by Stephen Cook
22nd April 2021

When the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, last month summoned national museums and charities, including the National Trust and the Landmark Trust, to hear his views about what has come to be called ‘contested heritage’, he reminded them that they should not be beholden to ‘a vocal minority’, according to an account of the meeting in the Museums Journal.

This month, an organisation called the Restore Trust was launched. It argues on its website that ‘a political agenda has come to dominate the National Trust’; the charity should be restored to its ‘original apolitical ethos’, should ‘use history responsibly for understanding, not as a weapon’, and allow visitors to Trust properties to enjoy them ‘without intrusive interpretation’.

This is the latest reaction to the publication by the Trust last autumn of a piece of academic research about the connections of 93 of its properties to slavery and colonialism. The study was earlier under attack by the Common Sense Group of Conservative backbenchers, who secured a Westminster Hall debate in which Dr Andrew Murrison, MP for South West Wiltshire, asserted that the role of the Trust should be confined to being “clerk of works to a large wedge of our national treasures”.

The website of the Restore Trust does not say what kind of organisation it is or who is behind it. Early stories in the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph said it had 300 members, and a few days later Third Sector magazine said it had more than 6,000 members. The National Trust has a membership of 5.5 million, so without a much more dramatic expansion, the question arises of whether the Restore Trust is just one of Mr Dowden’s ‘vocal minorities’.

Either way, the Charity Commission, which said in response to a Freedom of Information request that it had had three complaints about the National Trust report, responded to concerns in Parliament and the media by opening a ‘compliance case’ on the grounds that there was a risk to the reputation of the Trust and of charities more widely.

The commission concluded last month that the charity had acted in line with its charitable purposes and charity law and had found widespread advance support for the research in a consultation of 2,000 members: ‘But it is reasonable to conclude that the Trust’s planning and approach did not fully pre-empt or manage the potential risks to the charity.’

The National Trust is the most high-profile example of a charity being drawn into the so-called ‘culture wars’ that have become an increasingly significant feature of political debate under Boris Johnson’s government. Unicef was accused by the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, of a ‘political stunt’ when it gave £700,000 to 30 UK organisations providing food to disadvantaged children; Barnardo’s came under fire for publishing guidelines about discussing the question of ‘white privilege’ with children; Runnymede Trust, the race equality charity, was criticised by Elizabeth Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, for saying the government was driving a wedge between the white working class and the BAME working class.

A clue to the common denominator in much of this conflict came when Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, was giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education. Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich and a member of the Common Sense group, told him that a charity like Barnardo’s “should be focused on helping the most needy, as you do, and bringing people together – I would be cautious about trying to engage in what are controversial, divisive political debates.”

This brings us to a perennial conflict about the role of charities. Should they stick to the model of Lady Bountiful, dressing the wounds of society but staying silent about the causes of the wounds? Or should they be involved in trying to prevent the damage by calling and campaigning for change? Governments of all parties are rarely happy about being challenged by charities, despite periodic window-dressing statements to the contrary. The current government, however, appears to be on a mission to steer charities into the Lady Bountiful mode.

It seems to be succeeding to some extent. In November last year, the annual survey of campaigning civil society organisations, including charities, by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation found that 63 per cent of 176 respondents thought that politicians had become more negative towards campaigning, compared to 45 per cent the previous year. The Museums Association went further on the subject of the meeting with Dowden and said there was now a ‘climate of fear’ among organisations that dealt with ‘contested heritage’.

The Association was particularly concerned about a letter Dowden had written to major museums (publicly funded, but also charities) in September 2020 in which he said he expected their “approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position…you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics”. On the face of it, this is a clear attempt to fetter the discretion of charity trustees, which the courts have twice in the last decade held to be unlawful.

The great majority of the approximately 200,000 registered charities in the UK are small and involved in activities that will rarely involve political controversy. But a significant number, some of them large and well known, are at increased risk in the current political climate of finding themselves in the spotlight if they undertake campaigning or research to further their charitable purposes.

If they require reassurance that they should not back off, they can refer to the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity, a document known as CC9, which says ‘charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions where such change would support the charity’s purposes’. The 13 purposes cited in charity law include not only relief of poverty and the advancement of education and religion, but also the advancement of citizenship, the arts, human rights, and the protection of the environment and animals.

Charities could also do worse than remember the 2014 words of the late Stephen Lloyd, an outstanding charity lawyer: ‘If politics are not concerned with poverty, injustice, climate change, the distribution of wealth, human rights and education, what are they for? And since these, and many other issues, are the essence of charitable purposes, it is inevitable that charities will engage with contentious political issues. It goes with the patch.’

Stephen Cook is a journalist and author with extensive experience in national newspapers and magazines, including 18 years at The Guardian. He has published five novels and two non-fiction books.


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