Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
Voting for archaeology
Which political party would do most for the historic environment? Simon Denison sifts through policies, promises and wishful thinking, and finds a surprising level of agreement.
Archaeology was promised a brighter future by all three main political parties last month at what was in effect the first hustings of the General Election campaign.
Senior politicians from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democrat Parties expressed their support for more archaeological awareness across Government and in education; strengthened local government historic environment services; more funding for English Heritage and the Portable Antiquities Reporting Scheme; and tighter controls on the international trade in stolen and looted antiquities (see policies, below).
Alan Howarth MP, the Minister for the Arts, said that a re-elected Labour Government would issue a comprehensive statement of policy on the historic environment as a 'high priority' in the new Parliament, in response to English Heritage's recent Power of Place report (BA February). Describing himself as 'a champion of archaeology in Government', he said the policy statement would fully recognise the importance of archaeology in the nation's well-being, including its crucial significance for urban regeneration, education and social inclusion.
Announcing the Government's decision to accede to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Transfer of Cultural Property - reversing its decision, last year, not to sign (BA April 2000) - Mr Howarth said officials had painstakingly reviewed their previous legal objections to the Convention and had found, 'after all', that nothing stood in the Government's way. He said that a re-elected Labour Government would consider further measures to clamp down on the illicit antiquities trade, including the creation of a database of stolen and looted cultural property and a new criminal offence of dealing in such material.
Peter Ainsworth MP, speaking for the Conservative Party, drew attention to the widespread public interest in archaeology and stressed the fundamental importance of the historic environment to national life. Referring to the Lord Chancellor's plans to build a new law court on the site of Chester's Roman amphitheatre, he said: 'A Government that is interested only in the new is making a fundamental mistake and is out of kilter [with public opinion].'
Supported by the archaeologist and Conservative peer Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) - whom he described as 'the Conservative Party's secret weapon when it comes to archaeological affairs' - Mr Ainsworth emphasised the need for more 'joined-up' Government to ensure that archaeology was no longer 'the poor relation in Whitehall circles'. He also stressed the need to strengthen the position of archaeology within local government. 'There will always be pressure on local authority budgets, but it is simply unfair that archaeology is always in the front line [when cuts are made].'
Lord Redesdale, speaking for the Liberal-Democrats, drew attention to the failure of all parties to have a formal archaeology policy, and called on archaeologists to 'speak with one voice' to ensure their interests were properly addressed by Parliament.
He referred to a number of archaeological amendments which he and Lord Renfrew had tabled to the current Culture and Recreation Bill - such as provisions to place SMRs and the Portable Antiquities Reporting Scheme on a statutory footing - but pointed out that the Bill would fail this session through lack of parliamentary time. 'The Government should be held to account for allowing the Bill to fail, and they have an obligation to bring it back [if they win the Election],' he said.
Addressing a meeting of the Historic Environment Forum, an umbrella group of heritage bodies which includes the CBA, each politician was speaking before the publication of their party's manifesto, so no formal policy commitments were made. Pre-manifesto expressions of intent remain highly vulnerable to change - and disappearance.
Nonetheless, the three spokesmen displayed remarkable unanimity in the view that the historic environment and archaeology deserve more support and a higher profile in public affairs than they have hitherto received.
Politics & Promises
Alan Howarth MP
Peter Ainsworth MP
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005