I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point; I feel sure that he is more expert on upland farming than I am. I would always encourage a landlord to be responsible, especially a big one, and in particular a massive one such as the National Trust. I would be distressed if it was tempted to sell off properties for them to be turned into second homes or holiday homes. That seems entirely the wrong thing for the National Trust to do, and I would argue that it is probably contrary to the 1907 legislation that founded it. The idea behind the National Trust is conservation, and it is difficult to see how selling off property in the way that he has just described would service that end.
Much of what we have had from the National Trust in recent times is entirely commensurate with the fears expressed by many that what it is doing, in its own terms and the terms of the leaked documents we have seen, is to “dial down” its role as what it calls a “major national cultural institution”. We see the corporate upper lip curling at an “outdated mansion experience” that is of interest only to what it calls a “niche audience”, which is apparently “dwindling”. It is a “niche audience” that was on the rise before lockdown and that is bigger even now than the population of the Republic of Ireland, but it is one that the trust’s clairvoyants anticipate will have moved on, as the trust seeks to
“flex its mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future.”
I have “fun” every time I go to a National Trust property —that is the whole point of going—and it is not clear to me what “useful” means, but we do learn that
“Everywhere…we will move away from a narrow focus on family and art history.”
This has been pejoratively described as the triumph of the “trendies” over the “tweedies”. What it means in practice is that professional curator posts will fall from 111 to 80. There will be a new curator and it will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to learn that that curator will be called
“curator of repurposing historic houses”.
But out will go actual curators—those internationally renowned experts and scholars, who are specialists in one of the world’s greatest collections.
I suspect that most of the membership, like me and my family, flock to National Trust properties to admire an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake—job done, and happy days. It is leisure, it is breathing space, it is succour for the soul and a welcome break from the remorseless hectoring about this and that, to which, as citizens, we are subjected day in, day out.
There are those, particularly on the hard left and perhaps within the trust’s hierarchy, who will say that an organisation makes a political statement every time that it does not advance an opinion—that silence is violence. But the National Trust needs to be a politics-free space, a great mediating institution, and not an organ for promulgating a particular world view, whether one sympathises with that view or not. That, surely, is the service that it renders to civil society.
My parents liked to drag me and my brother around National Trust properties when we were younger. Fifty years on, they all merge into a perpetual search for ice cream, but I do have one abiding recollection, and it is not some politically correct right-on narrative, misspelt on a piece of slate. It is inequality. Those great houses stand as silent witness to an unequal past. We do not need to be force-fed that by the trust’s high command; it is there and it is in your face. It is also plain to most visitors that the wealth required to throw up those mini-palaces did not often come from a post office savings account. Some of that money was highly questionable—some of it very dirty indeed by today’s standards and even by the standards of the day. But here we are in 2020, with the public—on whose backs, to a greater or lesser degree, those palaces were built—possessing them. That is a triumph and a restitution.
I mentioned that I did not want to be misconstrued or misunderstood, and it is therefore with trepidation and in anticipation of a wall of hate mail and trolling that I come to the document—the trust’s slavery and colonialism report. It is a catalogue of its properties that have some links to those subjects, but much of it is flimsy and tendentious. In 2013, English Heritage published “Slavery and the British country house”, which is a serious, thoughtful, measured contribution to a subject of significant public interest, in contrast with the National Trust’s colonialism and slavery report, whose title, which conflates two things as a common evil, gives the game away. The conflation gets worse because, wittingly or not, it by association diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill. The trust speaks of context, but where is the context for a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism? The best that could be said of that piece of work is that it is plain shoddy. Otherwise, we are left to conclude that it is indicative of the trust’s corporate mindset.