By Amit Roy
THE National Trust has been slapped down by the Charity Commission because it has refused to hide the fact that many of the beautiful buildings it looks after on behalf of the nation were built with colonial plunder in India or the proceeds of the slave trade.
The Charity Commission, which has come under pressure from the “Empire was great” wing of the Conservative Party, has confirmed it has written to the National Trust seeking a proper explanation for its decision to reveal the embarrassing history behind so many of Britain’s most beautiful houses.
The National Trust, which as a charity comes under supervision of the Charity Commission, has been taken to task for publishing a 115-page report, Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery. The report “details the connections 93 historic places in our care have with colonialism and historic slavery”.
A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission confirmed to Eastern Eye: “We have written to the National Trust to understand how the trustees consider its report helps further the charity’s specific purpose to preserve places of beauty or historic interest.
“We await a detailed response from the charity, and in the meantime, have drawn no regulatory conclusions.”
However, in an interview with a national newspaper, Baroness (Tina) Stowell said the Charity Commission, of which she has been chairman since 2018, does have the power to disqualify trustees and even strip organisations of their charitable status.
This has brought accusations that the Charity Commission is trying to bully the National Trust into remaining silent about the less than glorious past of many of the former owners of Britain’s historic buildings.
Historian Kusoom Vadgama, author of a number of books, including India & Britain: Over four centuries of shared heritage, said: “I believe you shouldn’t hide history. Also, colonial history should be taught in schools. We should learn about the good and the bad.”
She expressed both regret and anger that the Charity Commission appeared to be trying to suppress the inconvenient truth: “Where did the money for these buildings come from? In the case of India, the word I would use is ‘loot’. If you supress the truth, you are in effect lying about the past.”
A National Trust spokesman told Eastern Eye: “We have always researched the history of our places and doing so informs how we care for and present them. As is expected of all charities, the National Trust reports to the Charity Commission on any significant issues affecting our work, and we have kept them informed about the colonial history report we published in September, and some of the complaints we received from people who disagreed with our publishing it. We always answer any questions the Commission has with full transparency.”
The Charity Commission’s decision to threaten the National Trust also earned a rebuke from Corinne Fowler, director of Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted and professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester.
“As the director general of the National Trust, Hilary McGrady has said, it is the duty of historic housing organisations to research the history of its properties,” Fowler pointed out. “She wrote in a tweet recently that if it is wrong to do so, then the National Trust has been doing the wrong thing for 125 years.”
Fowler argued: “Since colonial history is integral to British country houses, it follows logically that historic housing organisations need to explore that history so they can be fully informed about the various histories of properties that they care for. No competent heritage professional would wish make a building available to the public if there were serious gaps in her or his knowledge about it.”
Fowler added: “It would be great if we could think more rationally about our history without getting hysterical about aspects of it that are unfamiliar. If it comes as a shock to people that country houses – built during Britain’s four imperial centuries – are linked to colonial activities, that’s probably because the British public learned so little about the empire at school.”
On the Charity Commission’s role, she said: “This is a worrying development. Are we actually going to censor our own history by preventing the sector from presenting the public with the facts? One of the Charity Commission’s own missions is to make charities responsive and relevant to today. I am not sure how repressing rigorous historical research which shows our past in a new light contributes to their own mission of making charities relevant.”
Baroness Stowell, a Tory politician who served as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal under David Cameron, spoke of the National Trust in the context of a number of “scandals” that had taken place in the charitable sector.
She made it clear she sided with critics of the National Trust. “National Trust is a charity, which at the moment is coming in for quite a lot of scrutiny and question. The National Trust has a very clear, simple purpose, which is about preserving some of our great historic places and places of great beauty and national treasure. And what people expect of the National Trust is that they focus on that purpose. They don’t lose sight of that. And when they do things, which somehow seem to some of their supporters, some of the people that they’re relying on, they shouldn’t be surprised if that leads to questions and criticisms.”
She added: “We, in the commission, are in contact with the National Trust. It is our job at the commission to raise the questions that people have because we’re here to represent the public interest. We have carried out inquiries into some of the biggest name charities and not been in any way shy in doing so.”
The National Trust claims its colonial report has the support of the majority of its members. However, at its recent annual general meeting, one member, Diana from Leicester, reportedly asked: “Why is the Trust spending ill-afforded sums on researching slavery within houses and generously gifted properties and land? The majority of members just want to see beautiful houses and gardens, not have others’ opinions pushed down their throats.”
It may well be the National Trust will be punished for telling the truth. Its future was due to be debated in the Commons on Wednesday (11).