What's happened to the National Trust
Is it woke?
Stourhead House -nationaltrustimages-johnhammond
For a famously small-c, conservative institution which has traditionally avoided controversy over the years unlike other national treasures - BBC, NHS, what have they been doing to upset the sensibilities of middle England?
They've resisted renaming buildings unlike my daughters old academy comprehensive in Bristol, Colston's Girl's now Montpelier High School, a reaction to Edward Colston's statue being unceremoniously removed.
Whatever they’ve done, it hasn’t stopped 26 MPs and a couple of peers forming Common Sense Group, who have accused the trust of being, “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” and in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals”. I even found a campaign group web site called Restore Trust.
For years I thought the National Trust was an institution exclusively for parents and grandparents to love. During childhood, even though my parents weren't members (yet), it didn't stop them including an excursion on holiday when the weather was typically English - not warm enough for the beach, perfect for stately homes.
Mother cunningly chose places for their wonderful gardens, Capability Brown's landscapes, lost ones miraculously found, and those with high walled, red brick enclosures, market gardens where lunchtime salads for the restaurant were harvested. Me and my sister, after initial enthusiasm on arrival in the car park, soon groaned and moped, dragging our sandals around the gravel paths, waiting for the bombardment of beauty and Latin names to stop.
Lunch was always a packed affair, sitting in line on a convenient wooden bench, a respite from the highly trained roses, Delphinium and Digitalis, Foxgloves to you and me as sandwiches passed down the line. Our real reward came later with a visit to the cafe, afternoon tea and the chance for cake, a choice refined to scones because they were better value - you often got two. It finished in the shop where my paper round and pocket money might have stretched to a paperback, but I wasn't dumb enough to fall for some edifying treatise on late Victoriana and left empty handed. There were better opportunities elsewhere.
Facts and figures
The National Trust celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2020. With 5.6 million members and access to 500 protected places, the charitable trust appears to be one big success story.
The web site is a rich vein of surprising information. They are the biggest farm owner in the UK with 1,500 tenant farmers. Less surprisingly, Downton Abbey, Poldark, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have all made use of their buildings and landscapes. The most famous must be Stourhead House (see top), a Palladium villa and the inspiration for Lady Penelope's home in the 1960's Thunderbirds puppet series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.
The site highlights famous people like Winston Churchill and Chartwell, Beatrix Potter and her home, Hill Top in Cumbria. You can even tour two very unimpressive houses in Liverpool. One is an interwar semi at 251 Menlove Avenue, the other an ex-council property at 20 Forthlin Road, the childhood homes of Lennon and McCartney.
Crime of the century
The crime was publishing a Colonialism and Historic Slavery report, sped up in the wake of George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter movement. It highlights the 93 places which were built and furnished on the back of the slavery economy. Rich families grew richer and with that came the development of the family mansion and the significant grounds around it.
This is hardly news to anyone with an inkling of British history. It is also not a name and shame report, but an attempt to reveal the historical facts. Facts which include buildings linked to the abolition of slavery and where political campaigns were drawn up against colonial oppression.
The report led to an outcry from those common sense types. Any mention of Winston Churchill, even indirectly via Chartwell, the family seat, was bound to be considered an attack on Great Britishness by some. This was further evidence that the trust was at odds with its membership. Ordinary member, “Diana from Leicester”, complained at the AGM, that “the majority of members just want to see beautiful houses and gardens, not have others’ opinions pushed down their throats”.
Those running the National Trust are accused of pursuing a woke agenda, promulgated by certain newspapers and that small Common Sense Group of MPs.
What’s wrong with woke?
The word has been around a lot longer than you might think. An event in Harlem in the 1920’s, which ran from 5.00pm to 5.00am was called The Stay Woke Ball, the meaning simply to stay awake.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition more recently describes woke as, Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.
Woke has been creeping into many British institutions for some time, surely a positive development? The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that artefacts with links to slavery and colonialism could be removed from churches. They're also beating themselves with a birch stick over institutional racism, which is a far better place to focus.
Given the systemic racism in our police force, consistently proven, time and again, let’s hope that wokefulness is creeping in there as well.
War on woke
There are enthusiastic sections of this government and the press that are now waging a war on woke. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, sees the woke agenda as a deliberate ploy to “do Britain down” and is threatening to review the trust’s funding.
This is a heritage charity, largely staffed by volunteers, struggling to employ heritage professionals, versus a government which has decided to intimidate with hints of regulatory action, funds it needs to survive alongside membership contribution.
The real charge
In the 1980s, Patrick Wright, an academic, argued that the National Trust’s role was a kind of, “ethereal holding company for the spirit of the nation”.
These wonderful buildings and gardens are steeped in a perceived history of tradition and inheritance. It’s quintessential Britain, safe, secure, all wrapped up neatly with cream teas. This is not necessarily a good bedfellow for real historical research.
David Olusoga, professor and broadcaster, freely admits that his job as a historian is not to make people feel good, as black Britishness is written accurately back in to our history books. British empire apologists, have labelled him a woke historian,denying the realities he inconveniently points out.
The trust has been caught helping us understand the real history of these properties rather than the comforting backstory which many members have grown up with.
Octavia Hill, one of the three founders believed that the trust should speak to, and for, everyone.
“Our role is to constantly push at boundaries, to never become complacent, but to have a conscious aim to be ever more inclusive”.
She was not interested in serving a loyal minority, her goal was to sincerely drive to engage, to touch us all.