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10 April 2024

How the National Trust won the war on woke

The charity has outsmarted and outmanoeuvred its critics, who are all too easy to caricature as furious cranks and bigots.

By Will Lloyd

Nobody in Britain owns more haunted homes than the National Trust. The most unsettling is not some Devonshire abbey or a Palladian mansion set in Capability Brown parkland. It’s 24 Cheyne Row, an unremarkable 19th-century terraced house in Chelsea not far from the King’s Road.

When Thomas Carlyle moved there from rural Scotland in 1834, Chelsea was a sullen slum next to a stinking Thames. Today the area is full of Teslas, multimillionaire plastic surgeons and dogs that cost more than Eton’s annual fees. The contemporary hyper-bourgeoisie would have bewildered Carlyle. Born in the same year as John Keats, Carlyle began as a literary romantic, and died 85 years later a daunting, barely readable reactionary.

Few inside 24 Cheyne Row seemed to know who he was, what he wrote or why he mattered when I visited a few days ago. Portraits of Carlyle, whose face looks like a surf-battered scrag of driftwood, and whose Old Testament eyes burn with caustic judgements, line the interior walls. His gaze went unreturned by a succession of heavy-footed American tourists. They wanted to inspect all the furniture in the house, and happily did so.

Though unread now, Carlyle remains a lingering presence in British life. “Visualise”, “environment”, “self-help”, “decadent”, “shiftiness”, “world-famous” are all Carlyle coinages. The National Portrait Gallery and the London Library were Carlyle schemes. He was revered by Dickens, Darwin and George Eliot. Yet he also wrote about slavery in ways, as the guide in Cheyne Row cheerfully puts it, “that would probably get you prosecuted now”.

Better than anyone, Carlyle personifies how most of our ancestors would get banged up for their beliefs today. At Cheyne Row the Trust skirts around all this. The home is presented as a “home” – an apocalyptically racist Victorian writer just happened to work in the attic upstairs.

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There are legions of ghosts like Carlyle for the Trust to deal with. In 2020 it drew up a list of 93 properties with links to slavery and colonialism that included Chartwell (later owned by Winston Churchill) and Buckland Abbey (Francis Drake’s home for 15 years). The move fired the starting gun on four embittered years of Kulturkampf.

To its critics, who formed a group called Restore Trust, this was a left-wing attempt to rewrite history. The Trust was dropping a ladder down into our damp historical basement and finding Bad Things: dogmatism, racism and hypocrisy.

The Trust denied any “woke agenda”. Instead it was pioneering a new form of patriotism. To truly protect Britain’s heritage meant acknowledging that our ancestors occasionally did nasty things, such as ruthlessly taking over the entire Indian subcontinent, or having a valet.

Restore Trust was easily caricatured: an entire care home of furious white dotards, dredged up from the Daily Telegraph’s comment section, with links to right-wing Tufton Street think tanks. Their attempts to place members on the board of the National Trust have usually been squashed at the charity’s annual general meetings (AGMs).

An attack on the Trust’s vegan scones ended recently, like much of Restore Trust’s activities, in bathos. The Daily Mail, which condemned the baked goods as “woke”, had lauded a Trust vegan margarine recipe in 2018 as “truly scrumptious”. The scones had been vegan for years.

Somewhat more seriously than the scones, the Trust’s democratic processes were criticised last month by a think tank report. The charity’s voting system, restriction on attendances at AGMs and other behaviour were described as “undermining internal democracy”. How? Well, a “quick vote” system introduced in 2022 for AGMs lets National Trust members endorse all the charity’s suggestions with a single tick. The report alleges that the system has altered votes “on both council candidates and members’ resolutions, so that only Trust-recommended candidates and resolutions” succeeded.

Whether this is true or not – and the Trust denies it is – hardly seems to matter. The report is a product of the think tank Legatum Institute, which means that Trust officials can write it off as the work of unhinged, Carlyle-esque culture warriors. More than any comparable institution – the BBC, Oxbridge, the Church of England – the Trust has successfully checkmated its critics.

The Trust has benefited from being attacked. Almost three-quarters of the public, polled last year, see it as a “force for good”. Its membership keeps growing. Keir Starmer praised the charity in January. Criticism, he said, was an attack on the “proud spirit of service in this country”.

Almost by accident, the Trust has invented a curious form of post-populist governance. You pillory anybody who critiques you as racist or crankish. You outmanoeuvre them – perhaps through wily bureaucratic plays that can’t quite be described as democratic. It is not a totally virtuous model for running an organisation. It’s also hard to claim that this model hasn’t worked.

“Woke” or not, the implicit message of any National Trust property is that our best days are far behind us. Our ghosts, however problematic they are, lived with a style and verve that cannot be reclaimed. All that remains for us is to endlessly re-embalm our own history. The truth is that the Trust is about as reactionary as Thomas Carlyle was.

[See also: Kate Middleton and the sickness of a nation]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward