The most important thing about the ongoing row over the National Trust’s new report into the colonial histories of its properties is that it is not about the report.
I know this because I have read the report cover to cover. If, like me, you are the kind of person who enjoys reading the plaques in stately homes and other historic sites, I strongly recommend making the time to read it. The bulk of the report is taken up with a series of essays about the various aspects of British imperial rule that touch upon and are part of the history of the properties the trust manages. The exercise is no different to the work the trust does day to day in uncovering and listing the histories of its properties. At the back of the report are a list of trust properties with links to British colonialism.
What is wholly absent from the report is condemnation. Peckover House is named for Jonathan Peckover, who managed the Wisbech and Lincolnshire Bank, one of the hundreds of Quaker banks that merged to form Barclays at the close of the 19th century, who funded memorials to his fellow abolitionists and funded what may be Britain’s oldest museum of the artefacts and atrocities of the slave trade. This property is treated and described no differently than Nunnington Hall, whose owners made their fortune from the financing of at least 42 voyages transporting enslaved Africans from 1780 to 1793, at a time when slavery was already fiercely opposed and contested on moral grounds in the UK.
So anyone who talks about how the National Trust should not be judging the past by the standards of the present, or engaging in moral judgements about the properties, has clearly not read the report. Far from judging the past by the standards of the present, the trust does not even judge the past by the standards of the past.
The trust’s great offence, as far as I can make out, is that Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s family home from 1922 until his death in 1965, is included in the list of properties with links to colonialism. Twenty two Conservative MPs claimed in a letter to the Telegraph that the directors of the National Trust “implicitly tarnished” Churchill’s name by including him in the report. This is hard to square with the fact that many of the properties in the index are there solely because they were owned by people who campaigned against slavery, built by people who campaigned against slavery, or house collections acquired by people who campaigned against slavery, unless the centuries-long consensus in British politics that slavery is generally speaking, a no-no, has changed recently.
But it’s worth also quoting the offending section in full:
“Chartwell was the family home of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) from 1922 until his death. One of the longest-serving political figures in British history, he was prime minister twice (1940-45 and 1951-55), famously during the Second World War – a period that coincided with the Bengal Famine of 1943. Leading historians, such as Robert Rhodes James, comment that Churchill lived an ‘exceptionally long, complex, and controversial life’. He served as Secretary of State for the Colonies (1921-22) and helped to draft the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the time of the creation of the Irish Free State. However, Churchill opposed the granting of Dominion status to India, voting against the India Bill in 1935.”
It is not, to be frank, clear to me what the objection to this section is. And the reason why is that none of the MPs in question have been asked what their problem is. In recent weeks, many of them have been on TV or radio talking about the report. But I am yet to see any of the 22 asked about the contents of the report or what they dislike about it. Instead, we have had a lot of “the National Trust, good or bad?”, “the National Trust: is it right that the body makes moral judgements about the past?” (which given that the trust is not doing this is particularly egregious).
This feels to me to be part of two problems. The first is that conflict sells and makes for “good” TV, the more simplistic the better. The second is that, yes, I accept that many people find the National Trust’s report dull. But the role of a public service broadcaster is to make the dull interesting, or at the least to make the dull widely understood. Whether it is the complexities of a Brexit deal or the contents of a National Trust report, it’s not so much that the BBC’s televised programmes fail to do this, it’s that many of them don’t even try. No politician is ever put on the spot about the details of the bill they oppose, the organisation they want to defund or what have you. The National Trust is the latest victim of that trend, but it won’t be the last or the most important.