The National Trust is under attack because it cares about history, not fantasy

Whereas the Trust wants to explore its historic links to slavery, the right wants to preserve an unreal version of the past

Knole House, home of the Sackville-Wests.
Knole House, home of the Sackville-Wests. Photograph: IR_Stone/Getty Images
Knole House, home of the Sackville-Wests. Photograph: IR_Stone/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 10.02 EST

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.

The fact that the Trust’s chair, Tim Parker, acknowledged the importance of Black Lives Matter has been seized on eagerly by critics. Charles Moore, writing for the Telegraph, claims that the organisation has been “rolled over by extremists ... seeming to accept the agenda of Black Lives Matter” – which is, he harrumphs, “not a scholarly organisation” but one dedicated to “defeating capitalism, ‘defunding’ the police, destroying the ‘nuclear’ family”, and so on. Last week another columnist in the paper complained that the National Trust appeared to be “hellbent on going woke”.

It’s worth stepping back and thinking through why a country house’s association with the slave trade might arouse such passions. Writing in the 1980s, the academic Patrick Wright argued that the National Trust had been constructed as a kind of “ethereal holding company for the spirit of the nation”. Country houses are easily mythologised as Britain’s soul, places in which tradition and inheritance stand firm against the anonymising tides of modernity. They are places of fantasy, which help us imagine a rooted relationship to the land that feels safe and secure. As Wright pointed out, this makes the project of preserving them necessarily defensive, and one that doesn’t sit well with the practice of actual historical research – which contextualises, explains and asks uncomfortable questions.

It’s no surprise that when the present is a traumatic and confusing place to inhabit, idealised pasts look even more desirable. Nor is it surprising that a government anxious to distract attention from its policy failings should seek to shore up its support by ramping up the culture war that has already engulfed our relationship with our history.

But this is not something that is only happening in the UK. In Poland and Hungary, the past decade saw increasingly direct government interference in the kinds of national history that can or can’t be told, alongside attacks on universities and intimidation of academics. In the US, the New York Times’ 1619 Project brought together many of America’s best historians and writers to explore the centrality of slavery to the country: the response from rightwing media and politicians was extreme, with prominent figures describing the project as an attempt to defile the American story.

The treatment the National Trust has received for daring to understand its mission as to help us understand history, rather than supply us with fantasy, is a warning to all historians. This, ultimately, is what the trust’s critics are incensed by: that its properties are endowed with real historical meaning rather than comforting myth.

• Peter Mitchell is a writer and historian