Share post:

After fifteen years, five Prime Ministers [three in the last two years, two of whom were convicted of not obeying their own rules during the Covid pandemic], seven Chancellors of the Exchequer [one of whom crashed the UK economy in 38 days], eight Foreign Secretaries, twelve Culture Secretaries [or rather eleven and Nadine Dorries], sixteen housing ministers and a lettuce, it is hard not to face the prospect of a change of Government at Thursday’s General Election with something of the feelings of a five year old on Christmas Eve, coupled with an adult fear of crushing disappointment.


Just in the heritage sector Conservative led and then Conservative Governments since May 2010 have the kind of record which sees ministers and former ministers richly deserving to be shown the door and dumped on the pavement with all their baggage, howling their manufactured culture war rhetoric at the Moon.

- Advertisement -

To choose just a few lowlights…

One of the earliest acts of the Cameron led coalition was to virtually defund archaeology’s only cross sectoral body, the Council for British Archaeology, almost bringing about its closure.

It also removed the Marine Aggregate Levy which was paying for a lot of Maritime Archaeology.

On the subject of which Conservative insider Sir Robert Balchin Lord Lingfield combined writing reports on deregulating teaching qualifications and advising Prime Minister Cameron and Education Minister Michael Gove about free Schools removing schools from local authority control, with working with then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to go against Government policy, expert advice and archaeological best practice by setting up a front charity to allow Florida based commercial treasure hunters Odyssey Marine Exploration to effectively take on the management of one of the Royal Navy’s most important wrecks, HMS Victory 1744.

- Advertisement -

The Government then humiliated the then English Heritage by very publicly ignoring its advice to list the 1980’s Broadgate development by leading architect, the late Peter Foggo.

Then Chancellor, now Chair of the Board of the British Museum, George Osborne also commissioned a report on the operation of the listing system from a senior executive of
developer British Land.

At the same time the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework had the effect of softening some protections in the planning system and neutering Historic England by giving planners a responsibility to support sustainable development, without defining what “sustainable” meant.

Meanwhile the aggressive roll back of Government funding to local Government of some 30-30% reached an appropriate nadir when the then Conservative Leader of Northampton Borough Council, Cllr David Mackintosh, engineered the sale of the internationally important statue of the Egyptian scribe Sekhemka, for a world record £15.66 million, £6 million of which went to help the Marquis of Northampton pay his various divorce settlements, or so it was alleged.

The Marquis and the council had stitched up a deal on ownership, with the council paying all the sale costs, in a way which was alleged to be tax efficient for the Marquis.

It wasn’t the only such case of treating museum collections held on behalf of the public as gambling chips in the auction house casino.

The buyer of Sekhemka was anonymous and the statue has not been seen in public since the auction.

For all we know he may be in a warehouse in one of the Freeports which heritage crime international experts have identified as venues for storing looted and trafficked

The Conservative Government, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in particular, have championed Freeports too.

More recently the successive Transport Secretaries of the Conservative Government, have repeatedly ignored the advice of many archaeologists, the National Audit Office and the conclusions of their own Planning Inspectorate to repeatedly green light the A303 Tunnel and dual carriageways across the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

As the country goes to the polls on Thursday the case is about to go the courts, again…. and later this month [July 2024] UNESCO will vote on whether to place the World Heritage Site on the “At Risk” list on account of the international body’s advice being ignored by the UK Government.

Then there was Teesside mayor, and Rishi Sunak cheerleader [until he wasn’t] Lord Ben Houchen conspiring with Boris Johnson’s joke Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, to again humiliate Historic England by gaming and undermining the listing system to allow Houchen to demolish the iconic Dorman Long Tower and then lying about Historic England’s role in the matter.

We should also make a dishonourable mention of the Government’s Tufton Street outriders in the futile, damaging and divisive “culture war”, Restore Trust Ltd and its data gathering exercises masquerading as National Trust membership surveys.

Boris Johnson [him again] parachuted culture war warrior, obscurely funded think tank employee and for several years, Chief Executive of Restore Trust, Zewditu Gebreyohanes, onto the board of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bringing the story full, bent, circle, the architect of austerity and defunding, George Osborne ended the Parliament not as an MP, but as Chair of Governors of the British Museum where, arguably, the repeated underfunding of the museum was a contributing factor in the museum’s greatest humiliation, the theft of Greek and Roman jewels from its collection, which had never been catalogued, allegedly by one of its own, underpaid, curators.

All of this leaves a mess of almost Augean stable proportions facing whoever takes up the reins of Government on Friday morning, while the party most likely to form that Government, Keir Starmer’s Labour, is on record as seeing the current planning system as a block to growth and which promises to publish a proposed revision of the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] as soon as July.

Of course, Archaeologists are also members of our modern, complex communities.  They need affordable houses, schools, GP and hospital services, use transport and energy infrastructure and live online work and private lives which depends on data centres, but as members of those communities one role we have is to speak truth to power about the value and importance of preserving and promoting the historic environment as part of the wider environment to be nurtured and grown, even to the extent of criticising a Government with which many practitioners and supporters of archaeology will agree and may well have voted for.

The recent “On the Brink” report from the Heritage Alliance made the necessity for that advocacy crystal clear in a cogent and timely way.

Hopefully the sector’s representative bodies, principally the Council for British Archaeology [it lived to tell the tale], the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers, will take up the challenge of advocacy set out by the Alliance, and engage publicly in those discussions, reaching out to the public as well as their members to create alliances and a broadly based voice to tell Government that the past, the present and the future, can be addressed in a holistic and nurturing way by engaging expertise and communities, but as the Environmental NGO’s and charities like the National Trust and the RSPB showed the Liz Truss Government in the #AttackOnNature campaign, there are consequences if the environment is sacrificed on the alter of one particular groups vision of progress without broad consent.

But it is first things first.

Purely looking at the heritage sector the conduct of Conservative led Governments which have run the UK, since May 2010 and of their self serving acolytes like Lord Lingfield, Mayor Houchen in Teesside and the successive leaders of the former Northampton Borough Council, means the Party has forfeited any right it may have claimed to form another Government on Friday morning.

That means

1. Remembering to take your photo ID,

2.  Taking your dog if you have one for the #DogsAtPollingStations selfie and

3.  Voting tactically for the progressive candidate [Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green] most likely to unseat a Tory candidate, or keep out a candidate for the far right Reform Ltd.

Once that is done archaeologists and heritage people can take up the challenge of making their voice heard by the new Government and that, like picking up the pieces of our cultural life which are still left after the last fourteen years, will be quite the task.






Lead Image:  The Pickwick Papers:  The Election at Eatanswill by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Public Domain

thePipeLine is free to read and we promise it always will be, but researching the kind of story you have just read costs time and money.

If you think it is important that archaeology and heritage has an independent voice speaking truth to power please buy us a Ko-fi

And you can support the #WatchingBrief on YouTube and Tik Tok via PATREON from just £1 per month.

- Advertisement -

Share post:

thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

Related articles


One of the UK's best known and longest running community archaeology projects, the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research...


Ahead of the Kings Speech on Wednesday which will set out thirty five pieces of legislation which ...


Archaeologists and heritage people are also individuals and members of professional and social communities, and of extended families...


It was not just archaeologists who will have experienced a profound sense of shock and anger on seeing...