The extent to which Boris Johnson encouraged Greece to launch its campaign to reclaim the Parthenon Marbles was revealed in letters written by the future Prime Minister to the woman who would lead the initiative with unprecedented enthusiasm.
In unambiguous prose detailing his affiliation with “the cause”, Johnson, then President of the Oxford Union, implored Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri to advocate for the return of antiquities to society, affirming his participation in the debate. “would be an important step in your campaign”.
“If the motion succeeds, and I’m sure it will, it would be a clear message to the British government that its policies are unacceptable to educated people,” he wrote on March 10, 1986, inviting the actor-turned-politician to address him. the union in June of the same year.
“I think the majority of students agree with me when I say that there is absolutely no reason why the Elgin Marbles, superlatively the most important and beautiful treasures left to us by the ancient world, are not returned immediately from the British Museum at their fair value to my home in Athens.
Johnson always recognized the importance to Greece of sculptures considered the culmination of classical art. But in the years that followed, his tune would change drastically. As Mayor and Prime Minister of London, he echoed the long-held position of successive British governments that antiquities “were lawfully acquired by Lord Elgin under the proper laws of the day”.
Unearthed in an Oxford library by Yannis Andritsopoulos, the London correspondent of the Greek daily Your Neathe letters not only highlight Johnson’s turnaround, but also his role in launching a campaign that was in its infancy.
Sculptures from the 5th century BC. were acquired by the British Museum in 1816, more than a decade after they were removed from the Acropolis in highly controversial circumstances by Lord Elgin, English Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire.
Mercouri first announced that Athens would formally request their repatriation at a global meeting of culture ministers convened by United Nations heritage body Unesco in 1982. At the time, she was seeking like-minded supporters in Britain.
Last November, Johnson insisted it was up to British Museum trustees to resolve the issue when his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, first raised the issue in Downing Street.
The museum has about half of the decorative artwork that once adorned the Parthenon temple. Mitsotakis, who has made the return of treasures a top foreign policy priority, has frequently spoken of the artistic, cultural and aesthetic need to bring together “iconic monuments, inextricably linked to the identity of a nation”, so that they can be seen in their entirety as a unified whole.
The Tory leader’s former zeal for returning the marbles might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the discovery of an article he wrote 36 years ago in Debate, formerly the official magazine of the Oxford Union Society. The essay, also unearthed from the archives of an Oxford library by Your Neaalso urged the British government to return the works of art to Greece, “[then] a ruined outpost of the Ottoman Empire”. Elgin, Johnson argued, had exploited the “virtual anarchy” of the nation’s vassal status to have the temple’s treasures “sawed and pirated”.
Reacting to the discovery, Downing Street officials insisted the controversy had been written by the then 21-year-old classics student in a fit of “momentary” exuberance.
But the letters offer further evidence that Johnson’s original position was far from transitory. In a second missive to Mercouri, also delivered on Oxford Union stationery, he denounced the “sophism and intransigence” of the British government.
In a bid to entice the famously flamboyant Greek to deliver the keynote, Johnson also references her filmmaker husband, Jules Dassin, who “very kindly had time to see me”, and says she will be among a list of other notables to talk to the union. “Recent speakers at the Oxford Union include Richard Nixon, Geraldine Ferraro, Helmut Schmidt, David Lange and Caspar Weinberger, so we are used to international figures,” he wrote.
Mercouri eventually accepted Johnson’s invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, prompting roars of approval as she urged the public to understand the importance of the sculptures to the Greeks. “They are our pride. These are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence… they are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greece,” she said. The chamber voted overwhelmingly in favor of returning the relics to Athens.
“Mysteriously, however, the debate proceedings seem to have disappeared,” Andritsopoulos said. “I have searched high and low for them in the archives of various Oxford libraries, but to take advantage of them. Who could possibly benefit from their disappearance?
In a third letter to the press secretary of the Greek embassy, Johnson refers to the “great and splendid” party planned at the Oxford Union on the eve of the debate. “To get things done, we’re on the hunt for cheap ouzo and retsina,” he wrote. “I was informed that it might be possible to get it through the Embassy. Could you advise me?”