Should Britain return colonial artefacts? For some, the answer is easy: of course. But these people must also be consistent and realise that the arguments posed for the return of stolen goods cut both ways. Just as they can be applied to make the case that the United Kingdom should pay out where it has plundered, they can be used to argue that Britain should be compensated where it was wronged.
While we might want to return the Benin bronzes – plundered in a punitive expedition after the massacre of an unarmed British delegation – we should also be looking to reclaim the various treasures stolen from us. The idea of compensating a country with the world’s sixth largest economy might take some time for people to adjust to, so I’m going to suggest we start small. We should begin by asking Holland to return the arms of King Charles II (on display in the Rijksmuseum) looted in the battle of Medway, of which the least said the better. While that’s just wood, paint, and wounded English pride, it’s a foot in the door.
Once we’ve dragged the last timbers of the Royal Charles to its proper place in the docks, there are a few other scores to settle. Norway can give back the loot taken from Lindisfarne and the other settlements fortunate enough to play host to our Viking cousins. And, once it has done that, it can give back the oil fields over which Britain arguably has a claim. Denmark can give back its share of the danegeld, and the various ports of North Africa can pay reparations to the coastal villages of these islands for the slaves taken by the Barbary corsairs. One country will receive a gracious exception: historically, asking Germany to pay its tab has proved a sub-optimal move.
This programme would not only provide a welcome boost to the coffers of the Treasury but would be of considerable use in domestic politics. As politicians around the world have discovered, calls for restitution are a useful distraction when home affairs turn sour. Greek calls for the Elgin marbles (legitimately purchased) are turned up a notch when the economy hits yet another rock. When Argentina heads for its decennial default, the Falklands have a tendency to migrate towards the front pages (despite never being theirs in the first place). If Boris wants something to soak up attention in the event of Brexit troubles, he could do worse than trying a few of these on.
There is, of course, one small problem with this plan: that Britain, having historically been quite good at this plundering business, is likely to pay out rather more than it gets. This is true. But as an economist, I’ll be damned if I can’t find an angle from which I might personally profit.
My pitch is very simple: when the time comes to pay the bills, those of us whose ancestors were busy being oppressed by Cromwell, the highland clearances, and the aristocracy can simply point out that, as they had nothing to do with the decisions made in Westminster, so they should have nothing to do with the payments. Instead, we stick them on the French – or, at least, British people with Norman surnames, who are still doing rather better than the rest of us. Forget Cecil Rhodes; John de Balliol must fall!