National Trust gets caught in culture war crossfire

Trust accused of being ‘at odds’ with membership after report on slavery and colonialism
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The inclusion of Winston Churchill's home Chartwell in the National Trust report caused particular controversy
The inclusion of Winston Churchill's home Chartwell in the National Trust report caused particular controversy

It has been a gruelling few months for the National Trust. Having just completed the largest restructure in its history, resulting in the loss of almost 1,300 posts, the trust has now found itself at the centre of the political culture war that has been raging since the fall of the statue of slavetrader Edward Colston in June.

At a Westminster Hall debate this week on the trust’s future, the Tory MP Andrew Murrison accused the organisation of a “dramatic change of direction” that he claimed had put it at odds with its members, volunteers and workforce.

Much of the concern centres around the recent publication of a report outlining links to the slave trade and British colonial rule at 93 National Trust properties. The inclusion of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill’s home Chartwell on the list was particularly controversial; describing the report as “flimsy and tendentious”, Murrison said the report’s conflation of slavery and colonialism “as a common evil” was a sign of its political motivations. “What it does, wittingly or not, is by association diminish towering figures in British history,” he said.

The timing of the report’s publication was unfortunate; although commissioned more than a year ago, it was released at a time when there is already a fierce media spotlight on the representation of the British Empire in the public realm, with tensions on the issue being stoked by various political factions. The report followed on the heels of a letter sent by culture secretary Oliver Dowden to national institutions warning that they risked losing funding if they failed to support the government’s position or took actions “motivated by activism or politics”.  

Murrison’s critique of the trust continued along similar lines. He said that members did not wish to be “force-fed by the trust’s high command” and that visiting its properties should instead be “succour for the soul and a welcome break from the remorseless hectoring on this and that”.

During the debate, Murrison and fellow Tory MP John Hayes called for an independent review of the trust’s activities and also claimed it had come to the attention of the Charity Commission for straying too far from its core purpose. Murrison went on to criticise the trust for sidelining curatorial expertise by reducing its curatorial posts from 111 to 80, and for its draft 10-year strategy, which he said represented a move away from the traditional “mansion experience” offered by the trust.

As an independent charity, a government review of the trust is unlikely to happen, but heritage minister Nigel Huddleston indicated that political pressure would continue to be brought to bear on the organisation, concluding the debate by saying “the trust must focus on its core functions” and “reflect and learn” from the offence it had caused.

A National Trust spokesman said: "We listened to the debate in Westminster Hall and agree with the Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison that the National Trust should remain 'a place of succour for the soul', free from hectoring, and a politics-free space. 

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"We will take on board all the comments made by MPs at the debate, and continue to focus our efforts on welcoming members, visitors and families back to the places in our care."

The spokesman made clear that the trust is not under investigation by the Charity Commission. He said: “We have always researched the history of our places and doing so informs how we care for and present them.  As is expected of all charities, the National Trust reports to the Charity Commission on any significant issues affecting our work, and we have kept them informed about the colonial history report we published in September, and some of the complaints we received from people who disagreed with our publishing it. We always answer any questions the commission has with full transparency.”

With museums and heritage organisations heavily reliant on government funding for survival during the Covid-19 crisis, sources indicate that, after gaining momentum in recent years, work on issues like decolonisation and contested history is now being treated with increasing caution by institutions and arm's-length bodies.

It seems unlikely that this will be the last time that the editorial independence of the sector is put to the test in the coming months.     

Comments (3)

  1. Vanessa Trevelyan says:

    This is a disgusting attack on the National Trust’s work. I was wholly supportive of the Trust’s project to discover more about the history of their sites and the people involved with them. If this uncovers uncomfortable facts about “towering” historical figures and, by implication, British history as a whole then we have to adjust our view of our national worth and have a grown-up dialogue about how this can be properly presented and interpreted.

    1. Francesca Vanke says:

      I agree, Vanessa. The problem with ‘towers’ is that people get squashed underneath them!

  2. Caroline Bray says:

    The response from some MPs, NT members and newspapers shows how much the work on decolonisation and diversity is needed across the board. I’ve had some interesting conversations with my 84 year old mum, who is completely in agreement with the new Learning Manifesto (having been told about it in more detail than she probably needed!). When we started she mentioned that she had been educated to be proud of the Empire and all it stood for and finding out the truth is challenging and painful, even for someone open minded and curious. As she says ‘you wouldn’t know the full story unless someone teaches you’.

    My 70s Education hadn’t noticeably moved on from hers and this means that many people over 50 are likely to feel very uncomfortable about being told what they were brought up to believe is wrong. It seems to me that the sector needs to recognise this and work to change it in a more collaborative way. These are undoubtedly outdated ideas but maybe a more questioning, conversational approach is needed?

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