The Chair of the U.K.’s National Trust Will Step Down Amid Backlash to His So-Called ‘Woke Agenda’

The chair was responsible for a report that explored links between the Trust's properties and colonialism.

The gardens of the National Trust's Ham House in London. Picture date: Tuesday February 23, 2021. Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images.

You wouldn’t know it from the seemingly straightforward announcement on the National Trust’s website that chair Tim Parker is stepping down after seven years, but it appears members and leaders of the organization are at war.

The conflict stems from a report released in September 2020 that explored the links between the properties overseen by the National Trust—the U.K.’s central heritage organization and one of the largest landowners in the country—and the slave trade. The 115-page report explores how Britain’s history of colonialism helped build and furnish Trust properties, including Winston Churchill’s family home.

The report ignited a firestorm among some National Trust members and MPs, who suggested the organization may have breached charity law by publishing it. (Regulators determined in March that the organization did not in fact violate any rules.) In a letter, 26 MPs claimed the trust had been taken over by “elitist bourgeois liberals” who were consumed by a “woke agenda.”

The row echoes broader tensions in the U.K.—and around the world—over how to deal with monuments that celebrate or memorialize figures who profited from exploitation. The U.K. culture secretary Oliver Dowden has promoted a policy of “retaining and explaining” problematic monuments rather than taking them down.

The opposition to Parker coalesced into an organization called “Restore Trust,” which describes itself as “a forum where members, supporters and friends of the National Trust can discuss their concerns about the future of the charity.” It has around 300 members, according to the Evening Standard.

In a statement to Artnet News, Restore Trust said it was “pleased” that Parker had decided to step down. “His position was clearly untenable given everything that has happened and the current crisis of confidence in the National Trust amongst its staff, volunteers, and members,” Restore Trust said. What the Trust needs now, it continued, is “a chair with a deep understanding and appreciation of our nation’s heritage.”

The National Trust’s council has initiated the process of appointing a new chair, according to a statement. Since his appointment in 2014, Parker served two full three-year terms and extended his final term to provide stability amid the pandemic. He informed trustees of his resignation the day after Trust properties reopened to the public on May 17. Parker will step down in October.

In its statement, the Trust called the chair position “the most senior volunteer in an organization with more than 50,000 volunteers, who give around five million hours of their time to the conservation charity in a normal year.” The organization reiterated that the search for Parker’s successor had started before the pandemic lockdown, but that it would now resume.

Trust leaders have published numerous blog posts defending the report and the importance of exploring often complicated histories in order to move forward. In a post dated March 11, director general Hilary McGrady writes: “Let’s not forget that our collections also speak to world history and the history of other nations and people.”

The Daily Mail reported that critics of the National Trust have also taken aim at McGrady. A former volunteer for the Trust, retired history professor Tony Adler, claimed he was forced out after he highlighted what he said were inaccuracies in the report. Adler claimed that McGrady bears responsibility for making the trust what he described as “a left-wing front organization,” according to the Daily Mail.

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