by Will Lloyd
Monday, 1
November 2021

Nobody can reform the National Trust

The charity has become the most conservative force in England
by Will Lloyd
An England where nothing ever changes. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Watching the National Trust’s Annual General Meeting is not my usual idea of fun. But last Saturday’s AGM was supposed to be different.

Ever since the Trust released a report in September 2020 tracing its properties’ connections to colonialism and slavery, the mood music around the place had been Wagnerian, apocalyptic.

Two sides emerged: the ‘woke’ establishment that ran one of the country’s largest charities, and Restore Trust, a rebel group dredged from the Telegraph‘s comment desk (and comment section), that wanted to put all that nasty politicisation back in its box.

A recent feature all but promised blood in the cream teas at this year’s meeting. I expected to see flying dentures and passionate speeches, walking sticks brandishingly revealed to be swords, and maybe a disgusted Simon Heffer launching a bust of Thomas Carlyle at the Trust’s council.

Sadly the reality was much more prosaic. Restore Trust put forward three resolutions and won one of them: a proposal to disclose the full of pay of the National Trust’s senior staff. It lost the other two, largely because the Trust had 20,000 or so discretionary votes at its disposal. Two Restore candidates were elected to the council. There was no violence on the floor of the hall.

The AGM was, nevertheless, revealing — because the Trust itself is revealing. Of England, and the way we think about ourselves here. The Trust was set up during a levitating moment in our national history when England ruled the world. High Victorian reformers with names like Canon Hardwick Drummond Rawnsley established it with the wonderfully patronising notion of gifting the working classes some fresh air.

England’s power soon melted away. But the Trust’s remained — and it’s become something like an imperial power within England’s borders. It’s mission is grander, greater, and more expansive than ever. “For ever, for everyone” goes its motto. It owns more land than the Ministry of Defence, the Crown, and the Church.

Far more telling than its report about colonialism and slavery (every institution in the country has been busily doing this for 18 months now) was the way the Trust condemned the Government’s plans for new permitted development rules earlier this year. No building please, we’re English!

In 2005 A.A. Gill said the Trust was part of a “nostalgia industry of heritage”. The only message it had for us was that the “best is all behind us, we will never be able to make or live as marvellously as our ancestors”. The only role we had left in the world was insular: be the museum curators, droning tour guides and assiduous embalmers of a past where all the sharp objects have been removed.

On Saturday both sides fell into this pattern, even as they thought they were in combat with each other. The Trust’s current rulers want feel-bad nostalgia. Restore want feel-good nostalgia. Cringe under a marble statue of your betters, or hate those figures so irrationally you want to chuck them into a river.

The battle around the Trust, far from revealing “the boiling emotions of a nation in flux” as the Guardian put it, shows a country with its head screwed tightly into the sand.

Join the discussion

  • Okay, so you’ve written a screed, but nothing constructive about any ‘reforms’. That said, liberals / The Left tend to dominate every cultural sphere today. Methinks if in fact the Nat’l Trust is so ‘conservative’, one could look at its role as a ‘balancing act’. However, it does what it set out to do, to conserve buildings and countryside for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

  • But you can still wander around some great stately home appreciating the beauty of the place if you so choose, unsoiled by the back story of how it came to be. There are however layers of historical fact to be uncovered, and some of that is troubling. Some of us feel better for knowing about the dirt. Didn’t stop me getting married in a re-purposed stately home.
    Personally I’m more of an English Heritage man, and they tend a lot more to ruined Abbeys than pristine stately homes. You cannot look round a ruined abbey without wondering how it came to be that way, who did it and who benefited. And to be sure you can also imagine and piece together the lives the monks and lay brothers led, what it took to run the estate, including the thousands of surrounding and far-flung agricultural acres, and how the abbey functioned in the regional economy ( in many places, functioned *as* the regional economy). A lifetime of visits won[‘t give you the whole story, there is always more to learn.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up