Britain’s Conservatives say the left and liberals dominate the arts, museums, broadcasting and the universities, turning them into political echo chambers. They mean to reverse that, fearing they are being outflanked in a broader cultural war roiling the country, one that has only been inflamed by rancorous divisions over Brexit and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The latest furious skirmish has focused on an unlikely target — the country’s National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. The storied charity manages around 300 stately homes and castles as well as other places of historic interest acquired over the years from impoverished aristocratic families.
Among them Chartwell in Kent, the country home of Winston Churchill for four decades, Cliveden, the home to a Prince of Wales, two dukes, an Earl, and finally the Astor family, and the water-meadow along the River Thames at Runnymede, west of London, the site of the signing in 1215 of the Magna Carta, which an assembly of rebellious English barons forced on King John.
Castle Ward in Northern Ireland, another National Trust property, was one of the backdrops for the filming of the blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones.
And until recently the National Trust, founded in the late nineteenth century and funded by the government and from the subscriptions of members, was synonymous with genteel afternoon teas, strolls in ornate gardens in period settings and quiet family days-out, all far from the cut-and-thrust of political controversy.
But that changed when in September the National Trust published a weighty report detailing the historical links of 93 properties with the slave trade and British imperial rule.
The inclusion of Churchill’s home Chartwell drew the ire especially of the country’s culture minister Oliver Dowden and other ruling Conservatives.
Churchill’s role as minister for the colonies in the 1920s, his participation in the partition of Ireland as well as his decision as wartime prime minister to limit aid to Bengal during a disastrous 1943 famine were all cited in the report. None of that quieted the outcry from Conservatives, nor their anger that the home of the Victorian-era author Rudyard Kipling was listed because “the British Empire was a central theme and context of his literary output.”
“Churchill is one of Britain’s greatest heroes,” Dowden complained. “He rallied the free world to defeat fascism. It will surprise and disappoint people that the National Trust appears to be making him a subject of criticism and controversy,” he added.
Other Conservatives criticized the conflation of slavery with colonialism, saying it revealed the political motivations of the National Trust and was an effort to defame and diminish towering historical figures and great families and to rewrite British history.
In its report exploring how the previous owners of the properties profited from slavery and were involved in colonial expansion, or oversaw British imperial rule across a swathe of the globe, the National Trust noted: “These histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider. They make us question our assumptions about the past, and yet they can also deepen and enrich our understanding.”
The charity’s executives insist they are not taking partisan political sides and that the information about how foreign conquest and slavery profits enriched plantation-owning families and imperial overlords, allowing them to build stately homes and lavishly furnish them, can be utilized for education purposes.
They want visitors to the properties to get a fuller, more accurate history, not a sanitized version, they say.
Historian Peter Mitchell, a research fellow at Britain’s Sussex University, agrees. He has praised the trust for trying to contextualize, explain and for asking uncomfortable questions. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, he said: “The treatment the National Trust has received for daring to understand its mission as to help us understand history, rather than supply us with fantasy, is a warning to all historians.”
But Conservative critics say the National Trust should focus on the upkeep of the buildings and land it manages. The battle has raged on for months now.
This week, Common Sense, a group of more than 60 Conservative lawmakers, revealed it is seeking a meeting with Britain’s charity commissioner, to discuss the charitable status of organizations which they claim have “denigrated British history and heritage,” including the National Trust. The group argues charities are being hijacked by “elitist bourgeois liberals colored by cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the ‘woke agenda.’”
The request for a meeting follows a recent warning by the commissioner, Tina Stowell, a Conservative peer, that those “tempted to use charities as another front on which to wage broader political struggles should be careful.”
Conservative cultural warriors are also targeting Britain’s public universities, which they see as bastions of the left and they criticized a recent report by the universities’ representative body, UK's universities, calling for an end to “curricula that are based on Eurocentric, typically white voices.” They have fulminated, too, against the so-called no-platforming of controversial speakers, generally Conservatives, at some universities, who find themselves barred from speaking because of their views.
In the past few weeks the culture minister, Oliver Dowden, has warned a London museum it might lose state funding, if it removes a statue of a merchant and slave trader from its grounds. And the Department for Education has instructed schools not to teach pupils about “extreme political stances” such as the “desire to overthrow capitalism,” and to refrain from teaching “victim narratives that are harmful to British society.”
Some Conservative commentators have called for even more forward-leaning action. Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley has urged the ruling Conservatives to “march through the cultural institutions,” saying it should use the “purse strings” to change the cultural political balance.
But some Conservative lawmakers worry that cultural warfare can be carried too far and that it carries electoral risks, limiting its utility as a political strategy. Polling data suggests older Britons do worry about the country turning more multicultural and remain fearful of a dilution of what they see as British identity. But younger votes don’t.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has been cautious. In his speech to a virtual conference of Conservative party members in October, he devoted little time to the culture wars, limiting his remarks to a short passage criticizing those who “want to pull statues down, to rewrite the history of our country … to make it look more politically correct.” A full-scale, no-holds-barred culture war would undermine the image of a “global Britain,” which Johnson has been promoting.
Easier this year, he considered appointing two highly Conservative journalists, Charles Moore, a biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail tabloid, to chair respectively the BBC and the country’s broadcasting regulator, only to back down.