and the royal palace of Tatoi in Greece. There’s an office block in Brussels, and 8,000sq m of land in Cyprus. Only €1.8bn has been raised until now through a required asset sales programme. That sounds like quite a lot, but Greece is committed to realise €50bn from state assets by 2020. The requirement was tied to foreign aid of €240bn over the past two years.

The selling off of state property is not a new thing, or necessarily a particularly radical one any longer. But successful sell-offs in the past have been driven not by need, but by principle: recent sales, indeed, have had a doubtful result for the public purse. The privatised railways in the UK cost more to the taxpayer now than the nationalised ones did. The apparently massive windfall of the 3G spectrum auction, raising €22.5bn in 2000, had a damaging effect on the industry, and the crash had its own implications for the public purse. Sell-offs in search of money are permanent, and the money, unlike a point of principle, can prove elusive.

Still, Greece’s creditors are going to wonder why a foreign government should possess a magnificent palace in Holland Park when communications now mean that everything could be easily run from Athens, with perhaps a floor of office space in Acton. Why not sell consular property, at least? It’s true that not even the most magnificent of it will go far; it’s true that it will involve a nation in terrible humiliation. But every little helps.

Is it at all likely to meet much of the Greek debt? What happens next time round when the debt rises, and there’s no longer a townhouse in Holland Park to toss into the maw? Nobody knows. A state can’t go on selling off its haphazardly acquired property indefinitely, and should only do so calmly, out of principle, not expecting to clear its obligations through the auction house.

Ten years ago, the Greeks were demanding the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum, and many people thought they had justice on their side. Now, the demand must be dead in the water. Nobody wants to give back the Parthenon marbles, and find 10 years down the line that the creditors have insisted that they go to Sotheby’s, ultimately to adorn some magnificent private dacha near Moscow. Greek state property is a rich resource; the sale of it is a desperate measure, not repeatable, and is not going to meet anyone’s demands, or address the country’s terrible problems.

Let’s turn this shouting match into an attraction

The Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, is alleged to have shouted at police officers at the gates of Downing Street. “Open this gate, I’m the Chief Whip,” The Sun says he said. “I’m telling you – I’m the Chief Whip and I’m coming through these gates.” Outrage followed.

Well, manners in public life have become much more delicate and sensitive, but have we really reached the point where the Chief Whip cannot yell at the police? Some of the most rebarbative human beings ever to have lived have been whips. I dare say that members of the Metropolitan Police, in the past, have had the experience of being verbally abused, before they took up a tranquil existence at the Downing Street gates. Some manufactured anger was expressed on behalf of some nameless tourists, who were said to be shocked. (Perhaps they were on their first day in London.)

The only solution is to transform this unremarkable episode into a picturesque tourist experience, like the Changing of the Guard. The Chief Whip issues his traditional command: “You f—-ing stupid c——.” The policeman makes his traditional response: “You can’t talk to me like that, I don’t care if you’re the Prime Minister.” It could happen every day at 12 noon. Actually, come to think of it, it probably already does.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power