Beware of the body-snatchers: National Trust faces fresh battle with right-wing insurgents

For the third consecutive year, a dark and sinister force is at play, abetted by a cynical right-wing press, attempting to present Europe’s biggest conservation charity as some kind of dangerously radical cake-and-countryside organisation.

Right-Wing Watch

It’s that time of the year again, the run-up to the National Trust’s AGM, when 5.37 million members can have a say on the work and management of Britain’s best-loved heritage institution. But for the third consecutive year, a dark and sinister force is at play, abetted by a cynical right-wing press, attempting to present Europe’s biggest conservation charity as some kind of dangerously radical cake-and-countryside organisation, to sway public opinion, and, ultimately, to control direction.

Unlike other British cultural and environmental organisations such as Kew Gardens, the V&A, and the National History Museum, which use a supposedly unbiased public appointments process but conveniently find themselves stuffed with Tory cronies, the NT’s board is decided by members. It can therefore only be infiltrated should members vote for the infiltrators. As such, Restore Trust (RT), the opaquely funded, ‘anti-woke’ pressure group, has devoted its entire three-year existence to National Trust (NT) infiltration.

Founded in 2021 following the publication of a report by the Trust that highlighted connections between 93 of its historic places and slavery, the group is backed by multi-millionaire Tory donor Neil Record, who funds the Tufton Street charity Global Warming Policy Foundation. Restore is opposed to what it sees as the National Trust’s “modish, divisive ideologies.” There has been speculation, which the organisation rejects, that its real motivations are to stoke up culture wars and to see the NT relax the environmental protections it has on its 620,000 acres of land.

Despite its best efforts, so far, Restore infiltration has been futile. Undeterred by last year’s failed bid to take control of the Trust, when none of its candidates were elected onto the council, RT has returned with another candidacy panel, to ensure it ‘rescues’ the Trust; to, in its director Zewditu Gebreyohanes’ own words, ‘save it from ‘wokery.’

Among the candidates seeking to impose such change is former Supreme Court judge and historian Lord Jonathan Sumption. While an improvement on 2021’s RT candidate, Stephen Green of Christian Voice (perhaps even Restore realised that lobbying for someone who had lobbied against the criminalisation of marital rape and defended laws proposing the execution of some homosexuals made them look bad), Sumption’s candidacy is still worth critical scrutiny.

Described as a ‘conservative neo-liberal and libertarian,’ in the 1970s Sumption worked with Tory MP Sir Keith Joseph at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), of which Joseph was a cofounder, along with Margaret Thatcher. The CPS is of course a ‘Tufton Street’ resident that regularly publishes work by climate science deniers.

You often see Lord Sumption’s name tagged onto articles bleating out typical right-wing waffle in the usual Rightist places. In a recent piece in The Spectator, Sumption argued the case for leaving the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

A well-known critic of lockdown, in November 2020, he wrote for the Daily Mail that it was ‘morally wrong for government control freaks to tell us what we can do at Christmas.’ You get the picture.

In the run-up to this year’s AGM, the Telegraph, a longstanding National Trust opposer and Restore crusader, alongside GB News, and the Daily Mail, has been working itself up into a predictable apoplectic state.

In September, the newspaper was quick to promote Lord Sumption’s candidacy for the National Trust’s council. The article cites Sumption’s claims that the charity is being ‘undermined by woke rows.’ It continues how ‘despite his experience, he [Sumption] has not been endorsed by the Trust as one of the five preferred candidates and The Telegraph understands he was not even interviewed by the nominations committee.’

A spokesman for Restore Trust told the Telegraph: “Lord Sumption is one of the finest legal minds of his generation, as well as an exceptionally gifted historian with a passion for historic buildings. It is unbelievable that the National Trust is not jumping at the opportunity to have his advice and expertise.”

Perhaps that’s because the NT is determined not be penetrated by right-wingers who oppose some kind of imaginary ‘woke’ agenda? Instead, it is opting for candidates who are more aligned to its actual values and aims, such as James Dixon, a former civil servant and CEO of Peak District National Park Authority, who has said that his priorities include ensuring NT “properties are viable and heritage is maintained to the highest standards.”

The other independent board candidates backed by Restore Trust are Philip Gibbs, Andrew Gimson, Lady Violet Manners, and Philip Merricks.

You might recognise Andrew Gimson’s name, as he is the Telegraph’s former sketch writer, and a contributing editor to ConHome. One of his most famous ConHome pieces had to be when he argued that we are ‘suffering the excesses of woke capitalism because the Sixties generation has captured business.’

In his pitch for NT election, Gimson claimed that in recent years the Trust has “strayed from its proper purposes.”

Fellow Restore-backed candidate is Lady Violet Manners, daughter of the UKIP-supporting Duke of Rutland. The family’s estate, Belvoir Castle, has hosted fundraising events for the party. Lady Violet, a former Dolce & Gabbana model, has warned that “the Trust has become distracted by a political agenda that detracts from its mission.”

As part of its Restore profile-raising content, the Sunday Telegraph ran a simpering interview with Manners, who said she was so sick of the “wokeness” and “politicisation” of the National Trust that she was putting herself up for election as a candidate to its advisory council.

And guess who is a good friend of Lady Violet? Nigel Farage no less, who, according to Yorkshire Bylines, has been a dinner guest at the Duke of Rutland’s castle. Farage is one of several high-profile, right-wing, climate change denial political figures that want to see the National Trust under new management, along with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Susan Hill, the Tory candidate for mayor of London. In September, arch Brexiteer Farage announced he was throwing his weight behind the renewed attempt by Restore to capture the Trust.

“I hope that Restore Trust knocks a bit of common sense into what was once the great National Trust,” he said.

Which brings me onto the subject of common sense.

As well as the likes of Lord Sumption and Lady Violet, Restore Trust is the natural fit for the Common Sense Group, an ultra-traditionalist group of 60 or so MPs. Since forming in the summer of 2020, the group has become synonymous with the UK Right’s ever-growing assault on their ‘woke’ enemies. Determined to persuade the notoriously impressionable Boris Johnson that Tories must engage in an all-out culture war, the group’s chair Sir John Hayes wrote “The Battle for Britain has begun… it must be won by those who, inspired by the people’s will, stand for the common good in the national interest.”

One of the first actions of the group was to write an open letter to The Telegraph, berating the National Trust for its efforts to present the multiple historical perspectives surrounding its properties (as any half decent historian would tell you. Perhaps Lord Sumption was a better lawyer than he is historian?)

The group accused the NT of being in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals” because of the charity’s report that acknowledged links between its properties and slavery. They also called for a Charity Commission investigation into the Barnardo’s children’s charity after it published an article explaining white privilege.

The letter read: “History must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit “snowflake” preoccupations. A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image.”

Like Restore Trust regularly spouting their anti-National Trust propaganda, Hayes and his Common Sense group have frequently published opinion columns in the same right-wing newspapers. Writing in the Express this month, Hayes argued that the ‘liberal elite are out of touch with ‘common sense.’
I won’t depress you with too many extracts, but here’s one:

“Too many twitterers and bloggers, trapped in echo chambers of their own creation, are a world away from those who know very well that, as Home Secretary Suella Braverman declared, foreign offenders should be “booted out of Britain” or that, in the Prime Minister’s words, “a man is a man, and a woman is a woman.”

More depressingly still, is how the Common Sense Group’s aim to push the government in a more hardline direction on a range of ‘culture war’ issues seems to be paying off. Our current prime minister, looking down the barrel of almost imminent electoral defeat, seems more focused on right-wing campaigns related to culture wars, migration and opposition to environmental initiatives than his two predecessors were. Then there’s our Home Secretary, the darling of the Tories’ right for her attack on ‘woke’ politics, and uncompromising approach to migration. With Sunak and Braverman leading the charge, this year’s Tory Party Conference was preoccupied with culture wars, with coherent policies on immigration, the environment and other pressing issues facing the country, taking a backseat.

Striving to stop discussions of issues like the slave trade and promote a fake and sanitised version of British history, is not unlike what Vladimir Putin and his cronies are up to in Russia. Russia’s propaganda model has been described as the ‘firehose of falsehood,’ due to the high numbers of state-run channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. Then there is Hungary, where Victor Orbán drives a similar right-wing authoritarian propaganda machine through state media that spurns out what has been labelled as ‘ready-made fiction direct from the government.’

Of course, discussion around culture wars and promoting a sanitised version of history inevitably leads us to America, where culture wars have polarised Americans. In recent years, US conservative politicians have increased efforts to ban books on racial and sexual identity.  A recent report by Pen America, a non-profit that supports freedom of expression in literature, found that book bans in US public schools have increased by 33 percent over the last school year. The authors whose books were targeted were “most frequently female, people of colour, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals,” read the report.

While blatant book banning has yet to arrive in Britain, there is a growing sense that this could soon change. In April, research by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), the UK’s library and information association, found that a third of librarians had been asked by members of the public to censor or remove books and have also faced threats in discussions about the removal of books. The most targeted books involve empire, race and LGBTQ+ themes. This not to say that tastes do not change and what was enjoyed by and found acceptable to earlier generations, has much less resonance in our own age. Books, films, television programmes, and pop songs are not sacred texts, immutable to change. Reinterpretation and modification have been going on probably since the written word emerged in the ancient Middle East. That though, is long way from the kind of book banning and burning that happens in today’s America and Russia.

Restore Trust and its bid to wrestle control of the National Trust because it sees it has some kind of threat for simply maintaining a commitment to historical and cultural truths, concurs with the foreboding sense that Britain, under culture war-obsessing Tories, is creeping towards authoritarianism.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Poland’s ‘populist nightmare’ is over, but gains little attention in Britain’s right-wing press 

A sigh of relief could be heard in Brussels, as the xenophobic, populist nationalists in Poland were defeated by a broad coalition of progressive parties in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Such relief doesn’t seem to have been replicated in Britain, where reporting of the story has been notably absent, at least from the pages of the right-wing press.

Out of the nationals, only the Guardian’s frontpage made reference to the hard-right ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) heading for defeat in elections, which attracted a record turnout of 72 percent, the highest since Poland’s transition from communism in 1989.

While there is a lot of other stuff going on, it almost stands to reason that our right-wing newspapers wouldn’t want to draw attention to the booting out of a hard-right party that was allied to the Tories when Britain was in the EU. In 2009, David Cameron formed a new right-wing fringe group in Europe, known as the European Conservatives and Reformists. Labour accused the Tories of moving to the extremes of Europe after the party confirmed that its 26 MEPs would sit with Poland’s homophobic Law and Justice party, among others on the Right.

Since it came into power in 2015, the nationalist-conservative party has inflicted colossal change and damage on Poland. As Anne Applebaum writes in the Atlantic, such change has included turning state television into a propaganda tube, using state companies to fund its political campaigns, and politicising state administration. This is on top of turning the country into a combative anti-EU power, and attempting to overhaul Polish judiciary, which it believed was filled with corrupt communist-era judges.

The damage gives us a taste of what a seriously right-wing party can do. And with the Tories arguably heading that way, what it could do to Britain.

In a comment piece in the Guardian about the unseating of Law and Justice, historian and political writer Timothy Gardon Ash describes Poland’s ‘populist nightmare’ as being ‘almost over,’ noting how it is still early days and there are tough tasks ahead. Exploring why the opposition won – the largest opposition party being the Civil Coalition, which is led by Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council – the author says some voters were alarmed by opposition warnings that the ‘anti-Brussels course of PiS might lead to Polexit.”

While the threat of a Brexit-style ‘Polexit’ reportedly spooked Polish citizens into not voting for the anti-EU ruling party, the pro-Brexit Express framed its reporting of the election as being “a bitter hammer blow to many in Poland with PiS being supporters of the country leaving the European Union.” The report splashed with the headline: ‘Anti-Brexit Donald Tusk declares election victory in Poland.”

Meanwhile The Times’ acknowledged how the Polish election is ‘proof that liberals can beat populists…’ but… this ‘is no watershed’. Putting a damper on the hope that the defeat of the hard-right nationalists in Poland will mark a new brighter future for Europe, the analysis states: ‘First, the gloomy tidings for Europe’s centrists and liberals; there is little reason to believe that the Polish election heralds the beginning of a broader anti-populist fightback,” continuing that “national elections tend to be just that – national.”

Whether Britain’s anti-EU Tory press like it or not, the demise of the hard-right and change of government in Poland will almost inevitably have huge implications, both at national and international levels. Nationally, the return of Donald Tusk as the country’s next prime minister, promises to undo much of the damage, including paving the way for billions of EU-funded euros that has been withheld by Brussels over rule-of-law concerns. On an international level, Poland’s move away from populist nationalism will provide a cheery boost to mainstream parties across Europe, eight months from the pivotal EU Parliament elections. No wonder the story was given minimal editorial space in Britain’s pro-Brexit, right-wing media.

Woke-Bashing of the Week – Suella Braverman doubles down on ‘woke’ policing crackdown

The Home Secretary, who loves to shout out her contempt for the ‘wokerati’, has vowed to double down on ‘woke’ policing, calling for officers to be ‘patrolling the streets, not policing pronouns.’

The comments were made at the annual Police Federation of England and Wales Conference, where Braverman said she was fighting a “campaign against political correctness in policing.”

“I’m not fighting my campaign against political correctness in policing only for the sake of the law-abiding majority who want to see officers patrolling the streets, not policing pronouns on Twitter. I also know that’s what the majority of you signed up for, too,” she told officers.

She added that anything that distracts from investigating every crime is ‘unwelcome,’ saying, “whether that’s enforcing non-existent blasphemy laws unnecessarily recording a non-crime hate incident or joining in with political demonstrations.”

Referring to Baroness Louise Casey’s findings in a review earlier this year that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic,’ the Home Secretary said: “I don’t believe that term is a useful one or an accurate one. It is not a term that I use when describing the police.”  

The comments follow Braverman’s earlier assault on ‘woke’ police, when she said officers are not paid to ‘dance with drag queens’ or ‘wave flags.’ The remarks appeared to criticise the way officers policed LGBT+ Pride events and were made after the Home Secretary ordered a review into ‘political activism in police.’

When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022, he too promised to stamp out ‘woke’ policing.

The PM had made the same remarks during the Tory leadership campaign, when he said police should tackle street crime not Twitter jokes.

Ministers’ deciding that rising levels of crime in Britain is down to ‘wokeness’ in the police force is just another example of the preposterous nature of right-wingers’ all-consuming and half-baked war over ‘wokeness’ that has been escalating in recent months. It is also further proof of how desperately out of ideas the government seems to be. They can’t exactly argue that crime is on the rise because 13 years of Tory rule, marked by detrimental funding cuts, which have let the crisis spiral out of control. It’s much easier to blame ‘wokeness’ and distract from the real causes.

As for making the police less ‘woke,’ when you think about the many reports of lewd banter, and ‘everyday misogyny’ in the Met, it seems there are a number of police officers who could do with being a little more ‘woke.’

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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