The charity has become the most conservative force in England
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.
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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.