The National Trust is under Attack Because it Cares about History, not FantasyRoundup
tags: slavery, colonialism, historic preservation, British history, British Empire, National Trust
Peter Mitchell is a writer and historian.
The National Trust is in trouble. Earlier this week, 26 MPs and two peers from the recently formed “Common Sense Group” wrote to the Daily Telegraph recommending that the heritage organisation’s funding applications to public bodies be reviewed in light of its having “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons [Winston Churchill] by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism”. The same paper reported on the Trust’s AGM, portraying it as a revolt of disregarded members, such as “Diana from Leicester”, who complained that the “majority of members just want to see beautiful houses and gardens, not have others’ opinions pushed down their throats”. The Trust, it is darkly hinted, “could face an official investigation”, a prospect that Lady Stowell, head of the Charity Commission, has done little to downplay.
The National Trust’s major crime was to have produced a report in September that examined Trust properties’ relationship to the slave trade and colonialism. It explored how the proceeds of foreign conquest and the slavery economy built and furnished houses and properties, endowed the families who kept them, and in many ways helped to create the idyll of the country house. None of this is news to most people with a passing acquaintance with history, and the report made no solid recommendations beyond the formation of an advisory group and reiterating a commitment to communicating the histories of its properties in an inclusive manner. So, why the dramatics?
The MPs’ letter’s main charge is that the National Trust’s leadership has been captured by “elitist bourgeois liberals … coloured by cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the ‘woke agenda’”. Who these people are supposed to be is left conveniently unspecified, but the language of the alt-right is notable – particularly in the invocation of “cultural Marxism”, a trope that began as an antisemitic conspiracist meme about Jewish intellectuals and has become mainstream in the past couple of years.
In framing this fight as one between the ordinary National Trust membership and the “narrow liberal elite” in control of the country’s history, these charges obscure the real stakes of the fight: between a heritage charity largely staffed by volunteers and often precariously employed heritage professionals, and a governing party attempting to intimidate it through hints of regulatory action and review of its applications for the funding, which keep it going, along with membership contributions.
But the dispute also stirs darker feelings. As Nesrine Malik wrote earlier this year, the narrative that the culture of these islands is being stolen from the (implicitly white, native and straight) majority is now disturbingly commonplace in our politics. Suggestions that demographic change – orchestrated by the treachery or connivance of a “cosmopolitan” liberal elite – threaten British identity, or indeed the entirety of western civilisation, have been around since the late 19th century, but they have become ever more insistent in recent years, and have characterised much of the commentary surrounding Black Lives Matter and the statue protests of the summer.
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