Photo credit: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Artillery Row

A year in review: the National Trust

Is the Great Fracas of 2020-21 over?

The revolution went unnoticed at first. Subtle, silent and potentially deadly.

Up and down the country loyal members of the National Trust began peeling off once beloved oak-leaf car stickers from their Land Rover windscreens. With trembling hands, membership cards were snapped in two. In a final act of defiance, direct debit payments were cancelled for the first time in decades. 

The core support of the National Trust — members, curators, visitors and staff — were deserting.

The catalyst for their discontent? For some, it was the Trust’s September 2020 “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery”, which blacklisted 93 properties. Others were scornful of Colonial Countryside, “a child-led writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections” at eleven properties.

This was a storm in a teacup — and there were plenty more of those in the cafe

Many were horrified by the leaked report “Towards a 10-Year Vision for Places and Experiences”, which proposed to “dial down” the National Trust’s role as a “major national cultural institution”. There was a major shift in focus: history and heritage were to make way for the outdoors and nature. Visits to country houses were marked as “outdated”, and the time had come to “re-purpose” properties as “event venues” and “commercial operations”.

The silent rebels soon became vocal. Letters flooded the papers. One or two at first. Then, with growing momentum, endless epistles, furious and fuming and sizzling with frustration. Members accused the Trust of having a “woke agenda” and “faddish exhibits” and “left-wing bias”. Volunteers recounted their experiences of “passive vandalism”, “fear and bullying” and W1A-types burbling on in endless tangles of corporate jargon. Meanwhile farmers described the Trust threatening them with injunctions for growing cabbages. 

To add insult to injury, the director general, Hilary McGrady, seemed to dismiss the concerns. The “real silent majority” of members weren’t interested in the debates, she claimed. “How blinkered is Hilary McGrady?”, fizzed an infuriated member from Essex. 

Perhaps the row would blow over soon, the Trust thought. This was a storm in a teacup — and there were plenty more of those in the cafe. But this storm was only just brewing, and its swirling undercurrents were threatening to hurl the teacup off its saucer. 

If 2020 was the year the revolution began, 2021 has been the year of mobilisation. 

A “rebel group” assembled, calling itself Restore Trust: “a forum where members, supporters and friends of the National Trust can discuss their concerns about the future of the charity”. They called for the charity to “return to founding principles”, to “recognise volunteer contributions” and “emphasise evolution not revolution”. Soon, Restore Trust were 6,000 strong, and baying for action. 

Battle lines were drawn at 10am on Saturday 30th October, a crisp Autumnal morning. It was the National Trust AGM 2021, and the Trust’s top brass came face to face with the Restore rebels. The location? The sterile auditorium of the Harrogate Convention Centre. 

The rebel army had proposed, in advance, amendments to be voted upon by members. Calls for curatorial expertise saw 54,708 for, 57,164 against, and treating volunteers in a respectful way, 56,267 for, 59,015 against. It was a whopping voter turnout, and the results — although they didn’t pass — proved support for Restore Trust was significant.

Yet, McGrady downplayed these voters as no more than a bunch of “internet campaigners” who were part of a “woozle effect”. That was foolish and patronising. The widespread frustrations and discontent felt across the country had been recorded on paper and legitimised. Clear as a bell. 

“What next?” I wondered. Is the revolution over, or is it just beginning? Would we see staff members barricading themselves inside gift shops and cafes? Would the Director General herself need to be helicoptered out of the Swindon HQ?

Troops have withdrawn, casualties dealt with and strategy reassessed

Although they won’t admit to it in public, it seems the Trust is starting to take the discontent seriously. An olive branch has been offered in the form of René Olivieri, the new Chair. He’s been heralded as the common-sense candidate, ready to put the perceived “woke-agenda” to rest. It’s too early to say, but the dissident members have welcomed him warmly. “We are optimistic”, the Restore Trust website declares, “that he will bring a measured and unbiased approach to the very complicated governance of  the largest independent conservation charity in the world.”

And I’ve got my own reasons to look forward to a year of progress ahead, having led a mini crusade to improve the Trust’s offering for young adults. I was impressed with the meetings I’ve had with the Trust’s senior management, and there seems to be a serious appetite for genuine, positive change. 

Tensions, it seems, have simmered down for now. Troops have withdrawn, casualties dealt with and strategy reassessed. And looking back at the last two years — “The Great Fracas of 2020-21”, as historians might call it — it’s certainly been a difficult process. The barrage of debate and scrutiny and questioning and challenging has been a dose of painful, but much needed medicine for the Trust. They are, after all, responsible for an annual income of over £600 million, 50,000 volunteers and 10,000 staff. They claim to preserve the nation’s heritage “for everyone, forever”. Holding this mighty, lumbering national institution to account once in a while, giving it a bit of discipline, is exactly what it needs — what we all need — to stay in shape. No pain, no gain. 

As the new year dawns, a new set of ingredients have been whisked, dolloped and spread across the baking tin. Now, with the cake in the oven, all we can do is wait. It’ll take well into 2022 to know whether this cake will sink in the centre or rise to perfection. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover