The National Trust has been approached by the UK’s Charity Commission for clarity over concerns it’s straying from its purpose, after the heritage charity published a review linking 93 of the properties it looks after to slavery and colonialism.
In an interview on Friday on the Telegraph’s podcast Chopper’s Politics, Chair of the Charity Commission Baroness Stowell of Beeston said that she was aware of recent press coverage of issues following the Trust’s review, and that the commission was in contact with the Trust, but couldn’t reveal the details of the conversation it was having with the charity.
Stowell said the National Trust has a “clear, simple purpose which is about preserving some of our great historic places and places of great beauty and national treasure”.
People expect it to “focus on that purpose”, and not “lose sight of that”, she said, and “shouldn’t be surprised” at questions and criticisms if they do things that seem to stray from that.
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission later clarified in a statement to Civil Society that the commission had “written to the National Trust to understand how the trustees consider its report helps further the charity’s specific purpose to preserve places of beauty or historic interest.”
“We await a detailed response from the charity, and in the meantime have drawn no regulatory conclusions,” the spokesperson said.
In response to the Telegraph interview, Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust, wrote in a tweet, “As [the Telegraph] itself reports, we are not facing an inquiry. Our purpose remains as it always was—to care for nature beauty and history, for everyone forever. If researching the history of National Trust places is wrong, then we’ve been doing something wrong for 125 years.”
As @telegraph itself reports, we are not facing an inquiry. Our purpose remains as it always was – to care for nature beauty and history, for everyone forever. If researching the history of National Trust places is wrong, then we’ve been doing something wrong for 125 years.
— Hilary McGrady (@HMcG_DGNT) October 24, 2020
McGrady denied in a video message on the Trust’s website that the report was due to any political agenda or the desire to “tell a certain version of history,” but that it was rather to “tell all of the story, not just the bits that we feel comfortable with”.
She said, however, that it wasn’t the Trust’s job to pass judgement on people in history, only to present the facts.
The National Trust’s 115-page interim review (pdf) on the connections between historic slavery and colonialism at its properties was met with criticism at the time of its release, not least because it included Winston Churchill and Chartwell, which was his family home.
Critics said this besmirched the character of the much-lauded statesman, but McGrady said it wasn’t incongruent to both celebrate Churchill and include him in the report because of his involvement with the British colonies.
Historian Andrew Roberts, author of “Churchill: Walking with Destiny”, is one of the critics of the National Trust report.
“By linking colonialism and slavery together in its report, the National Trust was trying to imply a moral equivalence between them, when there was none whatever,” he told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“Indeed, the British Empire was at the very forefront of the campaign against slavery for most of the 19th century, with thousands of Royal Navy sailors dying in the struggle to eradicate it,” he said.
Churchill fought in a campaign to end slavery in the Sudan in 1898, Roberts said.
“He took part in the last great cavalry charge of the British Army against the Dervishes, and after the victory at the battle of Omdurman, slavery in the Sudan was abolished.”
Diversity of Views
Stowell said that following some scandals in recent years involving charities, public trust in charities had taken a battering. The public now wanted prominent charities to be “more accountable, respectful, and responsive” to their supporters, she said.
Large charities cannot “rely on the fact that they exist to do good as an excuse for them to do it in a way which is bad,” she added.
She also said that the diversity charities rightly seek should include the perspectives of those volunteering for them and “standing on the street corner rattling the tin” to raise funds.
Stowell’s comments come following British institutions last month being sent a letter by the government warning that their public funding could be called into question should they remove statues or other historical objects that have become the focus of protests or complaints.
They also follow the tearing down of traditional statues during Black Lives Matter protests and the renaming by the University of Edinburgh and others of buildings over perceived associations with racism and colonialism.
The National Trust did not respond to a request for comment at the time of this report.