In the British elections of December 2019, Jeremy Corbyn was Greece’s “only hope” for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. At least that is how the internationally renowned Australian-British barrister Geoffrey Robertson put it shortly before the elections, recalling the then Labour leader’s commitment (made in an exclusive interview with TA NEA a year earlier) to return Phidias’ masterpieces to the land of their birth, if he became prime minister. What happened next is common knowledge: Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935, Corbyn was deposed and his place taken by a knight, Sir Keir Starmer, who, unlike his predecessor, will—barring a shock result—succeed in installing himself in Downing Street come early July.

Will the unconscionable division of the Parthenon Marbles finally end during his term as prime minister? The short answer is: nobody knows. Last week, Britain’s international isolation could not have been clearer, when Turkey made the strategic choice to assert to UNESCO that there never was a firman giving Lord Elgin permission to hack the sculptures off the Temple of Athena. In a statement to TA NEA, a spokesman for the British Museum insisted on the familiar British narrative that “everything was done legally”—a line from which the Labour government is unlikely to deviate. However, the stance taken by the party leadership both publicly and in private certainly provides room for optimism. “With public opinion behind us and the political will, I believe the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to where they belong, which is Athens, is finally close at hand,” Ben Bradshaw, former Secretary of State for Culture, Labour MP and member of the Parthenon Project, told TA NEA. “The climate has changed in recent years. The majority of Britons now believe, clearly and firmly, that the time has come for the Marbles’ return. A positive and realistic solution for their reunification would have beneficial consequences for both Greece and Britain,” noted Bradshaw, who headed the UK’s Ministry of Culture until 2010, when Labour lost to the Tories.

Last November, a few days before Mitsotakis’ tête-à-tête with Starmer in London and the fiasco of Rishi Sunak cancelling his meeting with the Greek Prime Minister, TA NEA revealed that the Labour leader was “favorably disposed” to the possibility of the Parthenon Marbles being returned, having signaled to colleagues that he will not step in to prevent it if Greece and the British Museum can reach an agreement.

Starmer has made it clear that his government does not intend to change the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits the institution from disposing of items from its collection.

However, he appears willing “to be flexible.” What might this mean in practice? First, that he may seek an alternative route, such as those provided by Articles 15 and 16 of the Charities Act 2022 (which is currently suspended by the Sunak government), allowing antiquities to be returned if there is a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Second, that he would not block the Marbles’ return, if the Museum can “come to an agreement” with Greece–something Sunak’s current Under-Secretary of State for the Arts, Lord Parkinson, implied he would, by threatening not to grant the export permit required for their transfer to Athens. Last Saturday, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Culture, Thangam Debbonaire, who is likely to hold the same portfolio in the Starmer Cabinet, confirmed that she would not oppose the repatriation of the masterpieces of classical antiquity: “That is up to the British Museum. They will decide what to do with their artifacts. We are not going to get in the way of the brilliant work they do investigating and discussing their history.”

A channel of communication over Parthenon Marbles

A well-informed British source stressed that “senior Labour officials have been opening up channels of communication for months now with both the British Museum and the Greek government to find a solution that is agreeable to both sides,” The talks between the Chair of the Museum, George Osborne, and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, assisted by his Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis (which were revealed by TA NEA in December 2022), are said to center on negotiating what is, in essence, a “loan”.

The critical difference is that they are seeking a legal formula by which Athens will not be required to recognize the “British ownership” of the sculptures. “I am not asking Greece to surrender its claims,” the head man at the Museum has said. If such an agreement is implemented, there will be the option—a Greek source says—” for the ‘loan’ to be, shall we say, permanently renewed.

In the fullness of time, we of course hope the British government can be persuaded to amend the legislation. Our goal is for the sculptures to never have to leave Athens again and return to London.” The proposed deal is this: that some of the Parthenon Marbles are returned to Athens for a period of 10 or 15 years, with the possibility of renewal.

And that, in return, Greece will lend the British Museum other ancient Greek artifacts. According to the same sources, we shouldn’t expect to see any “white smoke” immediately, and certainly “not in the first months of the Starmer government”.