IN the early days of the Scottish Parliament, I tabled not one, but two motions about the Elgin Marbles, which are a collection of sculptures removed by the 7th Earl of Elgin from the Acropolis in Athens between 1801 and 1812.

The majority of the items come from the Parthenon and consist of about 80% of the frieze produced for that temple under the direction of the architect Phideas almost two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. They are globally regarded as the most important Greek sculptures of their period and are hugely significant for that country and its culture.

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Even at the time of their removal to London, the actions of the Earl of Elgin were controversial. He claimed that not only was he protecting the sculptures which would otherwise have continued to deteriorate after being felled from their original position by a massive explosion during the sixth Ottoman-Venetian War in 1687 but that he also had permission from the Ottoman sultan to take them away.

A British parliamentary select committee inquiry eventually cleared Elgin of illegality and of misusing his position as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire but he was slated by the poet Byron and others for what was seen even at that time as close to looting.

Elgin sold the marbles to the British Museum in 1816, after the select committee had also concluded that they were of high artistic value, though he received considerably less than he claimed to have expended in obtaining them. When put on display, they were an immediate and popular sensation, breaking all records for the museum and attracting enthusiasm from, among others, Goethe, Keats and Wordsworth.

As early as 1835, however, the newly independent Greek government asked for their return and that campaign has continued ever since. It is of course now back in the headlines after the bizarre behaviour of Rishi Sunak who cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister this week seemingly because he was afraid the matter might be raised.

My first motion in June 2000 was prompted by another UK parliamentary select committee inquiry, during which the then Greek foreign minister rightly argued that the legal issues involved were secondary to the cultural and ethical arguments.

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I was struck at the time about the similarity of debate around the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in 1996, before which the absolute right of possession was often asserted by the UK despite the fact that the stone was admitted to be stolen property.

My second motion, in April 2001, praised the Greek government which had proposed a new arrangement so that the marbles could be displayed in Greece, including confirming the construction of a purpose-built museum and a rolling loan arrangement so that other material from Greece could be seen in London from time to time.

However, despite almost 200 years of representations, UK governments of all hues have steadfastly refused to budge. In that, to be fair, they have had the support of, among others, the current 11th Earl of Elgin whom I was fortunate enough to interview at his stately home, Broomhall in Fife in 2006, when writing a longer piece about the issue.

It was something of a bizarre experience, not because of his undoubted kindness, but because on the walls of the hall in which we sat there were pieces of Greek sculpture, the remnants of what the 7th Earl hadn’t sold.

The 11th Earl’s position is backed by many museum experts, all of whom are fearful that a flood of demands would denude institutions here and abroad should the UK weaken on this issue. However, the tide of history is running against them, as is seen by the repatriation of a smaller fragment of the Parthenon frieze from the Vatican Museum just this year and by examples closer to home, such as the agreement to return the “Ghost Shirt” to the Lakota people by Glasgow City Council back in 1998.

The strength of that tide is also shown by the decision of Unesco in 2021, in response to a Greek request for mediation some eight years earlier, that the UK had an obligation to return the items and that it should enter into meaningful negotiations on the matter – something that it has so far refused to do.

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The UK’s case, put by several ministers this week, seems to be that it is legally impossible for them to even consider returning the sculptures, because of the British Museum Act of 1816 and the wider “legal and moral” responsibility the museum has to “preserve and maintain all the collections in their care and make them accessible to world audiences”.

The current UK Tory Government seems to have a fondness for declaratory legislation. It is intending to rely on a bill to affirm that Rwanda is a safe place to send migrants, even if the evidence shows that this isn’t the case, and now it is hiding behind a 200-year-old piece of paper in order to legitimise what has to be called theft, no matter the motivation of the 7th Earl at the time.

It is of course doing so because all other arguments have failed. Greece is more than capable of looking after its own heritage and has a superb space ready to receive the substantial majority of the Parthenon frieze that is still in London. It is prepared to negotiate on issues such as loans, and given the history of this matter, it sets only a small precedent.

In fact, all former colonial powers are having to address these issues and just digging in isn’t going to provide a sustainable long-term answer. That will merely prolong the agony for nothing is more sure than the fact that one day the frieze will be back on the Acropolis no matter how rude the Prime Minister is nor how much he and his colleagues bury their head in the legalistic sand.