Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health, and could help influence the election

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 27 March 2015 19:09 GMT

Earlier this week, Britain’s largest interest group – by a country mile – unveiled an ambitious 10-year manifesto for change. This mighty legion, whose ranks of card-carrying members dwarf in numbers any bloc of active church-goers or political party, has committed a billion pounds to fund its public interventions. They aim to change patterns of land use, steer environmental reforms, mould housing and infrastructure policy, and even take over the running of community assets from local authorities.

Pundits now dissect ad infinitum the footling quarrels of the pygmy-sized sects competing for your vote on 7 May. We have not, however, seen much about this startling bid for social leadership from a movement backed by several millions. That is because the report on its 21st-century strategy, entitled “Playing our Part”, came from the National Trust.

Consider the figures. The National Trust boasts 4.2m members, among them 60,000 volunteers. They devote 4m hours each year to caring for its protected coastlines (775 miles), countryside (635,000 acres) and the 500-odd historic sites. Although not in the NT league, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds can itself trill about a chirpy membership of 1.1m. In comparison, a recent report for the House of Commons library estimated that the Labour Party now has 190,000 members, the Conservatives about 150,000 and the Liberal Democrats 44,000. Much has been made of the Green takeover. Adherents of that family of UK parties now just outnumber the Lib Dems. Even so, and in a reversal of their usual rhetoric, signed-up Greens still represent the 1 per cent when set against the broad democratic masses of the National Trust.

I enjoy a tasty crumpet in the old stables as much as any other visitor to the NT’s portfolio of historic properties (which attracted 20 million attendances last year). However, the new blueprint reveals a keener environmental edge than at any moment in the organisation’s 120-year history. Dame Helen Ghosh, the director-general, insists that the trust’s remit “has never been just about looking after our own places”.

That cool billion will go not only towards the usual conservation and restoration projects but “new economic models of land use”, better sustainable farming and even – in theory – plans to assume responsibility for urban parks and open spaces from austerity-depleted local councils.

The trust promises to derive 50 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Last April, it activated a hydro-electric turbine on its estate at Hafod y Llan in Snowdonia – its first renewable-energy venture. Meanwhile, its much-disputed hostility to windfarms may not be as dogmatic as reported; it argues, rather, that inshore wind resources should be “located, designed and on a scale that avoids compromising the special qualities of its locality”.

Back in the inner city, hipsters who imagine that the NT merely looks like the militant wing of Edinburgh Woollen Mills should take a look at its programme for the Tudor mansion of Sutton House in the heart of Hackney. There, in the evocative home built in 1535 by Thomas Cromwell’s protégé and sidekick Ralph Sadler, a “Queer Season” is under way. It includes “126”, a “crowd-sourced audio-visual experience featuring all 126 of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets as read by members of the LGBTQ community”.

With Parliament dissolved on Monday, we enter a five-week (or longer) frenzy during which party affiliation alone defines the civic realm. Electoral politics, and the media that feeds on it, propagate this myth. Yet old tribal loyalties continue to dissolve. About 1 per cent of adults in the UK now belongs to a party. As recently as 1970, 4.8 per cent held either a Labour or a Tory card. In 1953, the paid-up Conservative family peaked at an astonishing 2.8m – even though many of those were only there for the cakes, the fetes, the job offers and the eligible dates. If Labour never topped more a million or so card-holders, then membership of an affiliated trade union stretched the hand of the movement into almost every street, pub and club across industrial Britain.

For the next month and more, politicians will peddle the delusion that we could once again live in that vanished world. Forget it. Green or purple flashes in the pan aside, the voters have forsaken the tribalism of past eras. It will not return. Between 1950 and 1964, the three parties formerly known as “main” won 99 per cent of the total vote. In May, the proportion of the electorate that opts for someone other than the traditional troika could hit 25 per cent.

One fashionable way of reading this trend invokes the American sociologist Robert Putnam, with his theory of Bowling Alone. In a famous book of that title, Putnam studied the increasingly lonely and alienated lives of Americans. He argued that many had abandoned old allegiances – religious, ethnic or ideological – without finding any robust replacements. So they forfeited their “social capital”, and withdrew from church and club, committee room and union hall, into the fearful, suspicious privacy of the TV or computer screen. Here, analysts of civil society have long fretted about the decline of community spirit and public service in the post-Thatcher age of free-market extremism – a lament given eloquent voice in David Marquand’s book Mammon’s Kingdom.

The obituaries may prove premature. Conservative politicians cynically ditched the Big Society in short order when things got tough. Millions of citizens have not. According to the UK Civil Society Almanac compiled by the NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations), 29 per cent of people engage in voluntary activity at least once a month. About 800,000 people work in the sector, while “general charities” have an annual income in excess of £39bn. Among the biggest hitters in financial terms, the National Trust itself ranks third – behind Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust.

Even religion may not be dwindling quite as rapidly as the lonely bowlers claim. Within Christian denominations, the decline in levels of participation has not ceased. Its pace has nonetheless slowed down. According to the UK Church Statistics report, in 2013 the country’s congregations numbered 5.4m souls. That total exceeds the estimates made a few years before. Although the long-term graph still slopes downwards, migration – above all from Eastern Europe and Africa – has probably made the angle of descent less acute.

Our secular tabernacles sing with gusto too. As the rise of the National Trust indicates, modern management and marketing have in many ways strengthened the arm of the voluntarist Britain that George Orwell praised, with its patchwork of clubs and circles, buffs and hobbyists. If those civil-society units keep their distance from party and sect, they may stay aloof too from the issue-led “campaign”. Many radicals, especially in green causes, would rather eliminate that gap. Read, for instance, the Canadian writer-activist Naomi Klein’s stirring polemic on capitalism and climate change, This Changes Everything, and you plunge into a dualistic world of stark polarisation and irresolvable enmity. Here, brave young activists fight the good fight against the demonic evil of corporate “extractivism”, which threatens via fossil fuels to wipe out life on earth.

It’s wonderfully rousing stuff. But what can Klein – or, indeed, our home-grown Greens – say to the four million-plus National Trust members whose leadership has also identified climate change as the greatest menace to its work? The gulf between the fence-cutting, bulldozer-stopping eco-warrior and the NT fellow traveller who helps out in the tearoom may seem to yawn wider than Wensleydale. Many of the latter will be less bothered about joining what Klein calls “the new structures built in the rubble of neoliberalism” than in repairing a drystone wall. Yet, as the NT’s strategy acknowledges, their cumulative clout may in time sway governments more than any headline-grabbing occupation.

Eco-Leninists in the Klein mould express little sympathy for a gentler army of conservationists who may share the ideals but would run (or maybe stroll) a mile from the Green Bolshevism of blockades and barricades. Still, the reach of a body such as the National Trust shows that an appetite for resistance, and a hunger for reform, may thrive in spots unvisited by the partisan mind. The party spirit, which will drench us at least until 7 May and possibly long after, shrinks society into state. The campaigning mindset draws its fire from a binary, us-against-them righteousness. But the appeal of the National Trust, like its smaller peers, may tell a different story.

Crucially, such a movement must know how to deliver pleasure – from the cream scone and the family Constables to the cliff-top walk – along with principle. The NT has follies and fudges of its own: what, to scrape a sore point, does it really think about fracking on its land? Its ascent, however, tells us that millions of people vote not just with their sensibly shod feet but with hard cash for ideals of collective engagement beyond the scope of a ribbon or rosette.

Don’t write them off too fast as chutney-nourished nostalgists. Remember what happened when, in 2011, the now-defunct Coalition proposed a sell-off of national forests to profit-driven forces? Within days, the privatisation fanatics were routed utterly. Revolutions can begin with a ramble as well as a march.

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