By Amit Roy
VIRENDRA SHARMA, the veteran Labour MP for Ealing Southall, has congratulated the National Trust for publishing a report which reveals that nearly 100 of the properties it looks after were built with the proceeds of either the slave trade or colonial loot from India.
He has also taken Baroness Tina Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission, to task after she asked charities not to get involved in “culture wars”.
“If the National Trust isn’t going to bring out the history of its properties, who is?” said Sharma.
“I congratulate the National Trust for publishing this report,” he told Eastern Eye.
Lady Stowell, a former Tory leader of the Lords and some 25 Conservative MPs who belong to a self-styled “Common Sense Group”, take a different view of the 115-page National Trust report, Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery.
She set out her trenchant views in an article in a national newspaper, saying “if you want to improve lives and strengthen communities through charity, you need to leave party politics and the culture wars out of it”.
Lady Stowell said: “It has to be said that not all charities attract universal support for their cause.
“Even so, all can campaign in support of the causes they exist to fight for (or against) – as long as they don’t stray into party politics by doing so. The law is clear on that – and the job of the Charity Commission is to ensure that charities stick to it.
“But what we’ve seen in the past few years is the growth of new divisions which don’t neatly respect party lines.
“Issues like Brexit; the exercise and limits of free speech; the root causes of inequality; or how best to tell the story of British history. They are all defining politics at home and around the world.”
She said that goodwill for charities was returning “after serious scandals in recent years which dented public trust in charity”, stressing: “Now would be the worst possible moment to jeopardise that goodwill by getting drawn into culture wars, on any side of the argument.”
She did not mention the National Trust by name, but the paper made it clear this was indeed her target: “Charities like the National Trust are told to avoid wokery and culture wars – by their own UK chief.”
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “In her article, the chair makes the point that the environment in which charities operate now is different from that experienced in the past, and that divisions beyond those that are strictly party political run deep in our society. Charities and their leaders should be mindful of this as they make decisions about campaigning and political activity. Our CEO made a similar point in a blog last year, ahead of the most recent general election.”
Sharma, whose constituency in north-west London not far from Heathrow contains one of the biggest Asian populations in the country, has been prominent in seeking an official British government apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
Last week he tabled a Commons motion urging black and Asian history be taught in schools, saying he had backing from across the Commons.
He told Eastern Eye: “I have been campaigning to decolonialise our curriculum because British children should learn not just about 1,000 years of British success and innovation, but also about the human cost across the world of expedition, exploration and exploitation.
“The horrific attack on a Sikh child in Telford just last week shows how much further we still need to go. It is right that the National Trust explores the origin of the houses they look after, and discuss what brought that wealth to Britain.
“The National Trust is home to some amazing spaces, and tells the story of this country through the houses of the gentry, nobility, aristocracy and royal family in a way that no other organisation does. It is a great national institution that I am delighted is bringing so much of its past into the public realm.”
Sharma was supported by his colleague Barry Gardiner, the former shadow secretary of state for international trade. His north London constituency, Brent North, also has a high concentration of Asian voters. Referring to the “Common Sense Group” of Tory MPs, Gardiner commented: “It’s obvious that any group that calls itself ‘the Common Sense Group’ is not.”
He added: “The idea that charities are divorced from the wider political debates of the day is not sustainable. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust is a good example of a charity whose entire focus is on such matters, and for the Charity Commission to deny the validity of such issues is not only foolish but shows an alarming level of ignorance.”
The director-general of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady, has addressed Lady Stowell’s criticisms in a personal blog, Finding places of calm amidst a ‘culture war’.
She said: “At a time when we most need understanding and tolerance to get us through a terrible crisis, some of our oldest institutions and independent charities have become a battle ground in so-called ‘culture wars’.
“In organisations that millions of people care about – and some of our most fierce critics are those who care a great deal – there will always be debate about how progress is to be made. And we welcome debate – that’s part of being a membership organisation. But the polarisation of views and quality of debate today surrounding charities and independent organisations feels different.
“In recent months, I’ve received hundreds of letters and emails expressing all kinds of views about the many decisions we make every day – from passionate support to vicious threats. It’s the same picture on social media.
“Upsetting anyone is, of course, a matter of regret for me. Our founders wrote that we exist for the benefit of the nation. I take that seriously and I would never want anyone to feel at odds with an institution that is there to serve them.
“Cultural organisations should be places where people can find common ground. Places where debate can be had with shared understanding. Spaces to speak and to listen.”