Trust's old guard pulls up the drawbridge

Why `democracy' in Britain's biggest charity means maintaining the status quo
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The National Trust goes to the polls today in an election with a certainty of outcome that would make Messrs Major and Mawhinney green with envy.

Seventeen names have been put forward for the nine vacancies on the trust's 52-member council - the policy forum of Britain's largest charity. But nine of the 17 are actually sitting members who will simply be re-elected for another three years. The eight other candidates stand almost no chance of success.

Trust veterans would eat their tweedy caps if the eight pretenders swept home at today's annual general meeting in the Royal Festival Hall. Thousands of unmandated proxy votes which have already been sent to the chairman, Charles Nunneley, are expected to be used by him to ensure that respectful order is not upset.

To Mr Nunneley, the gift of these proxies for use at his discretion, is an acknowledgement by the member that the chairman is better placed to know who is the right person for the proper running of the charity.

Director-general Martin Drury regards the system of voting, whether for council elections or deciding the issues of animal welfare which have riven the trust in recent years, as "highly democratic". He believes that the member who hands the chairman his or her vote is saying: "I would like to make a gesture of my confidence in this extraordinary organisation and the way it is run."

But to some activists, the system is unhealthy and potentially "downright sleazy". In a series of letters to The Independent last month, long-standing members portrayed the executive as patronising and elitist.

Required by Act of Parliament to preserve for the nation land and buildings of historic interest or natural beauty, the trust has 2.4 million members, an annual income of more than pounds 110m and 3,200 staff. It is Britain's largest private landowner, with an estate of almost 1,000 square miles and 230 properties open to the public.

But for nearly all its 101 years, according to social historian John K Walton in a recently published paper, the trust has "celebrated a deeply conservative vision of Englishness", and idealised "the hierarchical society of the country house and the `close' village".

Half the council members are elected and half appointed from conservation and recreation bodies. Day-to-day running of the trust is the responsibility of the executive committee and professional officers.

Today's AGM includes a plea for more openness in voting. On resolutions such as those in the past against deer-hunting or today's attempt to stop tenant farmers sending animals to livestock markets, there would be a statement revealing how the chairman had used the unmandated votes.

"Since AGM votes on resolutions are only advisory, the executive are not giving anything away except their right to conduct everything in the greatest secrecy," said Dr John Wilks, the retired Oxford physicist who submitted the resolution.

Without the "handbag vote" - the term coined in 1990 when Dame Jennifer Jenkins wielded 50,000 votes for the status quo - deer-hunting by hounds on trust land would have been rejected by a ratio of 5 to 1 and fox hunting by 4 to 1. The "block vote" actually defeated the anti fox-hunting move.

Mr Nunneley believes that to reveal voting details would undermine the principle of a secret ballot and play into the hands of minorities who feel more strongly about single issues than the overall welfare of the trust. "It is part of our responsibility as trustees to ensure that vocal minorities do not form the tail that swings the dog."

Rodney Legg, the only regular dissident on the council, argues that postal ballots for everything would democratise the council and defeat single- issue fanatics. "Some people are conscious they are there because of the chairman and that's most unhealthy," Mr Legg said.

Since 1990, 41 out of 43 retiring council members seeking re-election were reappointed. One of the two rejected had championed the anti-hunt cause.

But the would-be reformers are not optimistic. As one put it: "We groundlings are really asking the aristocrats to organise their own tumbrils."