The National Trust's Prior Park. Happily not yet linked to colonialism. Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Is the National Trust losing the nation’s trust?

If the National Trust is tired of promoting “heritage” what can be done to remind it of its purpose?

The National Trust’s 125th birthday celebration has turned sour. Covid’s financial impact has done most to spoil the party, costing the Trust a projected £200 million of its budgeted revenue this year. It has tried to resist plugging the gap by raiding deep into its reserves – 80 percent of which are, in any case, legally restricted and cannot be spent on running costs. So, it must make cuts. Most staff are on furlough, but an aggressive redundancy programme has begun.

At a time when it needs all the friends it can find, starting with retaining the loyalty of its 5.5 million members, the National Trust has instead chosen this moment to give the impression that its priorities are shifting elsewhere and that its historic assets are an embarrassment to it. To a barrage of complaint from bewildered members during last week’s online Q&A (which replaced the annual AGM), the Trust’s senior management attempted to calm fears, without conceding ground. But it is not just – as the Trust’s defenders suggest – reactionary malcontents with a thin understanding of what the charity is up to who are fearful. The Charity Commission has been asking questions and on 11 November a Westminster Hall session in parliament on the Trust’s future was dominated by MPs’ concerns.

A hint that the National Trust was raring to splash a bit of contemporary colour on its aged assets was proffered three years ago when it launched its “Prejudice and Pride” programme to celebrate LGBTQ heritage. This included posthumously outing as gay the intensely private owner of Felbrigg Hall who had gifted the property in his will. The Trust threatened its volunteers at the Norfolk country house with being removed from public duties if they refused to wear the gay pride lanyards that they were ordered to hang around their necks.

The Trust’s dire financial predicament this year has not stifled the production of a significant report on colonial and historic slavery links to its properties. 93 were identified (including Felbrigg Hall) and an updated, more comprehensive, report is underway in the hope of finding some more. The indiscriminate approach lumped together the houses of families that had made money from Caribbean slave plantations in the eighteenth century with nineteenth and twentieth century public administrators whose service related to the British empire at a time when it was actively engaged in stamping out slavery.

Hughenden Manor appears on this list of shame because its resident prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, devised the ceremonial title of Empress of India for Queen Victoria and had previously served in Lord Derby’s administration which passed a government of India act. Chartwell is similarly listed because Winston Churchill had been (to quote the report) “Prime Minister twice (1940–5 and 1951–5), famously during the Second World War – a period that coincided with the Bengal Famine of 1943. Leading historians, such as Robert Rhodes James, comment that Churchill lived an ‘exceptionally long, complex, and controversial life’.”

Combining slavery and empire, which were – in different times and places – at first collaborative and later antagonistic forces, involves historical simplification at its most facile. But the report was timed perfectly to give the Trust contemporary synchronicity with the Black Lives Matter movement (which the Trust’s chairman, Tim Parker, lauded as “a human rights organisation” sharing the Trust’s commitment “to anti-racism”) and the “decolonise the curriculum” campaign that seeks to reduce the amount of western thought taught in universities and to denigrate such parts that survive the cull.

If the Trust’s senior management believes that the volunteers upon which it relies to keep historic homes open and cared for will do so with a happier heart once they have been better educated to understand the racist darkness that these properties really represent then they have an innovative take on human nature and what motivates people to give of their time to a cause they believe in.

specialist curators in paintings, sculpture and furniture are being axed entirely and regional curator positions are being merged with the role of Visitor Experience Consultant

In response, it is claimed that the colonialism and slavery report involves the sort of important historical research that is rightly part of the Trust’s mission. On closer inspection though, some entries seem to go to herculean lengths to find tenuous connections with wrongdoing. Even Glastonbury Tor, the Iron Age terraced hill of Arthurian legend, makes the list because at one stage in the 1830s it was in the care of a cleric who acted as a trustee in a marriage settlement of the future duke of Buckingham and Chandos – and a part of that settlement included an inheritance of compensation for a slave estate in Jamaica.

If only such detailed research was still valued elsewhere by the Trust. Instead, specialist curators in paintings, sculpture and furniture are being axed entirely and regional curator positions are being merged with the role of Visitor Experience Consultant – confusing academic scholarship with a role designed to promote visitor attractions. These are separate skills, honed by people who should certainly be in communication with each other, but embodying talents that are rarely combined in the same person.

No clearer example of the Trust’s embarrassment about the cultural heritage it is charged to protect can be found than in “Towards a Ten Year Experience for Places and Experiences.” Written by Tony Berry, the Trust’s Visitor Experience Director, it recommends stripping some properties of their antiques and furnishings to “to make spaces more flexible and accessible” and “to flex our mansion offer to create the more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future.” It is worth noting that to Berry, historic rooms are mere “spaces” and visitors are “audiences.” His findings come with the headline “Mansions: from evolution to revolution” – which sounds as if he approaches country houses with the same enthusiasm as the Irish Republican Army, circa 1922.

This ten year vision report was approved this Spring. Perhaps the trustees may yet have sufficient grasp of their custodial obligations to block its implementation, but the fact that it has got this far gives a clear indication of the widespread disregard for what the Trust was set up to do by the very individuals entrusted with that undertaking. What is more, the report’s recommendations are backed up by plenty of other initiatives in the pipeline or underway including the creation of new role – Creator of Repurposing Historic Houses. The clue is in the title.

This matters because the National Trust is not Chessington World of Adventures. Although operationally independent of government, it is a statutory body. 144 of its properties, as the former Country Life editor and architectural historian, Clive Aslet, points out, “are designated as museums and have government indemnity as a consequence. But if the Trust isn’t prepared to provide museum curatorial expertise any more then this will be called into question.”

the National Trust is not Chessington World of Adventures

The Trust’s director general, Hilary McGrady, has recorded a video offering reassurance that creating an inventory of slavery and colonialism is in no way to pass judgment, merely to emphasise that Churchill should be on the list because he was secretary of state for the colonies (for a year and a half, in 1921-2) and had a hand in negotiating the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty (actually all Ireland was until that deal a fully Westminster-represented part of the United Kingdom and not a colony – but details, details).

It is, indeed, disingenuous of McGrady to imply that the colonialism and slavery report is no more than a matter of disinterested historical recordkeeping. The report explicitly states that its findings are a first step and that the Trust expects action to come from it. It has put Rita McLean, who in her previous role of director of Birmingham museums developed a range of workforce and black history initiatives, to chair “an independent external advisory group of heritage and academic experts, many with lived experience” to report back on “how can the National Trust continue to explore and share the histories of slavery and colonialism in its properties and collections, and engage people in these histories?” as well as “what are key actions, challenges and opportunities for the National Trust as an organisation in exploring the legacies of colonialism?”

“There’s a cumulative effect from all these initiatives the Trust has commissioned,” suggests Clive Aslet. “It’s all part of a direction of travel towards self-hatred for the historic properties.” Blithely ignored are other no less relevant sources of historical inquiry, like the considerable role of medieval English serfdom in enriching the estates in the first place or the wealth appropriated from the Church during the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries that found its way into landed estates. It is “only one period of exploitation that has been singled out,” says Aslet. “That’s why it looks like part of an agenda.”

It’s all part of a direction of travel towards self-hatred for the historic properties

What is to be done? The prospect of a government inquiry seems remote. Asked on 11 November in the Westminster Hall debate on the Trust’s future by the Conservative MP, Sir John Hayes, whether he would at least ask the Trust how much it had spent on the colonialism and slavery report at a time when it was laying off 1,300 staff, Nigel Hudleston, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for sport, heritage and tourism, responded that, “it is an independent body, and we need to respect that.” “The best approach,” Hudleston explained, “is to rely on the good sense of the board and its executives to heed and respond to the voices of its members, its army of volunteers, the general public, the media, the Charity Commission as its regulator, and of course Parliament.” He would however send the Trust a Hansard report of the debate “so that it can hear the strength of feeling expressed today and answer some of the questions raised.”

So the government is not minded to get heavy handed. Indeed, Conservatives should be naturally cautious about intrusive state intervention in the work of charitable bodies.

However, the belief is widespread in the Conservative party – and perhaps even more among its supporters – that Britain’s guardians of education, culture and heritage are far from Hudleston’s dispassionate “good sense” custodians but rather now predominately individuals pursuing a “woke” political agenda. Since the summer, the Common Sense Group has becoming increasingly focused on the issue of ensuring that (as it put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph) “a clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image.”

Marshalled by Sir John Hayes, this Common Sense Group is now meeting weekly (currently virtually in order to be covid compliant), and counts among its supporters 59 MPs and seven peers, including Peter Lilley. It is getting a hearing in government, having had recent discussions with the prime minister as well as, separately, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, and Suella Braverman.

“Once things become routine, they become a given, so it is very important to stay in the national conversation” says Sir John. “Common sense must not be lost by default” and the Group’s fearlessness to speak out should embolden others not to feel browbeaten into silence. He is not fatalistic about government’s inability to confront the “woke” agenda believing, for instance, that extra protections can limit councils’ ability to remove statues. As for the National Trust, he points to the response of the former leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell, who in her current role as chair of the Charity Commission is asking questions of the Trust (which the commission regulates) to ensure it does not stray from its statutory purposes as the preserver of natural and historic places of beauty and importance.

This, though, is difficult ground. The Trust will continue to claim that its inclusivity agenda is not just compatible but vital to its mandate as a public body. Would the Charity Commission really take punitive action over merging curatorial competences and ditching many experts altogether when doing so is marketed as a survival plan to take the Trust boldly into the future?

Baroness Stowell is stepping down in February. Who replaces her may determine whether the National Trust’s transformation is subject to regulatory scrutiny or approved on the nod.

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

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

Critic magazine cover