Archaeology is an evidence and process based discipline and along with other complex areas of national life it is one where experts are required to sometimes tell politicians things they do not want to hear. In those circumstances archaeologists are in the position, sometimes the very uncomfortable position, of the slave who whispered in the ear of a triumphant Roman general, “Remember you are mortal.” Politicians do not like to be reminded that they are mortal, particularly politicians like Michael Gove who think we have had enough of experts. Like the people of the past who we study, Archaeologists are also members of much wider communities and networks; personal and professional, social and formal, local and international. These are multiple layers of identity, some of which are placed upon us, others which we choose for ourselves and a General Election is a time when we examine those identities and affirm them by putting a cross against the name of a candidate who represents the best fit for our world view, or we choose not to vote at all. But by not voting most would accept we lose the moral right to complain about who actually does get elected.
thePipeLine’s survey, undertaken at the start of the General Election campaign and how long ago that seems now, suggested that archaeologists do want to vote, and many expected to be politically active in the campaign, although just 2% of those polled thought that the outcome of the General Election would be positive for the sector.
A clear majority of the sample also wanted information about the programmes put forward by the various political parties in their manifestos and organisations such as the Heritage Alliance have done exactly this, pointing out commonalities between parties such as retaining free admission for our major national museums and the desire to build substantially more domestic housing. However, nobody is committing to leveling the playing field of construction by offering the same VAT advantages to conversions and restorations of historic buildings as are enjoyed by new build projects. While only the Liberal Democrats and Greens are committed to seeking to remain inside the EU funding programmes such as Erasmus+, which the recent British Academy report shows provide UK Research Archaeology with almost 40% of its funding.
Away from the manifestos we can also look at the record of the Conservative Government which called the General Election and which is seeking a fresh mandate from the British electorate and ask if they are deserving of support?
Here, while credit must be given to the outgoing Government for the ratification of the Hague Convention on the protection of cultural sites in conflict zones, and the belated protection of a number of historic Royal Navy wrecks under the Protection of Military Remains Act, the overall record of the Conservatives with regard to archaeology and heritage is not good.
Since 2010, first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and since 2015 as a majority Government, the Conservatives have overseen a decimation of local authority resources from libraries and museums to expert planning staff and staff and resources for maintaining and updating Historic Environment Records which are the basis of evidence based planning as far as the historic environment is concerned. Coupled with this reduction in the capability for proper oversight has been the deliberate relaxation of already permissive planning laws and the regular refusal to follow advice on issues such as listing from expert bodies, typified in the early days of the Coalition by the refusal of then Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt to list Peter Foggo’s Broadgate building at Liverpool Street.
In addition in April 2015 English Heritage was unceremoniously split in two with next to no debate, apparently with the sole aim of getting internationally important, but expensive to maintain, portfolio of historic buildings and archaeological sites off the Government books. The new charitable English Heritage which took on the property portfolio was then saddled with a business plan to become self sufficient by 2022/23 which a UNESCO report into the Stonehenge Tunnel proposal suggested was ambitious to the point that failure is a real risk.
Talking of Stonehenge, the Conservative Government has proposed and pushed through a series of controversial infrastructure projects such as the HS2 railway and the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel which would have a significant impact on the historic environment. In the case of the Stonehenge tunnel the Department for Transport even allowed highways England to mount what many independent observers, including this website, agree was a rigged consultation, with only the so called “short tunnel” option on the table. An option which many experts see as being highly damaging to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
Elsewhere, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon almost undermined the entire basis of ethical maritime archaeology by granting permission for Conservative Party Eminence Gris Lord Lingfield and American Treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration, to undertake the commercial salvage of HMS Victory 1744, only to face the humiliation of having to rescind the permission under threat of Judicial Review because the process of granting permission was so flawed.
To rub salt into that particular wound the Government also had to pay out over £15 million to a failed bidder, because, what was at best, incompetence at the Department for Transport allowed Odyssey Marine Exploration to change the terms of the industry standard salvage licence to recover silver from SS Gairsoppa, after the licence was granted. This rendered the tender process unfair and invalid, and exposing the Government to legal action.
Remaining all at sea, the Ministry of Defence, Mr Fallon again, also failed to protect sovereign immune Royal Navy wrecks from the Far East to the North Sea from the depredations of illicit salvage crews.
And of course the Conservative Mayor of London, and now Foreign Secretary and parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, when Mayor of London, continued the work of his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone in promoting the building of ramparts of identikit tower block along the Thames, thus changing the relationship of London with its river for at least a generation, often overriding local planning decisions and conservation area status to do it. Mr Johnson also arranged the unfair procurement of the greatest planning debacle of the decade, the absolutely fatuous London Garden Bridge which looks likely to cost the tax payer just short of £50 million not to be built.
The final note in the Con cons column is the abject failure of the Conservative Government to employ joined up thinking across Whitehall, allowing the Department for Education to sit on its hands while commercial exam provider AQA axed the gateway subject of A-level Archaeology only months after a report from Historic England suggested that the UK was going to be short of archaeologists to undertake the fieldwork associated gaining planning permission for large infrastructure projects such as HS2 and the Heathrow third runway.
If the Conservatives are not worthy of the archaeological vote then is anyone else standing at the General Election?
If any one political manifesto put forward at this General Election stood out as being good for our shared heritage and the professional and vocational archaeological practice which illuminates it, thePipeLine would endorse that programme and that party. However, although the various manifestos have some, albeit often small and sometimes collateral, positives for archaeology and heritage, there is no stand out programme, with the result that no such endorsement of a single party is possible.
Pragmatically, even where a manifesto programme is undoubtedly environmentally responsible, as is that of the Green Party, under the United Kingdom’s outdated “First Past the Post” electoral system it is impossible to say vote Green, because the Green vote is dispersed across too many constituencies to have any chance of forming a Government, or even the substantial part of a coalition, in the event of a hung parliament with no one party having an overall majority.
Instead thePipeLine believes that the best outcome for archaeology can be supported by archaeologists and anyone else who cares about the future of our past, voting tactically for the candidate in your constituency who is most likely to defeat the Conservative Party. We say this not just because of the record of the Conservatives in Government since 2010 of which potted low-lights appear above, but also because a large Conservative majority would make more likely the extreme Brexit which thePipeLine, along with many other commentators, believes would damage not just our archaeology and heritage, but the communities and nations of the United Kingdom where we as archaeologists make our homes.