TAITMAIL All our yesterdays… signifying nothing?

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The National Trust’s annual meeting on Saturday was billed as being potentially the most explosive since its foundation 126 years ago. More than 100,000 members zoomed in from 12 countries, joining 400 in a Harrogate hall. What happened?

Well, nothing very much. They voted against trail hunting on National Trust land - following a scent on foot or horseback with dogs but without killing anything but spoiling natural habitats, the rebels great triumph (not binding on the trustees); some supposed rebels were elected to its 36-member council (though one said he wasn’t actually a rebel). But the council has no executive power, that belongs to the 13 trustees whose posts were not up for discussion. Council members may be wondering if that should change.

The battle was to have been between the progressives looking to the future by reassessing more realistically the view of the past, and those who wanted to stick to what the NT had always done, preserve. It didn't happen.

The National Trust, an independent charity, was started in 1895 by the social reformer Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter, a lawyer, and a vicar, Hardwicke Rawnsley, to "promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest". It was given statutory powers in the 1907 National Trust Act and proceeded to acquire properties until it is now one of the largest landowners in the country. It owns 620,000 acres of land, 780 miles of coast and 500 houses, castles, monuments, gardens and nature reserves and there were 27m visits. It is also extremely wealthy, worth £680m almost half of which comes from the subscriptions of six million members (last year its numbers went up by 200,000). It has a staff of 14,000 and enjoys the help of more than 53,000 volunteers. Its director general since 2018, Hilary McGrady, commands a salary of £195,700.

The trust stepped into the 21st century world of social media campaigning, cancelling and “wokeness” with a report in September 2020 that listed 93 properties owned by the trust whose former owners had links to slavery (nasty) and colonialism (ah, the bone of contention). What forced the steam to rise was the inclusion of Chartwell, once the home of Winston Churchill, a proponent of colonialism who in 1943 as the wartime prime minister is alleged to have redirected to the army famine relief supplies meant for the Bengal Famine in which 3m died. 

My image shows Penrhyn Castle, on Prof Fowler’s list as having connections with slavery or colonialism

Coming just as the Black Lives Matter moment was glowing bright red, the report was what got the press and then the politicians going, and an insurgent group called Restore Trust took to social media (using the hashtag #empirestrikesback) supported by a group of Conservative MPs slavering for a war against wokedom, ministers like Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden extending their wrath to any museum that might exhibit similar inclinations. Andrew Bridgen MP said the trust had been “overtaken by divisive Black Lives Matter supporters”; Andrew Murrison MP said the trust’s mission was to be “clerk of works to a large wedge of our national treasures”, no more, and “that in recent years the trust – frustrated no doubt with that simple custodial function – has been interpreting its remit more broadly. I submit that requires scrutiny”; and the former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe went on the Jeremy Vine show to tear up her membership card. A culture war, if you like. 

That report was written by an academic, Corinne Fowler, who was asked to compile an “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery” as “part of our commitment to ensuring links to colonialism and historic slavery are properly represented, shared and interpreted as part of a broader narrative”. She is the professor of postcolonial literature at Leicester University but describes her subject on the university’s website as “rural Britain’s colonial connections”. With some other academics she conducted another trust project, Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, “a child-led history and writing project which seeks to make historic houses' connections to the East India Company and transatlantic slavery widely known”, she says. Between 2019 and 2020 she was seconded to the National Trust to conduct research tests on all aspects of curation, interpretation and training to lay the groundwork for telling these stories.

Her report has been charged with representing “biased” views about colonialism. Her robust rejoinder was to say that attempts were being made “to misrepresent, mischaracterise, malign and intimidate academics in clear efforts to damage the professional reputations of people for evidence-based scholarship”, adding “I think we should all be worried when academics are targeted in this way, when the evidence can’t be disputed”.

In May it was widely reported that the chairman of the trust, Tim Parker, a businessman in professional life, had resigned after seven years, denying that his decision had anything to do with the wokedom row despite the Daily Telegraph reporting that he had been ousted by Restore Trust. Toby Young said Parker’s alleged defenestration sent “a message to the heads of other national institutions who pander to left-wing activists and ignore their patriotic, small c conservative members”. On Saturday Parker was still nominally chair, though the proceedings were presided over by his deputy.

The AGM concluded that there should be defibrillators at all its properties, that it should not allow overcrowding and that it would plan for digital futures. And so the trustees and McGrady will presumably expect to carry on “promoting and preserving those places of natural beauty and historic interest for which it has the privilege to be responsible for the benefit of the nation, for everyone for ever”.

Whether this non-row will continue to be used by those interested in waging culture war - and Nadine Dorries, said to be an arch cultural warrior, has said nothing about it since she became culture secretary - remains to be seen, but what should happen is that the roles some former owners of these properties had in colonial repression is part of our history, as have the contributions made by black and brown Britons to our national life, and should therefore be part of the story they tell. It doesn’t have to be controversial, just told pragmatically without undue emphasis. It’s time we acknowledged our past without shame or pride, and took lessons from it.

There’s a bit of Shakespeare that every schoolchild knows which fits this episode perfectly, with Macbeth saying gloomily:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

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