Simon Heffer, The Telegraph, September 22, 2020
It has seemed for some years as though the National Trust has a death wish, as it dumbs down its properties and uses them more and more for publicity-seeking stunts. The fact that it has compiled a dossier of properties linked to “colonialism and slavery” appears to confirm my fear.
Apparently, the Trust’s “experts” – few of whom, on the basis of what this says about their expertise, would deserve even the lowest class of history degree from the worst imaginable university – say that around a third of its properties are associated with the “sometimes-uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history”.
Yes, the good old National Trust – once the haven of well-preserved stately homes, woodland walks, and tea, jam and scones – is now determined to become part of that noisy elite minority that can’t let a day go by without engaging in an act of self-flagellation, and reminding us what a shocking country, and people, we supposedly are.
The Trust seems not to understand that its role is to conserve our historic houses, artefacts and landscapes: it is not the administrator of some nationwide re-education programme. The “list of shame” about slavery and colonialism is a typical example of the ignorance of those in charge. First, there seems to be some confusion of the two terms. Most British colonies, and almost all of those in Africa, were established after slavery was abolished. Once definitions of iniquity become so loose, it is easy to shovel the reputations of almost any historical figure you like into them.
So visitors to Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s house in Sussex, will need to brace themselves for a description of the wickedness of the man who gave us the phrase “the White Man’s Burden”. One would never have thought that a man who was the most popular writer of his age, revered by millions in this country and around the world – and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – would have to be placed at a bargepole’s length from the present generation.
Even less predictably, those visiting one of Wordsworth’s houses in the Lake District – the poet who wrote, of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” – must also vicariously repent. William’s younger brother, John, once worked for the East India Company, an organisation with whom local Indian princes happily and profitably traded.
But, inevitably, the focus of the outrage has been Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country house in north Kent. Churchill, whose minor achievement of managing our victory in the Second World War seems to count for nothing today, is condemned because while he was trying to stop Hitler’s programme of genocide and near-apocalyptic destruction, he failed to respond adequately to the Bengal famine.
The latter was no laughing matter – it is estimated that between two and three million Indians died in it, either of starvation or of diseases caused by it. A debate has continued ever since about how far the disaster was man-made and how far an act of God; Bengal, now Bangladesh, had been hit by a cyclone, flooding and rice-crop disease. There being a war on, there was a severe shortage of shipping when it came to sending aid. To blame Churchill – whose political record in other respects was patchy, to say the least – is not so much harsh as ridiculous.
Sir Winston is also attacked by the Trust for opposing Indian independence. Well, so did almost every leading British politician from 1858, when the British government took over running India from the East India Company, until the Second World War. God knows what the Trust are going to do about Disraeli, whose Buckinghamshire house, Hughenden Manor, is another of their properties: he was so enthusiastic about British rule in India that he arranged for Queen Victoria to become Empress of it.
The Trust says it wants to present its visitors with “very painful” histories. Why? Since when was it the function of this conservation group to vilify so many of our historical figures, people who – when not engaging in acts of racial, sexual and gender oppression – were helping to forge a democracy that set an example followed around the civilised world?
For too long, the Trust has treated its core clientele – middle-aged and elderly people – with near-contempt. Too many of their properties have been made what they call “accessible” – made into, effectively, children’s play centres, offering a potted version of Leftist history that is either sanitised or propagandistic.
But the real stupidity of the Trust lies not in its allowing a highly questionable view of history to colour its presentation of its properties. It lies in digging its own grave even more deeply at a time when it is having to sack 1,200 of its 14,000 staff because of the Covid-19 crisis, and when partly because of that, but also partly because of its sod-the-public attitude, people have been staying away from its properties in droves. Hilary McGrady, the Trust’s director-general, needs to get a grip, lest her whole enterprise haemorrhage its core membership and head towards insolvency.
This is the worst possible time for the Trust to start behaving in this aggressively irrelevant fashion. It could well provoke thousands of members to resign, and volunteers to go with them, because they will not be indoctrinated in this fashion, or told to loathe their country as some form of penance.
It ought also to provoke an investigation by the Charities Commission about the Trust’s political activities. On the front page of its website, it boasts that it carries out its founders’ wishes “to care for nature, beauty and history”. Well, it shows a pitiful care for history to distort it as the fanatics who are now in control seem determined to do.
“The values of our founders are still at the heart of everything we do,” the official preening continues. Oh really? One thing that can be said with certainty about the founders is that they started the Trust because they loved and wished to preserve Britain’s past – not to use it as the basis for an object lesson in self-hatred.