Richard D North

The National Trust may make money by being twee, but that's as near as it gets to populism

Last week the National Trust invited around 50 bright people to Manchester to help it gaze at its navel. Academics, writers and campaigners all gathered to talk about the countryside. Lost between one's hotel and the town hall, it was easy to know where to go: simply follow the Barbours, tweeds and fishing-bag briefcases of the Trust's rural staff. Many of them and some of the speakers were billeted at an extraordinarily vulgar hotel made from a converted department store. The Trust would have done the work very differently. It might have left a print of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire in the hall, but the bald bouncers in black evening wear, and the cut-price Monday-night disco? I think not. The National Trust may make money by being twee, but that is as near it gets to populism.

Naturally enough, the Trust's centenary has produced its fair crop of criticisms, many of which I instinctively share. Or, rather I did, until I listened to the Trust more attentively. Never mind, then, that it offers a nostalgic nation a bolt-hole from which it can escape economic and cultural failure (I don't share the view that we are suffering either). It is better to see that modern English people embrace so much change, it is hardly surprising that they run for cover at the weekend. Never mind, either, that it is odd to see peasants still paying obeisance to the Big House. Modern people, perhaps lacking effortless confidence themselves, rather admire the triumphalism of our stately homes. We are not nostalgic for the inequality they represent, but feel for the way their scale speaks of certainty.

But what about the Trust's effortlessly upper-middle-class superiority? Is that not galling and counterproductive in a classless society? The difficulty for reformers here is that the Trust's work is excellent in almost every area, partly because it has been done by aesthetes whose arrogance used to match that of the original builders. These habits mean, usefully, that the properties are still looked after and presented in a way which does not bow to fashion. If they were sold harder, we would be less free to discover them for ourselves. Even the Trust's land agents, who deal with the workman-like countryside, need a certain distance. No landlord, even a socially-inspired public owner like the Trust, can be too hail fellow well met.

The National Trust will, of course, change. Doubtless it will become a little less plummy, and more consultative. It is hardly surprising that it should take an anniversary like this and indulge in a sort of Vatican II process of seeking relevance. I pick that analogy because the Catholic church was more successful - at any rate more deliberate - in deciding how to evolve than the Church of England has been. Our conference was full of discussion of core values: whether it remains true to its founders, or can use their original impulses to find an authentic future. Of course, the difference is that the Trust's 100th anniversary sees it overwhelmed, if at all, by success.

Yet it knows that it must learn to speak with a voice which allows the vast number of people who never visit Trust properties to see that it stands for them, too. One of its founders, Octavia Hill, after all, had such social purposes at the forefront of her thinking.

This understanding was at the heart of the brilliant valedictory speech made by the retiring director-general, Sir Angus Stirling. It discussed the dilemma of becoming more welcoming without descending into the theme park; more actively influential, but not trivially vociferous. Sir Angus ended with a few simple phrases to describe the ordinary English countryside, and a passionate plea for his successors to find ways to make those English people who are alienated from it come to feel that it is their patrimony. It was a speech of controlled but real passion: a very good English speech.

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