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Past recast: Inside the row engulfing the National Trust

(Illustrations by Tracy Worrall)

14 min read

The National Trust has become the unlikely battleground for an increasingly vitriolic row over how the past should be presented. Tali Fraser meets the participants in the culture war to end them all. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

A little over a decade ago, Alan Bennett caused a minor stink with a play about an aristocrat who didn’t wish to open up her stately home to the National Trust (NT) – but who did allow it to be used as the set for a pornographic film.  

The aristocrat, Dorothy Stacpoole, simply could not abide the idea of giving over her house to an institution “so decent, so worthy, so… dull”. The NT felt obliged to issue a corrective public statement to Bennett’s presentation of it as – in the words of one reviewer – an embodiment of the “sterility of today’s cautious, over-organised society”.  

Today, the NT is once again in a battle about what it stands for; but the narrative has somewhat flipped on its head. 

On one side is the current management of the NT, featuring Hilary McGrady, its director general, René Olivieri, its chair, and Celia Richardson, its hard-tweeting director of communications.    

On the other is a group that includes Lord Sumption, former supreme court justice, Lady Violet Manners, socialite daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and the eldest of the ‘Bad Manners sisters’, and Andrew Gimson, political journalist and author.  

Stuck between them are the Trust’s 5.7 million members, its oak-leaf symbol a discreet badge of membership of Europe’s largest conservation organisation. 

“We all want quiet. We all want beauty… We all need space,” said Octavia Hill, the organisation’s co-founder. The National Trust Act of 1907 defined its mission: “For the purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.”  

It is a mission that critics, including the Restore Trust pressure group, say the NT has all-but forgotten in pursuit of “fashionable politics”.   

At first glance, the catalyst for the row seems innocuous. In 2020, the NT commissioned a report to provide an overview of the links between ‘Colonialism and Historic Slavery’ and its properties.  Professor Corinne Fowler, the co-author of the report, said it was an audit of existing, published academic research that covered what was already known about the NT’s properties and their colonial connections.  

Winston Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in Kent, for example, received passing mention in a chapter on the British Raj after 1857, on the grounds that Churchill served as secretary of state for the colonies, and opposed the granting of dominion status to India. 

Few could have predicted quite how explosive this relatively dry piece of work would be. There had been grumbles and muttering about the management before, but the report’s publication, in the words of Cornelia van der Poll, founder of Restore and a lecturer in Ancient Greek at the University of Oxford, was “when it all went on steroids”. 

It sparked the ire of 26 MPs from the Conservatives’ Common Sense Group, who wrote to The Telegraph, accusing the report of having “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism” and the NT’s leadership of being overtaken by “elitist bourgeois liberals” and perpetuating a “woke agenda”.  

Professor Fowler was soon subjected to death threats. “We weren’t surprised that the history was sensitive, that it would provoke a reaction, but I think we were really surprised by the level of political involvement with what we might call the backlash to the report,” she says.  

I am not the kind of person who wants the National Trust to become politicised but how do you protest without being political?

Members of the Common Sense Group even went to her academic funders, Fowler adds, claiming that the report was a political project, not a historical one, so she should not receive any more public funding.  

“That’s quite an unprecedented measure for them to have taken because academic independence is obviously quite important; it is the lifeblood of our national intellectual life.”  

She adds: “If I had been really intimidated by that kind of political interference I might have felt intimidated into not doing any more work. However, I’m not that person.”  

The Charity Commission opened a compliance case into concerns over whether the commissioning and justification of the report fit within the charity’s purpose. It found that the organisation had not broken charity law. “I think the National Trust was vindicated for researching its own properties,” Fowler adds.  

None of the MPs involved ever contacted her, which she found “disappointing”: “They spoke about me and they spoke about my projects, but I would have loved to have a dialogue with them. But they never, never, never spoke to me.”  

The regulator might have given the NT a clean bill of health, but the fight for its soul had barely begun. A year after the report was published, Restore Trust was set up as a breakaway group by Van der Poll, who calls herself “just a typical member seeing things with outside eyes”. 

Concerned she had “no background in art history, or architectural history, or the countryside”, she approached Zewditu Gebreyohanes, then head of the history matters project at think tank Policy Exchange, to become its director. 

It launched a formal attempt to wrest power by endorsing a slate of five candidates for the 36-strong NT council last November. In addition to Sumption, Gimson, and Manners, the slate included Philip Gibbs, a fund manager and Conservative donor, and Philip Merricks, a farmer.  

Lord Sumption, who says he has been a member of the NT “for a long time” and has restored historical monuments in both France and England, accuses the National Trust of having “a range of ambitions that aren’t much to do with their main missions”.  

“I’m not opposed to broadening the appeal of the Trust but I wouldn’t want that to be at the expense of its traditional mission,” he says, which “is meant to be the conservation of houses, collections, gardens and landscapes”; something Lord Sumption believes the NT now sees as “essentially an elitist interest”.  

Gimson adds: “I am not the kind of person who wants the National Trust to become politicised but how do you protest without being political? I would rather not be doing this but there have been persistent attempts to ransack history for things that are morally outrageous to the present day – it is a profoundly unhistoric way of looking at things.”  

Restore Trust aims to “get the Trust to go back to doing their job and focusing on their mission instead of doing things that are extraneous to it”, says Van der Poll. “The big problem,” she adds, “is that the National Trust have become activists, instead of doing its job of looking after historic buildings and countryside gardens.”  

(Simon Stirrup / Alamy Stock Photo)
(Simon Stirrup / Alamy Stock Photo)

Mark Funnell, communications and campaigns director at the National Trust, hits back at these accusations: “It is just untrue.” The National Trust spent £179.6m on the conservation of historic buildings and collections last year, a record for the charity.  

The NT’s management chose to take Restore Trust head-on, in effect accusing it of having a hidden agenda. As Funnell puts it: “It’s privately funded. It’s a company that uses paid-for campaigning to influence our work and our governance.”  

He adds: “They’re not themselves open, transparent and accountable to anyone or anything. They are completely opaque in that financial and that governance… we do see that as concerning.”  

Accounts for the group have grown significantly over the past year, with assets rising from £76,592 in 2022 to £142,478 in 2023 – an 86 per cent increase.   

A writer in The Guardian claimed that Restore Trust is “in fact a 55 Tufton Street-affiliated outfit”; something they reject.  

Gebreyohanes says: “We have never been based in Tufton Street. There is one tenuous link which is that Neil Record [a director of the Companies House controlling entity until 11 January] was chairman of something based on Tufton Street (the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the IEA). There are no other links. So to say that we are linked because one company director has a link to Tufton Street... is really disingenuous.”  

There have been no plans to publish a list of their donors. “Why on earth would we do that, just as Wikipedia doesn’t do that,” Gebreyohanes states.  

She insists the funding all comes from donations via newsletters and the group’s website: “When we started, we had about £150. It has really worked its way up. It is not a rich society by any means, it doesn’t have a lot of money.”  

The Restore Trust’s attempt to gain a bridgehead on the NT’s council fell very flat.  In November 2022, all of its candidates for council seats were defeated at the Trust’s annual general meeting.  

However, Sumption ascribes its failure to a piece of electoral engineering he says is redolent of Pyongyang.  

“As one of the largest democratic organisations in the UK, it is unacceptable for the National Trust to adopt voting methods which are designed to entrench the current management.”  

He is referring to the Quick Vote method, adopted by the NT in 2022, which allows members to agree with all the preferred choices of the charity’s trustees with a single click.  

The NT, for its part, says it took advice from Civic Election Services on how to put the system in place, and its implementation “was actually in response to feedback from members who said they would like to have that option”. There are no plans to remove it.  

National Trust members ought to be trusted rather than treating them as children who need to be pulled by the nose

In its first use at the 2022 AGM, 42 per cent of voting members chose to use the option in the council election.   

“It hasn’t stopped them looking into a council nominee themselves properly when they cast their vote. They’re still making an informed decision when using Quick Vote and to suggest otherwise, I think, is quite insulting to those members,” Funnell says.  

Sumption, who spoke out against it at the NT’s AGM, brands it a “North Korean approach to democracy” which “makes it virtually impossible for somebody who is not endorsed by management” to get onto the council – and he refuses to stand again until changes to the voting processes are made.  

“National Trust members ought to be trusted rather than treating them as children who need to be pulled by the nose in whatever direction the management thinks proper. It is really rather a North Korean approach.”  

For two years in a row, all of the NT’s recommended candidates were selected for the council, something which has never happened before, Gebreyohanes says.  

“It is not doing what is best for the National Trust but what is best for ensuring the interests of the current management are protected.”  

“I would place a lot of blame at the feet of the management, but actually, it is the trustees who have allowed this to happen,” Gebreyohanes says – and “if the trustees are not willing to uphold the values of the National Trust then they should resign”.  

Funnell hits back at the criticisms of Quick Vote. “That is not a description we recognise,” he says.  

“If I’m brutally honest, I think a lot of our members have looked at who Restore Trust back and think ‘because you are so opaque and there’s clearly money behind what you’re doing, I’m not sure I am totally comfortable with them backing certain candidates, because I don’t really know what their angle is. I don’t really know where they’re coming from because I don’t know where this money is coming from – and how you’re affording to pay for social media adverts.”  

As the battle for the soul of the NT rages on, it has become increasingly personal.  

Gebreyohanes, now senior researcher at the Legatum Institute, accuses the NT’s head of communications Celia Richardson of launching “a smear campaign against us [Restore Trust]” in order “to spread really malicious and misinformed stuff”.  

 “She is spreading strange conspiracy theories,” she adds. 

 “When she says her Twitter account is personal, frankly it says in your Twitter bio that you are the communications director for the National Trust, people are going to take it as though it is coming from the National Trust. It is a bit like what’s happening at the BBC, it is very much an abuse of power.”  

All of this has not harmed that estimation of the National Trust at all

In response, Richardson fires back: “These claims are untrue. I have commented on inaccuracies, resulting in a number of apologies and corrections from newspapers that have printed stories generated or commented on by Restore Trust.  

She adds: “I have pressed for Restore Trust to desist from making the claim that it is ‘part of the National Trust’... None of this is about conspiracy theories or smears – it is part of my role to comment on what appears in the news and on social media about the National Trust, including correcting falsehoods and inaccuracies with facts.” 

Amid the vitriol, there have also been attempts at a rapprochement. Fowler briefly engaged Manners in a dialogue about her work. Gimson was invited to lunch with René Olivieri, the NT’s chair, “which I’m sure would have been lovely” but was not the resolution Gimson was looking for.  

The row eventually reached the top levels of politics, when Labour leader Keir Starmer defended the NT’s management, saying the Tories had attacked them and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in the interests of “self-preservation” during a speech calling for a “reset” of relations between charities and the government.  

A Labour Party source pointed out the National Trust’s “consistent positive polling”, making it “pretty solid ground” for Starmer to enter.  

“We feel really heartened that we continue to rank so highly in polling,” says Funnell. “All of this has not harmed that estimation of the National Trust at all.”  

His bullish take is no doubt informed by the fact Restore Trust appears to be in retreat at present. Neither Sumption nor Gimson are minded to stand for election again – at least while the trustees can flag their preferred candidates.  

“It has got so much support behind it from ordinary members, volunteers, ex-staff members. There’s really a lot of momentum behind it. It would be great if it continued strong this year,” Gebreyohanes hits back.  

National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill (illustration by Tracy Worrall)
National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill (illustration by Tracy Worrall)

Not only has the NT managed to see off the risks of a cost-of-living crisis, with membership numbers rising post-pandemic and record donations into its coffers last year, but it – for now – seems to have faced off the threat targeting almost all public institutions: a culture war challenging the stated aims of its management. 

“We’re not alone here,” Funnell says. “The RNLI, the BBC, there’s so many national institutions that have been cast into the so-called culture wars and used as a political football.” 

But there is the softer side of Restore Trust, too, which recognises the good work of the NT and wants to see it rebuilt.  

“We have a lot to be grateful to the National Trust for,” Van der Poll says, “but just because we love what the National Trust has done and looked after, it doesn’t mean that it is perfect and untouchable”.  

She is frustrated with the NT’s “flirting with fashionable politics” but remains a signed-up member and urges others to join as well: “We can’t just walk away and abandon it. If all these people who share our frustrations stayed in rather than giving up their memberships, used their votes, then it wouldn’t be possible to co-opt the charity for fashionable political purposes.”  

Despite the furore and incredulity, it remains, at heart, a distinctly British, National Trust-like, debate. 

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