The group's chairman is leaving — but don't expect anything else to change
When I was a boy, we had family memberships of both English Heritage and the National Trust, and I had a rule of thumb for predicting how much I would enjoy any given day out. If it was an English Heritage site, it was quite likely to be a castle, or at least a ruined castle, whereas if it was National Trust, a stately home or a formal garden might be on the cards. Nowadays, as I ease gently into Volvo-driving middle age, I enjoy stately homes and formal gardens, but my 10-year-old self was firmly pro-castle.
I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone even 10 years ago, let along back in the 1990s when I was growing up, that the National Trust would find itself at the forefront of national political argument. If anyone thought of the NT, they probably thought of grand mansions set in rolling parkland, and tweedy volunteers sitting quietly in wood-panelled rooms answering occasional questions about whether the furniture was really designed by William Morris.
Yet here we are, with personnel changes at the top of the organisation making headline news. The latest development is the resignation of its Chairman. Tim Parker feels somehow emblematic of the modern British establishment; he was deeply involved in Labour politics at university, but later made a fortune in the world of business, partly through his enthusiasm for giving people the sack.
Initially his departure was greeted as a win for the conservatives within the Trust, dismayed by what they saw as Parker’s indulgence of progressive campaigners and vigorous cost-cutting, a large part of which involved his old hobby of issuing P45s. Now, however, it is being reported that the Trust may become even more “woke” in his absence, as he was allegedly a bulwark against politicisation.
It’s hard to know what is really happening in the Trust’s boardroom. Perhaps Parker is not quite the ogre of slick liberal managerialism as painted by groups such as Restore Trust, the coalition of disgruntled members, staff and volunteers. But there are clearly ructions at the top of the organisation, and equally clearly these are the reflection of wider convulsions in modern Britain, the result of deep changes that have taken place over the last half century or so.
It has become a cliché of conservative polemic to refer to a liberal elite. However, such a thing does actually exist, and its members have risen to the top of many once-conservative institutions since the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Their reflexes are seemingly anti-patriotic and anti-conservative; even for those working in heritage there seems to be an aversion to tradition or custom, and a real hostility to anything approaching a conventional view of British history. Sometimes, of course, this can be helpful; Our Island Story-type narratives can be incomplete and misleading.
But when the iconoclastic, “debunking” impulse becomes too dominant among historians and historical bodies, we risk the complete loss of any national cohesion and unity. This is especially true when we consider another hugely important change: the demographic transformation of the English population. If we are to forge a successful multiracial nation, we must help newcomers to understand that Britain, for all its faults, has been a great force for good in the world, and that it is a privilege and a joy to be part of the ongoing British project.
That project includes the National Trust.