We should be supporting the National Trust not bashing it for exploring our history
There were a couple of charity stories in newspapers over the weekend. First, NCVO and Nottingham Trent University reported that 39 per cent of charities had deteriorating finances. Shop and visitor income is down; events have been cancelled; several months of face to face fundraising were lost during the lockdown. At the same time, 56 per cent expected a rising demand for their services. The minister for civil society accepts that some charities might have to close. Many will struggle to meet demand for their services.
In response, one might expect the Charity Commission for England and Wales to be fully focused on helping charities weather the storm. Instead, it appears to have decided to dabble in the culture war and duff up the National Trust. This, of course, is a traditional recreation for our fogeyish commentariat. Now, in more coded language, the commission’s chair, Baroness Stowell, has joined in. Saturday’s Daily Telegraph led with a (misleading) front page headline that the National Trust faces a Charity Commission inquiry.
The trust has lost some £200 million as a result of the pandemic. It has (entirely predictably) been forced to cancel planned projects and embark on a round of redundancies. Yet Baroness Stowell seems less concerned by the impact these cuts will have on the charity’s mission than on the fact that some of its recent initiatives may offend some of its five and a half million members.
The National Trust’s duty is to the nation, not its members
As former Green Alliance chair Andrew Purkis has pointed out, whether the National Trust upsets some of its members is not a legitimate concern of the Charity Commission. The trust is a public interest charity. Its duty is to the nation, not its members or donors.
What is more interesting is the question of why the trust has upset some people. Part of the answer, of course, is that it is impossible to be a big, national institution without offending Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail columnists. If it is not the National Trust, it is the Church of England, the BBC, the RSPB or even the Conservative Party. A couple of years ago, the Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme, celebrating LGBTQ history, caused outrage: “politically correct nonsense gone mad”. More recently, it has been condemned for the way it has explored the connection between its properties and the history of colonialism and slavery.
What has particularly outraged some people, including the reliably silly Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the trust’s suggestion that one time colonial secretary Winston Churchill might ever have had anything to do with, er, colonialism. This particular row is too absurd for words, particularly given the fact that the trust has recently spent £7.1million restoring Chartwell, Churchill’s family home.
In Island Stories, the historian and Churchill scholar David Reynolds writes: “Any informed account of what made Britain a global force needs to discuss slavepower as well as seapower. It must acknowledge that profits from human trafficking… contributed to the country’s commercial and industrial revolutions.” More positively, “the ideology of freedom… became inextricably part of Britain’s imperial project…. How to narrate this historically and morally complex story will challenge scholars and teachers for years to come. Will politicians face the challenge?” I do not know the answer to that question – it is not looking promising – but I admire the National Trust for doing so.
An incredible contribution to our countryside
The trust cares for places for everyone, forever. Being serious about that means working harder to engage the 14 per cent of the England and Wales population (the proportion is smaller in Northern Ireland) who are non-white. It means being sensitive to the idea that people of colour can find the countryside an unwelcoming place. And for any environmental charity, it means addressing the whiteness and racism (albeit usually unconscious) within our sector.
All this, of course, should be done sensitively. I think the National Trust, given its membership demographic, understands that very well.
What irritates me about the current round of National Trust-bashing (spurred on by the Charity Commission’s chair) is that the trust makes an incredible contribution to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish countryside (as does the National Trust for Scotland in Scotland).
At the beginning of the year, the trust’s director-general, Hilary McGrady, set out its ambitions for the coming years: helping more people connect with nature, becoming carbon neutral by 2030, planting 20 million trees over ten years and establishing green routes from city centres into the countryside. The National Trust remains committed to this bold programme, but cutbacks will make it harder to achieve. That is the real shame, not its desire to engage with the country as it now is.
You can donate to the National Trust’s ‘Everyone needs nature’ appeal here.