The Right-Wing Bid to Capture the National Trust Exposed
With days to go before the National Trust’s members choose its new council, the ‘Restore Trust’ group is campaigning in a manner that scarcely inspires trust. Brian Cathcart reports
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When a National Trust executive asserted in a tweet a month ago that the activist group ‘Restore Trust’ was linked to 55 Tufton Street – home to the opaque think tanks said to be behind the disastrous economic policy of our short-lived Prime Minister Liz Truss – the response was dramatic.
“Unbelievable!” declared the group. The claim was “completely false”, “blatant lies” and “skulduggery”. “Restore Trust”, it insisted, “has nothing to do with Tufton St” and “we have reported this to Twitter for misinformation”.
But the claim was not a lie. As was swiftly pointed out, Neil Record, one of six people identified on Restore Trust’s online ‘Meet the Team’ page, is also the chair of not one but two bodies operating out of the Tufton Street network.
Although this direct connection to the home of a number of influential right-wing think tanks was pointed out to Restore Trust, the group has not retracted its denial or apologised – and when Byline Times asked about it this week, its question was ignored.
Why does it matter?
Restore Trust’s seemingly latest attempt to unseat the management of the National Trust is nearing its climax as members of the charity vote online (they can do so here until midnight on Friday) ahead of its AGM next week. What is at stake, therefore, is the future of an organisation with 5.7 million members, which owns hundreds of historic buildings and 600,000 acres of land, and also acts as custodian to 800 miles of coastline.
But it turns out that tracking Restore Trust’s activities has something in common with following a Boris Johnson election campaign: by the time you have chased up one claim and found a problem, two more claims have been made. It’s hard to catch up and, since the group itself doesn’t seem to be concerned about correcting things, the risk that people might vote on the basis of incorrect information is high.
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A Question of Accuracy
Restore Trust continues to deny the Tufton Street connection in a ‘muddying-the-water’ kind of way. Asked last week on social media if it was linked to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (based at number 55), Restore Trust stated categorically that “there’s no link”. You might have expected it to take care over this – but the group seems not to have established that Neil Record was a launch funder of that foundation.
And the problems with accuracy are not restricted merely to the Tufton Street connection.
The Telegraph was obliged to apologise to its readers last week after quoting the group’s director, Zewditu Gebreyohanes, as saying that the National Trust had sacked 1,700 specialist curators at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, the number of curators to lose their jobs was eight. (The group said this was a slip of the tongue, and it was the National Trust that secured the correction).
Restore Trust also accused the National Trust of “disappearing” two objects representing black people from a house for reasons of political correctness – only for the Trust to state that they had been removed for conservation. When Byline Times asked Restore Trust if it had reason to doubt this, it once again failed to address the question, while at the same time not retracting its original claim.
When this newspaper asked Restore Trust why it had described a National Trust report on links between its properties and colonialism and slavery as “anti-British”, it said that it had never used that term. Yet Gebreyohanes was quoted in the Telegraph as calling the report “very anti-British”.
Disinformation? Misrepresentation? It would be easier to put these down to innocent error if the inaccuracies were not of a kind that suited Restore Trust’s purposes and if the group showed some eagerness to correct them.
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Link to Tufton Street ‘Not Relevant’
Just why Restore Trust has shown itself so determined not to be linked with 55 Tufton Street is worth reflecting on.
One obvious reason is that Tufton Street is now a toxic brand. Think tanks at number 55 were, after all, especially closely linked to the short-lived and disastrous government of Liz Truss – and that is a connection unlikely to recommend Restore Trust to the National Trust’s membership.
(Restore Trust’s director arrived from Policy Exchange, another right-wing think tank which, though not located in Tufton Street, has its address near by. That too is a connection that is being played down).
Worse for Restore Trust, Tufton Street is known for the opaque nature of its funding, facing constant questions about who has been paying for these lobbying groups that enjoy so much access and influence. The link naturally raises questions about Restore Trust, which says it gets its money from “grassroots” National Trust members but is grudging about detail.
Then there is climate change. Neil Record, who is a member of the Restore Trust leadership team, is both a very wealthy man and a prominent figure in the world of right-wing think tanks. Among his chief concerns is climate change – about which he is at least a sceptic if not an outright denier.
Not only did he donate £36,000 of launch funding to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, based at 55 Tufton Street, he also chairs the Global Warming Policy Forum at the same address, which is part of a body called ‘Net Zero Watch’.
As one of the country’s largest landowners, the National Trust is naturally very concerned about climate change. It has ambitious net zero targets and it uses its influence to encourage others to respond to the threat.
Asked about Record’s role, Restore Trust told Byline Times: “Mr Record’s involvement with the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not relevant to Restore Trust, which is not connected with policies to mitigate climate change, which is what that group is interested in. However, we would encourage the National Trust to stop using palm oil margarine in its scones and cakes.”
A response very much in the style of Boris Johnson: without acknowledging the change of stance or correcting the earlier denial (“there’s no link”) it now accepts that there is a link with the Global Warming Policy Foundation but blandly asserts that it is “not relevant” and follows that swiftly with a fresh allegation obviously intended to divert attention to scones.
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‘De-Politicising the National Trust’
But it’s not just Neil Record. That Restore Trust is a right-wing organisation with right-wing objectives is obvious and has been so from the start. I wrote about it in these pages a year ago, when the group seemed little more than an offshoot of the right-wing press war on ‘wokeness’ at the National Trust.
If a right-wing group wants to put up candidates for the National Trust’s council it is within its rights and members are naturally free to vote as they choose. But misleading the members in the course of that election, or at least allowing them to be misled, is not right – and that is a problem with Restore Trust.
It has denied things that are true and made claims it has not been able to substantiate and, when caught out it, has failed to put the record straight and instead seems to have sought to distract or sow confusion. Remarkably, it has done all this while claiming to ‘de-politicise’ the National Trust.
A telling incident occurred, or at least was reported to have occurred, at the recent Conservative Party Conference. Home Secretary Suella Braverman was quoted on Twitter by the deputy political editor of the New Statesman, Rachel Wearmouth, as follows: “Braverman claims Tories have ‘failed to put forward’ ppl with their agenda when it comes to public appointments to institutions, eg National Trust. ‘They’re [the left] very well organised… We don’t prepare, don’t organise, & I think that’s something we’ve taken for granted’.”
Far from ‘de-politicising’ the National Trust, which is an independent charity, Braverman seems on this basis to want it thoroughly politicised – by Conservatives. Byline Times put this to the Restore Trust. Its response? “We have not found a reliable source for Suella Braverman’s remarks and cannot comment on partial reports.”
The group is not obliged to comment, but one might expect that an organisation claiming to be dedicated to ‘de-politicising’ the National Trust would seize the opportunity to show its distaste for such a view, especially as Braverman has not denied making the quoted remarks.
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Setting the Record Straight
After the publication of the Telegraph correction, Restore Trust insisted that the claim of 1,700 redundancies related to all of the National Trust and it had been a slip to say that they were all curators. It accused the Trust of disingenuousness in focusing on the distinction.
Byline Times put the point about 1,700 redundancies to the National Trust. It said: “Given the challenges caused by the pandemic, once we had found savings in our projects and non-pay budgets, we still had to look for savings elsewhere, and with deep regret, restructure the organisation.
“The National Trust unfortunately had to make 1,700 staff redundant in 2020 as part of this restructure. Of these numbers, we made eight curatorial redundancies, four of which were voluntary. The importance of prioritising and protecting our curatorial expertise was widely appreciated.”
When the Restore Trust was asked whether it could substantiate its claim that the National Trust was “disappearing” objects deemed politically sensitive, it did not try to defend the one specific claim it had made, relating to “torchères” in Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire (a claim the National Trust has denied). Instead, Restore Trust sent photographs of items it said had been removed from display at three houses: Dunham Massey, Polesden Lacey and Claydon House.
Byline Times put this to the National Trust. It said that a sundial depicting a black person at Dunham Massey was removed following direct threats that it would be vandalised – and that the Trust intends to return it to display following consultations. Secondly, a painting of a black woman in Polesden Lacey was lent to the Dulwich Gallery for an exhibition and was now back in place, while candelabras depicting black people in the same house were in store but could be seen on ‘behind the scenes’ tours. As for the remaining item at Claydon House – a wall decoration depicting a black person – the Trust said that it has not been on display for 35 years.
Unable to substantiate one claim, Restore Trust does not retreat but doubles-down by making new claims that are at best poorly researched and which it requires time and effort to rebut. In the meantime, the debate about the future of an important institution becomes more and more cluttered with dubious assertions.