‘Woke wars’: let’s hear it for the National Trust’s long history of radicalism

National Trust Climate Hazards

When the National Trust was founded, it wasn’t just ‘woke’ – it was revolutionary.

Yesterday, the National Trust published an interactive online map that shows how climate change threatens the countryside, coastline and historic houses in its care – including many sites in the South West.

Extreme heat and humidity, coastal erosion, landslides, floods and high winds are among the hazards set to impact on these sites over the next 40 years. But there are other less obvious ones, too – and some are already with us.

Mike Calnan, who recently retired as Head of Gardens & Parks for the Trust, reported:
“Already Camellia petal blight and Ramorum blight have arrived from Japan and America respectively, and are established in parts of the South West and elsewhere. Warmer, moister conditions will favour the growth and spread of these pests and diseases, threatening our important plant collections.”

“The map paints a stark picture of what we have to prepare for,” says National Trust director for land and nature, Harry Bowell. “But by acting now, and working with nature, we can adapt to many of these risks.”

It’s probably only a matter of time before the Trust comes under fire for speaking up about the climate emergency. In recent months it has faced a storm of outrage from Conservative MPs as a result of its efforts to highlight the connections that some of its properties have with Britain’s history of slavery and colonialism.

In December, the ‘Common Sense Group’, numbering around 60 Conservative MPs, joined with various right-wing commentators to attack the Trust for daring to focus on this aspect of our history. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, members of the group demanded that “institutional custodians of history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the ‘woke agenda’.” They also praised the chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell, for warning charities that “their purpose is far from involvement in the theory or practice of politics”.

The use of the phrase “cultural Marxism” rang loud alarm bells with anyone familiar with the antisemitic rhetoric of the far right. David Lawrence of the anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate said: “Cultural Marxism is a conspiracy theory inflected with antisemitism and is commonly employed by the far right; it has even appeared in the manifestos of mass murderers.”  Dr Edie Friedman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality agreed: “No political party should be making use of tropes which reinforce racist, Islamophobic or antisemitic sentiments to support particular arguments and policies.”

Whether or not the MPs who wrote to the Telegraph  were aware of the cultural baggage of the phrase “cultural Marxism”, it’s clear that they have no understanding of the National Trust’s history. “Safeguarding and celebrating British values” (as understood by the right wing of the Conservative Party) has never been part of its mission.

Indeed, from its formation in 1895, the Trust has been a remarkably progressive organisation. Its roots trace back to several Victorian societies in which some of the most radical activists of the 19th century were closely involved. These people could, in fact, be seen as early pioneers of what’s now known as environmentalism.

The Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society, of which the revolutionary socialist William Morris was a key member, campaigned to establish public access to the natural world – particularly to bits of it that had been closed off by wealthy landowners. And it was not shy of taking direct action to achieve this aim.

In 1866, the society mobilised 120 people to dismantle two miles of steel fencing that had been erected around Berkhamsted Common by Lord Brownlow in a bid to claim the land as part of his family’s estate. Lord Brownlow prosecuted these activists for trespass and criminal damage but lost the case – a landmark decision that helped save other open spaces from similar land grabs.

William Morris later went on to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which also contributed to the foundation of the National Trust, advising it on the renovation of the first historic building that the Trust purchased, Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex.

Octavia Hill. Drawing by Edward Clifford, National Gallery of Scotland

The other pioneering organisation to which the National Trust can be traced back is the Kyrle Society, founded by Miranda Hill in 1876. Miranda’s sister, the housing reformer Octavia Hill, was the society’s treasurer and later the key moving force behind the establishment of the Trust.

The impetus behind the Kyrle Society was an acute awareness that the poor of Victorian cities had to endure lives horribly blighted by pollution, and had little or no access to green spaces for recreation. As Octavia Hill wrote, its aim was

“to secure open spaces, when once the world seemed awakening to the necessity of obtaining them, to endeavour to make them such as trees and flowers and grass would grow in and show their natural colour and brightness”.

The Hill sisters campaigned to buy land to add to existing London parks and to restore and secure public access to numerous smaller spaces. Octavia also established social housing projects for the poor of London, and was determined that the residents of these should have access to such green spaces as their “open air sitting rooms”,

‘Woke’ was not a word used to belittle people with a social conscience in Victorian times, though it had its contemporary equivalents: terms such “mawkish sensibility” and “maudlin sentimentalism” were frequently applied to social reformers such as the Hill sisters. Then, as now, such attacks tended to come from conservative commentators irritated by any attempt to challenge the status quo.

Octavia Hill had indeed shown a strong sense of social injustice from her early years. Growing up in poverty after her merchant father was declared bankrupt, as a young woman she refused sugar in her tea rather than consume the product of slave labour. Her later remarkable work as a housing reformer was driven by a strong sense of the sheer cruelty and injustice of the conditions faced by the working-class people of Victorian London.

Her sister Miranda wrote of Octavia’s extraordinary energy in terms that perhaps evoke the word ‘woke’ in a positive sense quite different to that intended by the Tory MPs of the Common Sense Group:

“I always think her return on the scene brings about what Tennyson describes as happening when the Sleeping Beauty awoke: ‘And all the pent-up stream of life / Roars downward like a cataract.’ Things seem asleep till she comes, then all is life and movement.”

It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary it was, in the 1890s, for the newly formed National Trust to propose securing green open spaces and historic buildings for the enjoyment of all, rather than as the exclusive preserve of the wealthiest in society. One suspects that the founder of the Common Sense Group, Sir John Hayes MP, would have had little truck with such a notion had he been around to fulminate in the pages of the Daily Telegraph at the time.

Hayes has been described by conservative commentator Iain Dale as “a sort of Kinder, Kueche, Kirche Conservative who is viscerally opposed to any form of liberalism. He’s a climate change sceptic, ambivalent about women’s rights and a vocal opponent of gay marriage.”

Other members of the Common Sense group include veteran right-winger Sir Edward Leigh MP, who also appears to take a dismissive attitude to the warnings of climate scientists. In February, he tweeted about flooding in his Lincolnshire constituency: “It’s always rained in England: blaming climate change is a total cop-out.”

Another prominent member of the group is Lord Lilley, a veteran climate change denier and a trustee of Lord Lawson’s so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation, an outfit notorious for promoting disinformation about climate science.

The National Trust deserves praise for highlighting the climate emergency as one of the greatest threats to the natural world and the historic heritage that it conserves and keeps open for us all.

 And when it’s attacked for being ‘woke’ by the dinosaurs of the Common Sense Group, I can’t help thinking of the title of Goya’s famous etching: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

Goya: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters Wellcome Collection. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International