The British Museum alone decided to lend part of the Elgin Marbles to Putin, says Boris in today’s Daily Telegraph. The government was nothing to do with this glorious,slightly balmy decision, it was nothing to do with fiendish diplomacy,and that is what makes this country great.
He begins: “The other day, I saw at close hand the bravery and professionalism of a Malaysia Airlines cabin crew as they grappled with a passenger who was being, to say the least, exceedingly difficult; and as I observed them – calm, patient, decent – I could not help thinking back five months, to that other Malaysia Airlines crew, aboard an identical airliner and flying a virtually identical route.
The crew of MH17 had no time to show their courage, or to follow the correct procedures. They had only a split-second of horror. You think of the momentary fear of those 298 passengers and crew as the Russian-made Buk missile exploded outside, shredding the fuselage of the plane. You try to imagine what it must have been like as the machine broke up in the air and they made their descent to the fields of wheat, thousands of feet below; and then you recall that in all this time we have still had no word of apology from Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin, for the actions of those Russian-funded and Russian-armed separatists. Not a flicker of contrition has passed across the waxy and impassive features of the Russian leader. All we have had is the insulting suggestion that the missile was actually fired by the Ukrainians, and, indeed, that it was an assassination attempt on Putin himself.
In the face of such brutality and marmoreal indifference, you have to wonder how on earth we can persuade the Russians to accept responsibility; and you have to wonder – or at least I do – whether any of these considerations passed through the heads of the trustees of the British Museum when they agreed to send one of our greatest national treasures outside this country for the first time in two centuries – and to send that priceless artefact, of all possible destinations, to the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
As decisions go, it looks, on the face of it, utterly chaotic. It looks as though the right hand and left hand of government are in complete ignorance of each other’s existence. Russia has invaded and annexed part of the territory of another sovereign European state. Britain and other EU countries have imposed sanctions. There are bans on the export of oil and gas technology. About 130 Russians are on a blacklist, and may not travel to this country. Russia has responded with a ban on foodstuffs from the EU.
As so often, the sanctions are doing neither side much good: the collapse of the oil price is hurting Russia; the collapse of the rouble is hurting some remaining British exports to Russia, for instance luxury cars. People are talking about a new Cold War, but it is all said to be worth it – because we are allegedly “putting pressure” on Putin.
Well, perhaps we are; and we must all hope that there is a sensible solution in the Ukraine. But how exactly does it constitute “putting pressure” on Putin to send him a masterpiece of Phidian sculpture? The British Museum is one of the very greatest in the world (if not the greatest, as I am sure its director, Neil MacGregor, would attest). The Duveen Galleries are the holy of holies, the innermost shrine of that cultural temple; and the river god Ilissus is one of the most fluid and extraordinary pieces of 5th-century Athenian sculpture.
Why send it abroad now? Why to Russia? Why Putin? The French have just decided not to send the Russians the warships they have built for them; and here we are, despatching a portion of the Elgin Marbles. It is hard, on the face of it, to see why there should be one rule for oil and gas companies, which are private businesses, and one for a museum that receives – rightly – substantial support from the taxpayer. If you were Putin, you might feel that this was a decidedly friendly gesture from the British Government – a calculated thawing in relations, an olive branch.
And there, I think, Putin would be completely wrong. I don’t believe for a minute that the Government plotted to send Ilissus to Russia. This is not an act of state; this is not some serpentine piece of British diplomacy, a surreptitious little bit of détente. This is what it looks like – a moderate shambles, in which the trustees of a national museum have taken a decision, at the urging of their flamboyant and enterprising director, which simply does not cohere with British foreign policy. And the decision, therefore, is all the more glorious – and all the more correct.
The idea of sending a piece of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage did not need to be cleared by government. The British Museum did not obtain prior government approval – and in that simple fact you have the difference between Britain and so many other countries on earth, and especially Russia. This is not a tyranny. We do not have power located in one place. We have and we protect an idea of cultural, artistic and intellectual freedom – and that is of immense economic value to this country.
We have more live-music venues in London than any other city on earth; we have twice as many theatres as Paris, and we will soon produce more TV and feature films than New York or even Los Angeles. One of the reasons for that global success is that politicians, by and large, do not interfere – except to encourage.
Can you imagine any other country where a national museum could take such a politically charged decision, without government knowledge and acquiescence? Greece? France? Russia? Don’t make me laugh. That is why good old George Clooney is so wrong in his plan to restore the marbles to the “Pantheon”, as he puts it (I think even M Vipsanius Agrippa would have had some trouble with that project, since the Pantheon is the wrong temple, in the wrong city, with the wrong architectural order).”
Boris concludes:”That is why it is entirely fitting that the owl of Pallas should still haunt the squares of Bloomsbury. It is the British Museum’s freedom to loan Ilissus to Russia – even in this wretched period – that shows exactly why the Elgin Marbles belong and shall remain in London.”