Boris Johnson ‘in final days’ should arrange return of Parthenon Marbles

The embattled Prime Minister penned an article when an Oxford student in which he urged the repatriation of the sculptures

Nick Lester
Tuesday 08 February 2022 17:50 GMT
Sections of the Parthenon Marbles (PA)
Sections of the Parthenon Marbles (PA) (PA Archive)

Boris Johnson should “in his final days before being sacked” arrange the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens as he previously advocated, Parliament has been told.

Labour peer Lord Campbell-Savours highlighted a 1986 article written by the embattled Prime Minister when he was a classics student at Oxford in which he made an impassioned plea for the ancient sculptures to be repatriated.

At the end of last year, Mr Johnson told his Greek counterpart that he understood the “strength of feeling” on the fate of the carvings, but restated that it was a matter for the British Museum.

The 17 figures were taken by the staff of British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, in the early 19th century and have been the subject of a long-running dispute.

Sections of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum (Matthew Fearn/PA) (PA Archive)

Mr Johnson has insisted they were “legally acquired” and are rightfully owned by the British Museum, while the Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis argues they were “stolen” and should be reunited with the rest of the frieze in Athens.

Speaking during a question at Westminster on the Parthenon Marbles as the Tory leader battles for his political life, Lord Campbell-Savours said: “How does the minister respond to Boris Johnson’s earlier, elegant words of wisdom when he wrote in more romantic times ‘The Elgin marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea’?

“Would it not be a generous act in his final days before being sacked to arrange for their return and we could retain replicas?”

Responding, culture minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: “Fortunately Government policy is not made by the things ministers wrote when we were undergraduates.”

Earlier, referring to the discussions on the issue with the Greek leader last November, Lord Parkinson said: “Our Prime Minister emphasised the UK’s long-standing position that this is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, who legally own the sculptures.

“The British Museum operates independently of the Government meaning decisions relating to the care and management of its collections are a matter for its trustees.

“The Government fully supports the position taken by the trustees.”

Pressing for their return, Labour peer Lord Dubs argued the marbles were “a unique piece of art” that “belong together”.

Lord Parkinson said: “The Parthenon sculptures were acquired by the late Lord Elgin legally with the consent of the then Ottoman empire. The British Museum is always happy to consider loans to museums which recognise their legal ownership of them. That is the stumbling block in this instance.”

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