You might ask yourself, what do the Parthenon Marbles from Athens have to do with Britain?

Well, it's a good question, allow me to answer. Two centuries ago, the British-born Lord Elgin made a deal with the Turkish then-occupiers of Greece to ship all he could carry off its glorious patrimony to London.

That's how many literally priceless Greek artifacts like the Parthenon Marbles came to languish in the gloomy, grey, rain-soaked British Museum for over 200 years.

And they're still there, still gloomily languishing, in a climate that's so far – historically, literally, and spiritually – from their place of origin that it's an outrage, really.

The famous Parthenon marbles are still being held at The British Museum

The famous Parthenon marbles are still being held at The British Museum

Oh, you can say, as many have, that it was different times, but I would reply, 'oh really?' Because Elgin's own contemporaries like Lord Byron called him a “vandal,” a “destroyer” and a “thief” for rashly making off with another country's patrimony. So let's not pretend that this sacking of Athens wasn't controversial even when it was happening because clearly it was.

In more recent years, the British Museum's continuing possession of the Parthenon Marbles marbles has come in for increasing scrutiny. Why do they think it is still appropriate for them to display outrageously looted plunder without pushback, critics rightly ask? 

Last week the museum's director made it known that he was not considering the return of the marbles to Athens because, as UK Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan told BBC, it would “open a can of worms.” 

Well, I'd like to speak to that issue firsthand. After my first recent visit to the British Museum, I think it's fair to say the can is visibly open, by which I mean that I was even more outraged by the gall of seeing the Greek marbles there than I had anticipated.

It takes a very hard neck to display the stolen art of another country in your own and then tell the nation that you pilfered it from that they will simply have to sing for it, because you have no plan to return it, today or ever.

The famous Parthenon marbles are still being held at The British Museum in London

The famous Parthenon marbles are still being held at The British Museum in London

Imagine the kind of airy entitlement that allows you to tell other nations off for daring to hold you to account for your ancestors' obvious misdeeds. But in my own experience few British people want to think never mind talk about the rough work their ancestors did to fill the nation's coffers. For that reason, few British schools actually teach their own imperialist history. But sometimes acts of piracy are so egregious they can't be ignored.

If the sins of the past can't be exorcized by hiding your head in the sand, neither can the glories of the past be replicated by pretending you still live there. Brexit has proved the British still think they can somehow draw a line under the march of time and put themselves back on top by simply mass willing it, although the results after eight years have been far from convincing. 

Do you know how long it takes for an ordinary person to see a primary care doctor in England now? Do you know how long it takes to make it through European customs? Do you know that all the promised dividends of leaving the EU didn't materialize for them and that – after 12 years of Tory rule - the nation has seen a dramatic spike in unemployment, food insecurity, and homelessness?

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece in February 2019. (Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0)

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece in February 2019. (Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0)

The “can of worms” that Britain persistently refuses to address is its own violent imperialist past, its fraught present, and its increasingly uncertain future.

Burying its head like an ostrich since 2016 as its social compact has frayed and snapped – recall how prime minister Boris Johnson threw parties for his high-rolling staff as he ordered the country to observe the most stringent lockdowns – has been a disaster. 

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot once. It seems that Britain cannot bear very much either now, which would be its own business if this back-to-the-future crusade they've been on for the past eight years didn't impact on Ireland too.

It's a biting irony of their own imperial history that the marbles they most fear to lose now aren't even their own. 

Brexit was supposed to prevent them from having to think about or listen to anyone but themselves, but instead, it has merely accelerated the tense global reckoning they have dreamed of postponing.