Whose Nation, Whose Trust?

The National Trust must lose its attachment to aristocratic values

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 27th September 1995.

There’s an inn in mid-Wales called the Travellers’ Rest, with a sign on the door reading “No Travellers”. It is one of hundreds of institutions in Britain which romanticize the rural past while shutting out the earthy present. Jolly Ploughman Tearooms request No Muddy Boots, nudists are threatened with arrest beneath the towering phallus of the Cerne Abbas Giant, and food companies extolling dimpled milkmaids, ruddy-cheeked yeomen or wily poachers obliterate the biological with the chemical and the local with the transnational.

There are many who see the National Trust, with its pot pourri and corn doily kitsch, its immaculate reconstructions and guided walks, as the epitome of this confusion. Many of its 2.2 million members have paid for the preservation of a past that never existed from a present they wished would disappear.

With 590,000 acres of land, 550 miles of coastline, 207 historic houses and 60 villages, the National Trust is Britain’s biggest private landowner; but its power and influence extend far beyond its own holdings. It is the guardian of our collective memory of the countryside, and in many respects the conservator of its future. But whose nation is it holding in trust?

An attempt – sometimes brave, sometimes flinching – to answer this question is made by a centenary book the Trust is publishing next week. Written and edited without its guidance, the commissioning of The National Trust – the next hundred years shows a commendable transparency: it is prepared to examine its role in public, even when the conclusions are embarrassing. Yet, as the story unfolds, you can’t restrain the impression that something is missing.

The book reveals that only 5 of the Trust’s 1217 tenant farmers are working organically. It questions the Trust’s dependence on the motor car, its failure to acquire properties close to the urban centres and its hesitancy in educating its members about changes in rural life. But, probing as it is, this medical is still too decorous. In 168 pages the term rights is mentioned only once, while the ethics of ownership are not addressed at all.

The National Trust emerged from the Commons Preservation Society, which was established in 1865 to protect public spaces largely for the benefit of the working class. It was as uncompromising as any 20th Century campaign. When Lord Brownlow enclosed Berkhamstead Common with two miles of iron railings, the Society brought in a trainload of navvies at dead of night. By morning the railings were neatly stacked in piles around the perimeter.

Curiously neither this incident nor the Society’s other direct actions feature in the book, and so the full implications of the Trust’s capture and perversion remain a little clouded. By 1940 it had fallen into the hands of the very people whose excesses it was designed to contain. They set about protecting what they deemed to be the treasures of the nation not for the people, but from the people.

Their vision of Britain was a place in which the aristocracy need to be protected from intrusion by the mass, rather than the mass protected from exclusion by the aristocracy. They helped consolidate the replacement of a folk culture in which everyone participated with an exclusive culture in which a few performed and the rest merely watched.

Though it is struggling to shake it off, the National Trust still labours under the burden of those regressive years. Eleven of the 32 members of its executive committee are peers, baronets, knights, dames or honourables. But while it remains the friend of the landowner, it is now perhaps even more susceptible to the demands of another class: the car-bound, nostalgic, culturally-impoverished but prosperous people whose image of Britain was shaped by Upstairs Downstairs and The Onedin Line. Much as it has tried to broaden its base, by catering to these tastes the Trust continues to preside over a countryside interpreted in terms that remain both narrow and exclusive.

The restricted view of its membership was reflected in its treatment of the people it evicted from St Just in Cornwall in July. Though these settlers were on the site seven years before the Trust bought it, though their lifestyle and social status were more representative of the people who shaped that land than those of the Trust’s visitors or staff, it was both uncompromising and unimaginative. Its closure of the Stonehenge Festival caused just as much resentment. The Trust is trying hard to resolve disputes like this, but it remains tainted by the suspicion that it is trying to uphold the tone of the countryside – a tone which would be lowered if certain people and certain lifestyles were allowed back in.

If it is to prove that it both reflects and belongs to the whole nation, then it must work even harder to lay this suspicion to rest. It must present a countryside in which it is clear that we all have a stake. Otherwise, large numbers of the urban unemployed, of the young and of ethnic minorities will continue to feel that they do not belong there. The Trust must show that we visit its properties (and the rest of the countryside) not by its grace but by our right. It must help to provide means by which those who have been shut out but want to get back in can once more live and work in the countryside. Encouraging experiments in low-impact development on its property and helping to establish local markets for local produce would be good places to start.

It must also allow us to reclaim our history. Today, thanks to its past emphasis on stately homes and its continuing interest in large landed estates, the Trust?s historical perspective is still that of the victors. It must retell the story from the point of view of the enclosed and dispossessed, rather than just that of the encloser and the over-possessed. It must allow us to see that the rise of the landed estate is less to be celebrated than lamented.

Above all the Trust must help to correct the impression that proprietorship is the only key to good policy in the countryside by helping to show that the rights of those who do not own the land are a surer guarantee of its protection than the priveleges of those who do. Paradoxically its great success in conserving the land it owns has drawn the sting from movements calling for greater control over landowners and their anti-social practices – while one per cent of Britain is inalienably protected, we tend to make less fuss about the rest.

The National Trust’s centenary is worth celebrating, for the British countryside would be a bleaker and more homogenous place without it. But the next hundred years must begin with sweeping reforms, starting with the courage to challenge the assumptions of its membership. It is time to pull down fences again, but today it must start with its own.