Consider, gentle art-institution types, the exciting prospect of a “punch up the bracket” from Nigel Farage (broadcaster and leader of the Brexit Party between 2019 and 2021). The heritage conservation charity the National Trust, with its country houses and tearooms, is having to face up to just that.
In his GB News programme, Farage recently interviewed Cornelia van der Poll, chair of the right-wing pressure group Restore Trust—a group of critical “friends” concerned about the direction of the charity. Farage said that the National Trust has gone “too woke, too PC, lost sight of its original purpose”, adding, “I hope Restore Trust knocks a bit of common sense back into what was the great National Trust.”
Farage is one of the latest recruits to Restore Trust’s highly professional hard-right astroturf campaign to put people on the National Trust’s governing council. I was vaguely aware of some unpleasantness of this kind in 2021 and 2022 but was only jolted into looking at it a little more closely this year by the names, like Farage’s, that kept appearing. Check it, and out they tumble. The National Trust affair and the characters staged by Restore Trust clearly involve a gang we’ve seen before—and which everyone in cultural institutions will see again in 2024’s upcoming culture wars. It’s founded on a moneyed American-style “grassroots” model (although as the National Trust is not government-funded, this is not merely a case of government foisting its candidates on to boards).
The gang includes many of the people and organisations Professor Patrick Barwise and I have recently identified (in our book The War Against the BBC )as the alliance, in uncanny lockstep, that wanted to defund and demoralise the BBC in a “death of a thousand cuts”. This was a strategy first devised by Dominic Cummings in 2004, when he was a member of a think-tank that called the BBC the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party and set out a plan to destroy it, including creating a sort of British Fox News and, interestingly, a cadre of entryists who would attack the BBC from within.
British art-world people across the spectrum—institutional, academic, commercial, political—know the role the BBC has played in the arts, and in its projection of the UK’s “soft power” via its World Service. It has also—along with Channel 4—helped to develop our national strength in the “creative industries” (a terrible term, but we know what’s meant and it’s important for us). The BBC’s enemies represent a threat to the art world too.
The anti-BBC group we discovered was overwhelmingly from the right. Not the soft-centre-right, but from opaquely funded think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which proudly powered the former prime minister Liz Truss’s thinking, and from most UK national newspapers—the ones owned by right-leaning, non-dom billionaires (see the analysis by the Media Reform Coalition for details).
Neil Record, a key founder of Restore Trust is an important supporter of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the climate-change sceptic group
Consider the fascinating figure of the finance tycoon Neil Record, a key founder and board member of Restore Trust. Record, the founder, former chair and largest shareholder in Record Currency Management, was chairman of the IEA until July this year. Significantly, Record has also been an important supporter of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the climate-change sceptic group founded in 2009 and based in London’s 55 Tufton Street SW1, home of a positive flotilla of right-wing think-tanks and pressure groups.
Record is typical of a new group of political activist—the “pluto-populists”, a group admired by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. They are based either in City finance, most typically as hedge-fund traders such as Sir Paul Marshall (funder of the UnHerd magazine website, part-owner of GB News, and allegedly bidding to buy the Telegraph Group), or as owners/controlling shareholders of their businesses.
Look at the fascinating history of Restore Trust’s young director Zewditu Gebreyohanes, who maintains that the group is a grassroots body of concerned National Trust members and ex-members worried by what they see as its increasingly “woke” politics. However, now aged just 24, Gebreyohanes, before Restore Trust, has worked with Sir Roger Scruton and the Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, and is a Young Ambassador of the International Churchill Society. She is also a government-appointed trustee of the V&A (since 5 September 2022) and is listed as a senior researcher on the Legatum Institute website (an influential right-wing think-tank, set up and part-funded by the Dubai-based Legatum Group, which is one of the two key shareholders in GB News). It’s somewhat circular!
We’re left with a fascinating question: why has the right devoted quite so much culture wars time, money and campaigning skills to undermining the National Trust? The organisation is huge—it’s the nation’s largest charity by membership, with 5.37 million members. It’s also popular, with a public trust rating second only to that of the UK’s NHS. And as the UK’s fourth largest landowner (589,748 acres, along with 780 miles of coastline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), it is influential about environmental and conservation issues. It has recently analysed the involvement in slavery and colonialism of its historic properties.
What could, say, Neil Record or Nigel Farage find to object to in that?
• Peter York is the president of The Media Society. His latest book, co-written with Patrick Barwise, is The War Against the BBC (Penguin 2020). He is currently writing Culture Wars and How Not to Lose Them