A group of 18 US congressmen have issued an open letter, demanding that Britain return the Elgin Marbles to Greece on pain of losing any hope of a trade deal. The letter is enunciated in a language reminiscent of notes starting with the words “if you ever want to see your children again…”
Evidently Brexit offers exciting possibilities not only for global trade, but also for blackmail – with Britain on the receiving end.
That Americans are cast in the role of blackmailers adds an interesting twist to the very notion of the ‘special relationship’. Some US legislators can’t seem to be able to get their heads around the fact that Britain is a sovereign country entitled to conduct her affairs as she sees fit.
This doesn’t make us off limits for criticism, legitimate or otherwise. But neither is Britain a weedy nerd to be pushed around by a schoolyard bully.
It’s clear that we need a trade deal with the US, and presumably vice versa. But trade deals are just that, mutually beneficial arrangements for exchanging goods and services. They shouldn’t be used as levers of political influence.
Under normal circumstances, that is. No international relations, including trade, ought to exclude a moral aspect altogether. Sanctions and embargos imposed on evil states are perfectly justified, if seldom effective.
However, I doubt that many Americans see Britain as one such state, for all her demonstrable failings. Therefore making trade contingent on our compliance with an unfair and historically ignorant demand, especially when accompanied by veiled threats, is nothing but unvarnished blackmail.
The group of congressional blackmailers came from both parties, and it’s nice to see a cross-party consensus on at least one issue, if no other. The tone of their letter is menacing:
“We remain appreciative of your efforts and good will in support of the historic special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, and look forward to strengthening that relationship through the accomplishment of matters such as this.” In other words, do as we say – or else.
I’ve been unable to obtain the list of the 18 signatories, but I suspect many of them must be of Greek origin and hence subjects to an intricate lattice of loyalties typical of Americans. One doubts the cohesion of a nation, where so many people retain not only a cultural interest in the land of their distant ancestors, but also tribal and political sympathies – but that’s beyond my scope here.
I’m surprised Turkish Americans haven’t yet demanded that the Elgin Marbles be returned to Turkey. After all, at the time Lord Elgin removed them, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.
But for Lord Elgin, the Marbles wouldn’t exist: the Turks were burning them to obtain lime for construction purposes, and some priceless sculptures were irretrievably lost. Elgin, ambassador to the Ottomans at the time, managed to save the Marbles and transport them to London at a staggering personal cost, £70,000 (at a time when £500 a year was seen as an enviable income).
This issue has always attracted rebels in search of a cause. One such possessor of a flaming social conscience is George Clooney, who a few years ago demonstrated his cultural credentials by saying that “Even in England the polling is in favour of returning the marbles to the Pantheon.”
Which Pantheon, George? The one in Paris or the one in Rome? Oh hell, Pantheon, Parthenon, who cares as long as your heart’s in the right place (even if your brain isn’t). And a current poll shows that 64 per cent of Britons want to keep the Marbles, mainly, I suspect, because Britons tend to close ranks in the face of blackmailers.
Both sides to the debate make obtuse legal arguments, and I’m not qualified to act as a referee. I do know, however, that Britain should be at the bottom of the queue when it comes to returning art to previous owners.
The collection of the Parthenon (Pantheon?) Marbles at the British Museum wasn’t looted, which is more than one can say for the collections of some European museums, such as the Louvre.
Many of its treasures were stolen during Napoleon’s campaigns, yet nobody raises a hue and cry about it. And even some masterpieces in American museums were looted by the Nazis from Jewish families before eventually crossing the ocean.
US legislators try to blackmail Britain on other issues as well. Some of them are deeply concerned about HMG’s intransigence in its negotiations with the EU. That concern is also expressed by dangling a trade deal over our heads like the sword of Damocles.
It’s touching to see how selflessly those chaps devote so much of their valuable time to pondering issues that are none of their business. This, at a time when their own country is rent asunder by race riots threatening to engulf the whole country in flames, and when America is running up a Covid death toll much higher than ours, both absolutely and relatively.
All that is accompanied by bows towards the ‘special relationship’, understood as one between a wirepuller and his dummy. That’s exactly what it has been ever since the US threw its massive weight behind the task of dismantling the British Empire.
During the war, which Americans insist they won for us, the country’s real special relationship was with Stalin’s Russia, not Britain. Though the former entered the war as Hitler’s ally, Stalin got US lend-lease aid for free, whereas Britain had to beggar herself trying to pay for it. In fact, it was only in 2006 when the debt was finally settled.
My avuncular advice to US congressmen: chaps, leave Britain alone and mind your own business, which is far from being good. If you think you can profit from a trade deal, we’ll be happy to sign it. Otherwise you can flog your chlorinated chickens elsewhere.