Jane Austen’s Ring: Should We Care?
Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, recently put an export ban on a ring once owned by Jane Austen, bought legitimately by the US singer Kelly Clarkson at auction last year.
Why? Because, apparently, the ring is too important a part of our literary history to go abroad.
On the face of it, Vaizey’s decision seems rather arbitrary. If universalized, it would seriously restrict the international antiques trade, since many items can be described as important parts of our history (presumably he doesn’t think there’s anything special about items with literary connections). The decision is in fact an excellent example of the conflicts that arise in right-wing politics between libertarian attitudes to property on the one hand, and nationalism on the other. Do we really want foreigners grabbing our heritage?
Imagine that London had become – as some feared – ‘Reykjavik-on-Thames’ after the recent financial crisis, and that foreign buyers had gradually started buying and exporting items of national historical importance: Buckingham Palace, Lords cricket ground (including the hallowed turf), the National Gallery and all its contents, our valuable literary manuscripts, even – I can hardly contemplate it! – Oxford colleges, buildings and all.
What would have been the result? Would we have lost our sense of ‘national identity’, and become strangers or indeed enemies to one another? Would the country have fallen into chaos for that reason? I suspect not, since that sense of identity – so far as it exists – is largely a result of our social relationships and shared histories. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché to claim that British people were never more united than when threatened by Nazi domination. Culturally significant objects, such as Austen’s ring, certainly give us a frisson when we see them; but politically they don’t really matter.
If Mr Vaizey is genuinely concerned about national identity and solidarity, then he would do better to focus on creating institutions to benefit the worst off . But of course to do that would require him to give up his libertarian principle that the rich can do what they like with their money (except, of course, if they want to export bits of our heritage).