The National Trust (NT) has been increasingly drawn into the so-called ‘culture wars’ since attracting the ire of the right-wing press in 2017. It expected staff at Felbrigg, whose last owner is known to have been homosexual, to wear rainbow lanyards to support a Pride event. When some complained, the NT made the lanyards optional, but it is now under scrutiny.
Since 2019, the Daily Telegraph has led the charge, with articles full of outrage and hysteria over what it terms a ‘woke’, and even an ‘anti-British,’ agenda. A report on properties connected with Britain’s imperial past, commissioned well before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, provoked fury from the Conservative government because it included Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill. The NT celebrates his wartime leadership and his love of painting, but it would appear to be sacrilege to mention his involvement in the Bengal Famine, or the Tonypandy riots, both of which feature in a colourful and controversial life.
The NT’s Annual General Meeting in Bath in November 2022 was the second AGM at which a group called Restore Trust fielded seven candidates for election to the council, and proposed several resolutions they hoped to see adopted. The group claims to be grassroots, but its reactionary agenda and opaque sources of funding have led to accusations of it being an ‘astroturf’ organisation, linked to political donors based at Tufton Street.
One of its board members has connections to climate change sceptics Net Zero Watch, and its Director, 23-year-old Zewditu Gebreyohanes, was previously at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. Gebreyohanes was also recently appointed as a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum by the then-Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries.
Articles in Yorkshire Bylines, Byline Times and The Guardian have queried both agenda and funding for the group. Restore Trust claims it wants to de-politicise an institution that has grown too far beyond its original remit, but the nature of the objections it raises indicates that this is somewhat disingenuous.
Changing with the times
It’s fair to say that the National Trust has undergone something of a make-over. I even confess to having a faint nostalgia for what was, 30 or more years ago, a far less slick and sophisticated operation. By today’s standards, visits were a quirky experience, as though the public were a bit of an afterthought, with facilities somewhat hit and miss.
Today it’s very different. Properties have dedicated car parks, and incorporate some combination of visitor centre, shop and café; many have secondhand bookshops, exhibitions and events, and there is local and national branded merchandise for sale.
The motto of today’s NT is ‘For everyone, for ever’, and in seeking to expand its core membership revenue, it has widened its focus to explore those aspects of its estate that address current concerns. This is what is proving controversial.
The NT, initially surprised at so many negative column inches it attracted, has vigorously defended itself against attacks on its policies of inclusion and rewilding, its decision to feature playrooms at Sudbury Hall, and only partially to restore fire-ravaged Clandon Park. It also forced a correction in The Telegraph which reported claims by Restore Trust that the NT was ‘dumbing down’, evidenced by the fact 1 ,700 specialist curators had been made redundant in its 2020 Covid-related restructure. In fact, only eight curators had been made redundant, and four of these were voluntary.
That people feel passionately about social history, art and the countryside is no bad thing, of course, but the intensity of the anger aimed at the NT seems out of all proportion to the concerns. Restore Trust’s specific goals seem diffuse, until you consider that the NT is the fourth biggest UK landowner, behind only the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence and the Crown. Control of the NT confers an undeniable say in the wider affairs of the country. In a word, power.
The visitor experience
So what do the majority of members want? There are over five million, and presumably most of them joined to enjoy family outings and a reasonably reliable cream tea, because hardly any of them vote each year at the AGM. Estimates of support for Restore Trust vary, but its most popular proposal (removing the Chair’s discretionary proxy votes), which it still didn’t carry, only brought around 50,000 votes or 1% of the members. Indeed, Restore Trust failed to win any of its resolutions, and none of its candidates were elected.
As a member and a volunteer, I spend quite a lot of time on NT property and note that most visitors are happy to wander at their own pace, gazing at the fixtures and furnishings. A fair few choose to engage with stewards about anything from the history, to estate management, and from chair covers to ghosts. The shrill criticisms may have melted away, but the NT’s director-general, Hilary McGrady, has received threats of violence. This Very British Struggle looks set to continue for some time. At its heart is no less than the definition and perpetuation of British cultural heritage.