A Critical AGM for The National Trust

I can’t find the results of the National Trust 3rd November 2023 elections. These were held among all members to chose 5 persons directly to go onto the National Trust Council.

A group of NT Members have formed a caucus called ‘Restore Trust’ to promote their candidates to become members of the National Trust’s Council and to oppose some of the Council’s proposed actions
in order to:
To restore a sense of welcome for all visitors without demonizing anyone’s history or heritage.
To present history responsibly and use it as a tool for understanding, not as a revisionistic (sic) weapon.

In the run-up to the trust’s next AGM, political figures are said to “have received emails from” a certain “Andrew Kennedy, a former Conservative campaigner for Truss, Johnson and others.” It seems that they were “invited to sign up to briefings and join a ‘Restore Trust’ WhatsApp group, so social media graphics could be shared.”

In a post on Facebook where he invited councillors to join, Kennedy said he was working with ‘Restore Trust’, which he said was led by a group of longstanding National Trust members “who are concerned that the NT has abandoned its original remit and is now, like much of the charitable and third sector, pursuing a politically motivated ‘revisionist’ agenda”.

‘Restore Trust’ feels it has to oppose what it describes as ‘a “woke” agenda’ and the symptoms of this, it believes, are National Trust displays linking historical figures and families to slavery. ‘Restore Trust’ says it wants to steer the National Trust “back to its core purpose of looking after our heritage and countryside”.

Most prominent among the ‘Restore Trust’-backed candidates the historian and former supreme court judge, Jonathan, Lord Sumption.

According to Wikipedia he describes himself as a “conservative neo-liberal and libertarian.” He has said that an attempt to rapidly achieve gender equality in the Supreme Court through quotas or positive discrimination could end up discouraging the best applicants, who would no longer believe that the process would select on merit. This he said would “have appalling consequences for justice”. On the other hand, I have to agree with his strident opposition to a proposal by Sir Geoffrey Cox, former Attorney General for England and Wales, for a judicial appointments system where politicians quiz judicial appointees on their views, as in the USA. Lord Sumption called it “discreditable” and Sir Geoffrey’s proposal, “one of the most ill-thought-out ideas ever to emerge from a resentful government frustrated by its inability to do whatever it likes.”

Where I, and perhaps you, begin to get worried is the belief he shares with ‘Restore Trust’ that that there is some massive “woke” (there it is again!) conspiracy among the custodians of museums, historial collections, buildings and institutions to falsify their historical contexts and unnecessarily exaggerate some of their inherent negativity. Just some of the many institutions he has singled out the Wellcome Collection, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, the Pitt-Rivers Museum and the Museums Association.

In particular he believes that “the role of slavery or empire in Britain’s economic, cultural and social history is being exaggerated beyond recognition.” According to Wikipedia, he believes “that history should not be apologised for once perpetrators of injustices are no longer alive, and apologies for events such as the Irish Famine and the Armenian genocide are “morally worthless”, although saying that, “we have a duty to understand why things happened as they did” and there are “lessons to be learned”. 

“In the wake of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis, USA, Sumption criticised the removal of monuments, arguing that people of the past did not share the values of the present and calling it “an irrational and absurd thing to do”.

My fear is that those behind ‘Restore Trust’, whose poster boy the noble Lord seems to have become, are of a narrow paranoid persuasion and are putting in considerable effort to reverse the current tentative attempts to give some appropriate historical, economic and political background to some of the relevant factors pertaining to many aspects of our national heritage.

We should at least be given the contextual backgrounds and information so that we better understand what is being presented to us. And if some pf us, at an emotional and moral level, wish to feel regret or sorrow that some things were as they were – then that is for each of us to deal with in her or his own way.

What is not acceptable would be if a group of right-wing zealots were to take it upon themselves to – in several senses – whitewash our nation’s heritage.

Put more simply and expressed earlier my particular personal issues are…

Should the National Trust just preserve fine historic houses and estates of individuals and families without commenting on the origins of the wealth that made it possible?

Or should it make an appropriate effort not only to explain both the positive achievements and opportunities that underlay this conspicuous success, but also some of the significant negative circumstances that might have been just as important, if not more so?

In other words, should it not be informing us about historical events, practices and past moral attitudes in an even-handed way that will help us honestly to understand, to acknowledge and to confront our past?

Should not the National Trust deploy some of its splendid environmental assets in such a way, not only to give pleasure and enjoyment to the current generations but also to play some part in helping preserve and improve the environment and the natural world for generations to come?