Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Pre-Budget Report and the Return of the Rosetta Stone

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling delivers his Pre-Budget Report today, a precarious high-wire act as he seeks to cut Britain’s massive deficit while maintaining essential public spending, all with an eye on the imminent general election. In his last report in November, the Chancellor forecast public borrowing to be 57 per cent of GDP in 2013. He got it wrong, as so many have done, his figures overtaken by the size of the current economic crisis. Last month public borrowing was already at 59.3 per cent and rising.

As historians will point out, the last 60 years or so has been the age of state expansion. In 1910, at what seemed like the imperial zenith, the British state’s public borrowing was around 10 per cent of GDP, and opposition to the growth of the state had been espoused by the likes of Ruskin, Morris and Cobbett as much as by Samuel Smiles. The figure rose to 20 per cent after the costly calamity of the First World War and, after the sea change of 1945, reached around half of GDP.

That figure may soon reach 100 per cent. What does a developed country such as Britain do other than borrow to retain its first world lifestyles? It can milk the successful financial sector in all its guises, just as Germany milks its car manufacturers, both economies over dependent on their most profitable sectors. But that is not a long-term solution: in the UK’s case it has already led the banks to adopt Byzantine methods of creating money that is not really there. Both of Britain’s major political parties know that deep down, which is why both are flailing and both are failing to offer a serious solution to Britain’s problems. Who ever won an election promising to manage decline?

One fruit of Britain’s prosperous imperial past is the British Museum, still free to the world as its charter insists (though some future Chancellor might seek amendments there). It’s been taken to task (again) by Dr Zahi Hawass, the ever entertaining Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. In London, to promote his new book, he has called (again) for the return to Egypt of the Rosetta Stone, currently on display in the BM’s Enlightenment Rooms. The 1.1m high stele made in 196 BC was the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics, as it also has inscribed upon it parallel texts in Greek. Discovered in July 1799 by Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard, an engineer serving with Napoleon’s army in Egypt, it came into British possession as part of the Treaty of Alexandria of 1801, arriving at the BM the following year. Hawass wants it back in Egypt though, gracefully, he is prepared to accept it on temporary loan.

Personally, I think I buy the BM’s defence of its possession of the Stone and all its other artefacts, including the Elgin Marbles, for it places them in a genuinely global context of myriad civilizations and, being in London, a genuine world city, allows millions of visitors from all around the world to see them – for free. The fact that it has done so for 250 years must count for something too. But, in the interests of fairness, here is Christopher Hitchens putting the opposite case:

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