The National Trust AGM doesn’t normally make the papers. Discussions around defibrillators, reappointments of an external auditor and the election of six committee members are hardly breaking news. But this year, things were different. Members actually voted to overrule Westminster by banning Trail Hunting, an activity as legal as reading a book.
Another swirl of press brouhaha was the campaign of the 6,000 strong spin-off group, Restore Trust. As a sceptical but curious outsider, I attended their drinks event the night before the AGM. Contrary to what had been spouted on Twitter, this was no extremist group. The room was full of loyal, dedicated members, volunteers and staff, concerned that standards of conservation were slipping, and eager to raise them back to gold standard. There were gardeners with encyclopaedic horticultural knowledge, savvy head curators comparing restoration techniques, and volunteers working out how to engage visitors in Suffragette history.
Would there be a punch-up at the AGM? Scones lobbed on stage?
So was this really a “rebel group”? Would there be a punch-up at the AGM? Would scones be lobbed on stage? Would the Director General, Hilary McGrady, be attacked with dollops of jam? Or cream? And if so, which first?
Restore Trust’s member’s resolutions gained huge support from the voting membership — more than anyone had expected. The resolutions regarding senior staff remuneration flew through — 120,131 for, 4,179 against. Two further motions lost, only by a whisker — calls for curatorial expertise saw 54,708 for, 57,164 against, and treating volunteers in a respectful way, 56,267 for, 59,015 against. That was with the Trust wielding 20,000 proxy votes. Most years, the total voting numbers are under 40,000.
Those are the numbers, clear as day. There is widespread discontent within the National Trust grassroots, and much more so than previous years. But the Director General’s AGM Reflections dismissed this loyal, albeit disgruntled, group as “internet campaigners” who are part of a “woozle effect”. It was — bizarrely — more important to herald Jackie Weaver as “a star for our times”.
It’s a dangerous path to take. If left untreated, the grassroots resentment will grow. You can put a bucket underneath a drip, but soon we’ll have sprouting mould, peeling wallpaper and, eventually, irreplaceable structural damage. On your head be it, Hilary McGrady, when the chandelier crashes down.
There are parsnips in the carrot cake, salt hiding in the sugar shaker
What is all this hullabaloo really about, then? Lots of people think the NT has strayed from its purpose. That there are parsnips in the carrot cake. Salt hiding in the sugar shaker.
Indeed, there has been a major shift of vision. The focus was once historic buildings, interiors, gardens and landscapes. It is now nature.
But the National Trust’s unique offering to the public is its vast collection of historic houses, with nearly one million works of art pinned on the panelling. Its USP is not really the 250,000 hectares of countryside — as seems to be advocated — because luckily, Britain is criss-crossed with a network of public footpaths, free to access and open all hours.
The elephant in the room — or the IKEA cabinet in the Robert Adam saloon — is that an organisation which manages historic houses is run by someone who isn’t seriously interested in them. Time and time again, in interviews and speeches, McGrady reveals her true passion is the outdoors. “Wherever I am” she tells us, “the first thing I need, physically and mentally, is to get into nature.”
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m not here to nature-bash. But not once has McGrady spoken with expertise or passion about a specific piece of history. Instead, her personal interests are a tick box of official National Trust values: “the outdoors, the arts, heritage, nature and beauty”. What does that even cover? What doesn’t that cover? Can “beauty” even count as a hobby?
Through no fault of her own, McGrady is the wrong person for the job
Talk to the directors of SPAB, the Landmark Trust or Historic Houses, and they’ll burble away about medieval wall paintings or preserving historic graffiti or the coloration of Portland stone. McGrady’s passion is experiences — the very act of absorbing the moment. She considers the Crom Estate — which is drenched in a turbulent history of Jacobite sieges and accidental fires — nothing more than a “peaceful, tranquil, just gorgeous place” (a phrase which could describe any NT country pile or stretch of countryside). Indeed, one former senior employee of the Trust offered an insight about his colleagues: “What you must understand is that a lot of senior people at the Trust actually don’t like old buildings.” It’s not hard to believe.
The truth is, through no fault of her own, McGrady is the wrong person for the job. She seems a delightful, well-intentioned, kind team player, excellent at managing people and overseeing projects. She’d probably win The Apprentice. But this is the most important heritage job in Britain, with immense responsibility to preserve historic treasures on behalf of the nation. The candidate should be intensely interested and deeply knowledgeable about history and heritage. Surely that’s a basic requirement?
What qualifies McGrady for this esteemed position? Has she spent a lifetime in the nitty gritty of restoring paintings, or surveying historic structures, or teaching history? Has she at least shown a lifelong passion for the past? Not quite. McGrady studied graphic design, and then worked in branding and marketing with Diageo, the drinks giant. She ran Belfast’s bid to become European Capital of Culture, then joined the NT as Northern Ireland regional director. Twelve years later, she bagged the top job.
Corporate management has made its mark. Vague is the new vogue
Like so many of those running big heritage charities, her career has been a steady march through corporate management, in office-based jobs with a loose link to “culture” and “arts”. And this distance has made a mark on the NT itself. Vague is the new vogue. Internal NT briefing documents announce plans to “dial down” its role as a major national cultural institution. Instead of focusing on presenting the public with historic houses (now considered “outdated”), the NT has set itself up to be the nation’s therapist.
The public are given a chance “to explore and define their own identities”, to feel “wonder” and a “sense of connection” from the “special places”. If those NT laminated information signs could talk, they would gently inquire in hushed tones, “How are you feeling? Do you feel moved? Do you feel stirred? What does this peach chaise-longue say about your identity?”
The beating heart of the National Trust — the history, the expertise, the detail — is at risk of being watered down, top and bottom. Drown it out completely, or ignore the concerns voiced by the likes of Restore Trust, and what’s left? It’s well on its way to becoming another soulless corporate body, a great lumbering blob of banality. Soon it’ll be lost forever in the mighty superblob of corporate charities and quangos, all spewing out mundane jargon and trending hashtags in sync.
The National Trust may be keen to advocate the BlossomWatch campaign, but BlobWatch season is fast approaching. It’s hard to feel much “wonder” or “sense of connection” from that.
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