No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The title of this post is correct. There is currently a Bill before the UK Parliament to return the Elgin Marbles (aka the Parthenon Marbles) to Greece. It received its first reading in the House of Commons on Monday, 11th July, and is scheduled for a second reading on 20th January 2017. It is, however, a private member’s bill, proposed by Mark Williams (a Liberal Democrat MP), and it is true that these sorts of bills have a tendency of falling flat in comparison with government-sponsored enactments.
Still, by presenting actual legislative language calling for the ‘transfer of ownership and return to Greece’ of the artefacts purchased by Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816, this is a step beyond the motion presented to Parliament in 2015 by another Liberal Democrat MP, Andrew George. The current Bill has been supported by a number of Parliamentarians (from the Labour party and the Scottish/Welsh nationalist parties), who are listed within the text itself. Of course, in order to achieve the goal of returning the items to Greece, the Bill makes clear that the British Museum Act 1963, which prevents any disposal of objects in the Museum’s collection, would have to be amended: exceptions would be carved out of sections 5 (disposal of objects) and 9 (transfer to other institutions) of that Act in relation to these particular artefacts.
The choice of deciding what is to constitute the ‘collection’ being transferred to Greece will ultimately reside with the Secretary of State, who will make a decision only after consulting the Trustees of the British Museum, representatives of Greece and any other appropriate body. And before any transfer can occur, there must be an agreement in place between the UK and Greek governments that covers issues of transportation, maintenance and future access to the works. It’s an interesting development, even if the text itself appears a little thin. There are likely many more elements that would need to be taken into account prior to such a move happening, and these could of course be added into the Bill during its passage through Parliament. But perhaps this is a good start.
The question now is whether the mainstream in the House of Commons, or indeed the mainstream of public opinion, will support it. I wouldn’t hold my breath…