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‘To Restore Trust, Rip Up the Astroturf’

As fake grassroots organisations continue their culture war – we need to fight back, writes Otto English

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The Right Honourable Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg is jolly cheesed off and thinks you should be too.

Sharing a clip of an interview with Zewditu Gebreyohanes, former director of the Restore Trust, on his GB News evening show on 23 January, he tweeted: “The National Trust regrettably dislikes our nation.”

In the excerpt, he expanded on the theme: “The National Trust is there to maintain great historic buildings, that were very often given to them by the families that built them and apart from everything else, it feels like slightly bad manners to trash the families who gave you these fantastic properties.”

His guest agreed. “We all want more history,” Gebreyohanes said. But “unfortunately this is very bad history; they’re not using historians they’re bringing in people like English academics… or people who are trendy for other reasons and bringing them in to front campaigns that are virtue signalling rather than anything else.”

For Gebreyohanes and Rees-Mogg (which sounds a bit like a forgotten 1960s folk duo) only a select group of ‘approved historians’ should be commenting. It is distasteful for anyone else to do so, let alone bring up uncomfortable truths about the powerful families that built great homes, on the basis that they altruistically gifted them to the National Trust.

Rees-Mogg is a historian. He studied the subject at Oxford University and got a 2:1 for his troubles. Gebreyohanes, with a degree in PPE, is (by her own definition) not. But her remarkable CV – which has seen her become a trustee of the V&A Museum (with Boris Johnson’s backing) as well as an editor at History Reclaimed, and a director at Restore Trust, all by the time she is 25 – perhaps more than makes up for that. 

Despite having written two books on the subject, I make no claim to be an academic or a historian. But despite that, I am happy to say that, in my opinion, they’re both talking agenda-driven balls. Here’s why.

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Twisting History

For most of the 20th Century, the popular narrative of British history was in the hands of a tiny elite.

In school textbooks and popular histories, it propagated the notion that ‘our’ Empire (unlike others) was broadly a good thing; that the British people had an exceptional and indomitable ‘spirit’; that our history was more interesting than everyone else’s; and that even when this country did bad things, they were somehow good – because we always redeemed ourselves by later putting it right.

So, for example, while Britain did participate in enslaving millions of people, the slate was later wiped clean when ‘we’ magnanimously abolished it and played ‘our’ part in ending the trade altogether.

It’s an attitude that has informed many a contemporary ‘Hannanist’ worldview and is something I have previously dubbed ‘Ladybird Libertarianism’: a bowdlerised view of the past with all the horrid bits edited out.

British history served up as a nice, neat, ordered state of affairs, peppered with benign monarchs, great men, a tiny handful of women, and millions of grateful serfs (sorry ‘subjects’) – who every now and then were sent off to willingly die for the vested interests of the establishment.

Like so much other self-reinforcing propaganda, it served as an attractive myth and one which Britons largely bought into. But, from the 1960s onwards, that narrative began to be challenged in books, television documentaries and school curriculums – and with it came a growing interest in the facts over the imperialist fantasy.

As the sands shifted, the old guard began to organise. With the dawn of the 21st Century, the fight-back came.  

In 2007, the think tank Civitas republished ‘Our Island Story’, an Edwardian children’s book written by HE Marshall, which told a decidedly Anglocentric, patrician, and (in its view) a very attractive version of British history. Having done so, it started a campaign to get a copy into every school in the land.

The ‘Our Island Story’ movement was highly successful and, with the Telegraph’s backing, Civitas managed to get all sorts of endorsements from leading politicians, including David Cameron who proclaimed it his “favourite childhood book” in 2010

Retrospectively, that moment saw the first shots fired in the British ‘culture war’ but crucially – in 2010 – very few people seemed to have noticed the agenda.


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Igniting the Great Culture War

That changed with Brexit. And when in 2020 the National Trust published a landmark report into ‘Colonialism and Historic Slavery’, the phoney culture war ended – and the real conflict began.

That report, published in the immediate wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the felling of the Colston statue in Bristol, seems to have triggered the Ladybird Libertarians who have been howling with outrage ever since.

In the past five years, a series of ‘grassroots’ organisations – including the Save Our Statues campaign, History Reclaimed, its precursor History Matters (set up by Policy Exchange), and of course Restore Trust – have all gone into battle, with many of the same personnel dotting their ‘who are we’ pages. 

Like its forerunners, and despite its protestations that it is simply run by ‘concerned’ National Trust members, Restore Trust has some very powerful friends indeed. Byline Times and the Bylines Network, as well as the Good Law Project, have done good work in exposing the links. But suffice to say, Restore Trust is no more a grassroots organisation than I’m Winston Churchill’s fictional swearing parrot

And it clearly has some significant resources to pull on. It was telling, for example, that until a few months ago, its X (formerly Twitter) account sported a gold checkmark, at the eye-watering cost of £950 a month. Show me another grassroots movement that could afford that.

Its proposed members for the National Trust board have not exactly been ordinary folk off the Clapham Omnibus either. They have included former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption, ‘socialite’ Lady Violet Manners, Boris Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson, and historian Dr Zareer Masani.

In Facebook ads by a group calling itself Respect Britain’s Heritage – the website of which links back to Restore Trust – Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have lent their support.

In the press, it has been able to call on the help of Lord Charles Moore, who was ennobled by Boris Johnson, and Oldie Editor Harry Mount – who once wrote a book entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. And of course, GB News has been hugely supportive of its efforts – that’s the GB News co-owned by the Legatum Institute which now employs a certain Zewditu Gebreyohanes.

Depressed? Well, you shouldn’t be because, for once, this is a good news story. The old consensus that organisations like the National Trust or the RNLI should simply ‘take it’ has shifted. The National Trust, led by director of communications Celia Richardson, has fought back against the group and done so very effectively. For the moment, the cynical attempts at entryism have been successfully fended off.

There are two lessons here and ones which we should all take to heart. Firstly, we all ignore the sneaky forces of astroturfery at our peril. Secondly, it is not only possible to fight back – but even to win.   

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