The Purposes of the National Trust

Controversially, the Charity Commission has written to the National Trust asking how the Trustees consider a recent report about many stately homes’ links to slavery helps further the charity’s specific purpose to preserve places of beauty or historic interest. They expect “a detailed response”, according to a spokesperson responding to the editor of Civil Society News, Kirsty Weakley.

I think I can help, even though I have no connection with the National Trust apart from my wifes’ lifetime membership and a strong sense of gratitude for its existence.

Here are the relevant charitable purpose of the National Trust as described on the Charity Commission Register:

“The preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest….Also the preservation of furniture, pictures and chattels of any description having national and historic or artistic interest“. (My emphases).

Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Commission, was wrong to tell the Daily Telegraph that “The National Trust has a very sort of clear, simple purpose”. She also emphasized that it was important “not to lose sight of what its 5.6 million members expected” (on which I guess the Trust has much more comprehensive expertise than the Charity Commission). But The National Trust does not exist for its members, it exists for the benefit of the nation, including parts of the nation that are under-represented in its membership and current users. The Trustees have a high responsibility to work out what that means and how to reflect changing national concerns and make an offer to the nation that is as inclusive as possible. Yes, that does include a sensitivity to those who care deeply about the shadow that slavery casts over our history, not least many black people. Of course the National Trust cannot define “historic interest” so as to ignore historic interest in how much of our nation’s stately homes and other treasures were derived from the profits of the slave trade. The Charity Commission knows all this perfectly well.

So this purpose is far from “simple”. The Trustees have to navigate culture wars, work out how to be more inclusive in trying to benefit the whole nation, not just well-heeled elites, not just its members, not just art lovers, not just comfortable middle classes. They have to define and explain what is of historic interest, when different people are interested in different things for different reasons. They have to recognize and adapt to changing attitudes without unduly upsetting traditionalists. These are not matters for invigilation by the Charity Commission: they are the responsibilities of the trustees.

One wonders why the Charity Commission has destabilised The National Trust and forced it to expend time and energy in “explaining” what is so obvious from its charitable purposes, especially when it is struggling with painful retrenchments and big staff cuts caused by the pandemic. Is it because the Commission feels it has to show Oliver Dowden or the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph that they are responding to the concerns of that part of the public energised by a culture war against “wokeness”? Whatever the reason, the Commission is doing itself and the public no service by misrepresenting the purposes of the National Trust as “simple” and implying that reporting on the links to slavery may not be a legitimate aspect of “historical interest” to all those who believe that black lives matter.


2 thoughts on “The Purposes of the National Trust

  1. Pingback: We should be helping the National Trust to survive not bashing it for exploring our history | Inside track

  2. Pingback: » DSC policy update – week commencing 26 October 2020

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