Rebecca Cooney: The National Trust deserves better than Baroness Stowell

Baroness Stowell’s comments about the National Trust may not have been as extreme as the Telegraph made them out to be, but they were still unhelpful and politically motivated

To be fair to Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, she couldn’t have known her comments about the National Trust’s recent report on the links between its properties and colonialism, made on a Telegraph podcast, would end up on Saturday’s front page.

The Telegraph had clearly seized on anything to avoid writing about Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed hungry schoolchildren in the face of government opposition, and it shows. The story leaps from Stowell’s comment that the commission has contacted the trust over the report, to the claim that the trust is being “investigated,” before admitting there is no statutory inquiry in the offing.

It then goes on to say the commission could order the National Trust not to produce further reports – which it can’t, unless it opens a statutory inquiry. This rule exists to protect charities ordered around by people who simply disagree with them for political reasons.

That is what this is actually about. It is hardly a surprise to see a Conservative-appointed Conservative peer appearing in a Conservative-leaning news outlet to parrot the sort of sentiments the Conservative Prime Minister has recently expressed. 

Because while Stowell didn’t actually use the word ‘inquiry’, and her remarks were sexed up in a desperate attempt to make them front page-worthy, she still leaves listeners with the clear impression that the National Trust has done something wrong.

When asked, with reference to the National Trust’s colonialism report, whether charities were “losing their way”  Stowell replied that people expect the National Trust to “not lose sight of” its “very clear simple purpose”. 

She goes on: “If they act in a way that makes some of their supporters, particularly those who are greater users of their institutions than others might be... then they need to understand” that they will face questions and criticism. 

She doesn’t actually get round to saying what the trust’s actions might “make” supporters (offended? Surprised? Is being ‘surprised’ such a terrible thing?) but her words imply that the only people interested in the history of colonialism are those who do not use the National Trust’s properties.

It is not yet clear that the commission has actually received any complaints on this issue, so how does Stowell know this? Has she canvassed members? Or is there a particular demographic she has in mind when she thinks of a National Trust member, and another when she pictures someone interested in the history of slavery?

The British Empire is not a minor historical footnote that the National Trust is thrusting into the spotlight in order to fulfill some nefarious lefty agenda, and neither should it only be talked about during Black History Month (which incidentally, this month is). The empire is the last 500 years of British history. It has shaped Britain’s people, buildings and landscapes in both obvious and insidious ways.

Surely the people most likely to be National Trust members are people who are interested in history – especially since its objects are "the preservation for the benefit of the nation" of historic houses, artefacts, and landscapes. 

How on earth explaining the history of these properties, to people who are explicitly interested in history, strays from the charity’s objects is anyone’s guess.

Covid-19 has been a catastrophe for charities and there is a limit to what the Charity Commission (itself hugely underfunded) can do to alleviate that. But the efforts it has made – offering guidance and taking a more flexible approach to reporting deadlines – have been welcomed. 

Yet despite the reasonable and supportive approach of commission staff, the noises from the chair have been markedly different. Stowell has repeatedly appeared at conferences to browbeat charities about “public trust” using a script that could have been written at any point in the last five years. She fails to explain what charities are getting wrong, and completely ignores the howling existential crisis the pandemic has created for them.

At a time when many charities, and their beneficiaries, are living on a knife edge, the fact that the chair of the Charity Commission wants to spend time dragging a charity that has done nothing wrong into a manufactured culture war, while making pointed comments about public trust, seems like sheer vanity.

The National Trust furore managed to drown out the announcement that Stowell will not be seeking a second term as chair of the Charity Commission.

Well, good. The sector deserves better. The public deserves better. The Charity Commission deserves better. Let’s hope we get it.

Rebecca Cooney is features and analysis writer for Third Sector

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