The first rule of starting a culture war is that you have to look like you believe in your cause. British politics has unusually low standards for charisma — Nigel Farage is a “personality” in politics, but not, it turns out, when you put him among actual celebrities on a reality TV show. But still, someone like Farage could pull off a tantrum over the Elgin Marbles. Sunak can’t. And this, in part, is because you don’t believe he believes what he is saying.
He’s just not convincing in the part. It is something to do with the persona on which he rose to power: the public responded to this sensible technocrat, who would at least not make the splashy errors of his predecessors. When Sunak started criticising “lefty lawyers” and talking about the need to make “radical decisions” in line with “common sense”, observers tended to assume this wasn’t the real him. The act reached pantomime levels this week when Sunak abruptly cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister — prompting various colourful responses from the Greek side.
Rishi Sunak’s instincts seem off — if this culture war is welcome it is among a minority. His views look old fashioned.
“This is unheard of. It is a massive diplomatic indiscretion. Even Israel and Hamas communicate,” said foreign minister Giorgos Gerapetritis. Sunak then doubled down on the decision when criticised by Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions. “No-one will be surprised,” he said, “that he is backing an EU country over Britain.”
But what does Britain think? The second rule of starting a culture war is that you need to strike a chord with people. But successive YouGov polls show a majority of Brits want to see the artefacts sent back to Greece — while a sizable number don’t care about them at all. And here’s how one focus group of 2019 Tory voters responded to the stand-off when asked by think tank More in Common this week. One called it “First-World problems” during an NHS crisis, another suggested it was a calculated “distraction”.
Sunak’s instincts seem off — if this culture war is welcome it is among a minority. His views look old fashioned. The move was miscalculated twice over, in fact three times. It will also make life considerably harder for the institution Sunak is supposedly standing up for — the British Museum itself.
The museum has a different approach to its Britishness than the kind Sunak advocates, a more culturally open one. In this it reflects the public, among which it fears losing sympathy and support. Views about the legitimacy of some of the objects it keeps have undergone a shift. Rather than simply defend its collections, the museum must now reconcile mission statements about promoting understanding between nations with demands to send back its treasures. It’s a tightrope act, involving exquisite hypocrisies. Sunak’s intervention undermines it.
This would not always have been the case. In 1983, then director David Wilson claimed it would be “cultural fascism” to send the marbles back to Greece. Taking apart the museum’s collection, he wrote “would make the politicisation of art in the 1930s in Germany look like a petulant child’s destruction of its dinner”. But the public mood changed. Subsequent directors could not be as blunt. Neil MacGregor argued that contested objects were in fact hard at work in the museum, preventing social conflict in the first place. Those who visit the museum, he said, "will see that there are many good ways of organising the world". They would come to view “truth as a living, changing thing, constantly remade as hierarchies are subverted, new information comes, and new understandings of societies emerge. Such emerging truth, it was believed, would result in greater tolerance of others and of difference itself”.
But this sort of obfuscation no longer works. It was once feared that making deals on its most controversial objects would endanger the rest of the collection. Now it looks like the opposite is true: unless the museum moves to placate its fiercest critics, it risks losing the support of its visitors altogether. As a result the museum has now decided to face the problem head on, admitting the controversy, and advocating for a long loan of the marbles. In this it shows a firmer grasp of public mood than the Prime Minister.
Martha Gill is a columnist