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).

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6 Responses to Jane Austen’s Ring: Should We Care?

  • Ross Parker says:

    This post falls below the normal standard. I would suggest that reducing the partisan bias may help. To shoe-horn a caricature of libertarianism (“the rich can do what they like”) into this piece is really rather odd. As you immediately note, this is an example of the rich manifestly being told that they cannot do what they like, even before we start on the debate regarding whether the ability to do what one likes isn’t, in fact, the principle of liberty for which so many strive.

    • Roger Crisp says:

      I’m certainly not neutral about political libertarianism and its underlying theory of property, if that’s what you mean by a bias. Nor does my admittedly quick summary of the libertarian view seem to me a caricature. Of course, the Tories don’t want only the rich to be able to do what they like with ‘their own money’ (a phrase that’s used again and again by the right in British political debate about taxation — as if it’s already been decided that taxation is theft). They want this for everyone, including the rich. And naturally I agree with you that the export ban is in tension with libertarianism: that’s the tension that modern conservatives need to resolve. I can recommend an excellent short article on this by Mark Nelson: ‘A problem for conservatism’, Analysis 69 (4):620-630 (2009). Mr Vaizey might like to read it too.

  • Dave Zimny says:

    Once again, the old double standard raises its shaggy head. If Mr. Vaizey is sincere about the principle that nations should be able to forbid the export of artifacts that represent its national history, he would immediately set about returning the Elgin Marbles to their proper home, the Athenian Acropolis. Every once in awhile, the U.K. is caught with its imperial snobbery showing.

  • Dave Zimny says:

    Once again, the old double standard raises its shaggy head. If Mr. Vaizey were sincere about the principle that nations should be able to forbid the export of artifacts that represent its national history, he would immediately set about returning the Elgin Marbles to their proper home, the Athenian Acropolis. Every once in awhile, the U.K. is caught with its imperial snobbery showing.

  • Dave Zimny says:

    Once again, the old double standard raises its shaggy head. If Mr. Vaizey were sincere about the principle that nations should be able to forbid the export of artifacts that represent their national history, he would immediately set about returning the Elgin Marbles to their proper home, the Athenian Acropolis. Every once in awhile, the U.K. is caught with its imperial snobbery showing.

    • Roger Crisp says:

      Nice point. There is of course major dispute about whether the marbles were ‘justly acquired’. But the same dispute should arise about nearly all property rights, given how much injustice in acquisition and transfer there has been over the years. In fact wouldn’t now be a wonderful time for the marbles to be repatriated?

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