On Saturday I attended, for the first and perhaps the last time in my life, the Annual General Meeting of the National Trust, held at STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, in Swindon.
I went because, after several years of mounting worry that the NT has lost its way, I had taken the for me highly uncharacteristic step of standing as a candidate for its council.
There were 37 candidates for five places, and when the result was declared, we found that the five candidates who had been endorsed by the NT were all victorious, with from 88,156 to 77,928 votes.
I too had been endorsed, along with Philip Gibbs, Violet Manners, Philip Merricks and Jonathan Sumption, by Restore Trust, which seeks to return the NT to its proper purposes. We were the runners up, our votes in the range from 48,020 to 41,997.
One unusual feature of these elections is that the candidates are not allowed to campaign. All one can do is publish, via the NT, an Election Statement. In mine, I attempted to sum up why I have become worried about the NT:
“It has made knowledgeable long-serving staff redundant, indulged in managerial gobbledygook, promoted a self-hating conception of history, and suppressed well-founded criticism from members.”
Another unusual feature of these elections is that one can simply decide, by pressing a button called Quick Vote, to support the NT’s recommended candidates (46 per cent of voters opted to do this), and its preferred line on the four motions which had been put forward (41 per cent of voters did this).
One of the motions was for the abolition of the Quick Vote procedure, and was defeated by the relatively narrow margin of 69,715 votes to 60,307. Were it not for Quick Vote, we would have voted to abolish Quick Vote.
Sumption, a former law lord, observed during the few minutes of debate on this motion that the Quick Vote procedure “reeks of defensiveness” and “really shouldn’t be necessary for an organisation as important as this one”.
There were other signs of deep unhappiness with the way the NT is being run. Timothy Clifford, former Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, asked in a fury why the NT’s guidebooks have got worse, with excellent books by people like Gervase Jackson-Stops allowed to go out of print and replaced by inferior ones.
He wished this question to be answered by René Olivieri, the NT’s Chairman, but it was taken instead by a senior manager who insisted the books have not got worse.
Roger White, a former Secretary of the Georgian Group. proposed the motion that Clandon House, near Guildford, badly damaged by fire in 2015, should be restored.
Sandy Nairne, a former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Deputy Chairman of the NT Trustees, upheld the official line, which is that if rebuilt, Clandon “wouldn’t have the character of the lost original”, but would be “a plastic pastiche”.
This annoyed me, and on being called to speak for a moment or two, I said anyone who has visited Warsaw, rebuilt by the Poles after it was reduced to rubble in the Second World War, knows it is no pastiche, but quite wonderful. Others mentioned the triumphant rebuilding after fire of Windsor Castle and, by the NT itself, of Uppark.
The essential question is whether one loves what has been destroyed. If one does love it, one moves heaven and earth to rebuild it. If not, one talks in an evasive way, as Nairne did, of “new stories to be presented”.
I happen recently to have visited Clandon, the garden neglected, the house a melancholy sight, shrouded in scaffolding and white sheeting, surrounded by hoardings which talk in an evasive way about “our vision for Clandon’s future”, but leave one without any clear idea of what that vision is.
On arriving at the AGM in Swindon, I found myself talking over coffee with a senior NT manager who lamented that the fire had only half destroyed Clandon, which made the decision about what to do next more difficult.
The NT was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, to preserve wonderful stretches of country in the Lake District and elsewhere which were in acute danger of destruction at the hands of developers and railway companies.
Hill, a disciple of Ruskin, had a passionate love of natural beauty, and among many other gifts knew how to inspire her fellow campaigners. When Rawnsley wrote to her asking if he should accept the Bishopric of Madagascar, she questioned how much good he would be able to do there before observing:
“And what a work you have here in England. It almost seems to me unique. I am sure that the National Trust owes, and must owe, much of its special character to your influence. If it is to gather in the givers, if it is to seize on the important opportunities for good, if it is to retain some element of poetry and hope, it seems to me as if it must depend on you.”
In Swindon we were shown beautiful pictures of some of the Trust’s properties, including the houses whose preservation became from the late 1930s an essential part of its mission.
But the element of poetry and hope had become buried beneath a suffocating layer of niceness, designed to baffle dissent and obscure half-heartedness.
There is, unfortunately, a kind of bureaucrat in the Church of England who employs the same tactics to stifle disagreement.
The NT has 5.7 million members, of whom only about 156,000 bothered to vote in the recent elections. In large organisations of this kind, supposedly democratic control mechanisms are pretty much useless.
The hierarchy prates endlessly about democracy, but is convinced it knows best, and had warned before the AGM that it would not consider itself bound to implement any motion passed in defiance of its views. It is naturally inclined to interpret the quiescence of the membership as a sign of contentment.
Meanwhile most of the members have neither the time nor the inclination to vote, let alone to run for office.
After all, one joined the Trust in order to visit beautiful houses, or to walk one’s dog. One didn’t join it in order to become a politician.
This makes it extremely difficult to know what to do if one belongs to an organisation of this kind which one loves, and wants to do well, but which seems to be going wrong. Does one make a fuss, or does one try to have a quiet word with the powers that be?
The powers that be naturally encourage the second approach. Several people who are on friendly terms with Olivieri have told me what a charming man he is, and contend that the real problem lies with the NT’s management team, which is mediocre.
After the vote on Saturday, two well-meaning emissaries suggested the way to change anything in the NT is to “talk to people”.
The implication is that well-meaning people must, in the end, agree with each other. But that way lies a complete avoidance of argument; a complete surrender to a philistine bureaucracy which claims to act in the name of everyone, and lacks the imagination to see why anyone might oppose its decisions.