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Restore Trust and Countryside Alliance aim to take control of National Trust Board

Lobby groups ‘Restore Trust’ and the Countryside Alliance (CA) have seemingly joined forces to once again try to take over the Board of Trustees of the National Trust. Emails are being sent out listing five people the lobbyists would like members to vote for: Philip Gibbs, Andrew Gimson, Violet Manners, Philip Merricks, and Jonathon Sumption.

The pro-bloodsports CA claim on their website that the people they are putting forward will redress a lack ofdirect experience of farming, rural business or sustaining rural communities‘ on the NT’s Board. Much as it did when the CA urged its members during the May 2022 council elections to “return councillors who can understand and will defend rural interests“, that translates to voting in trustees who will support their archaic positions on hunting and shooting. The CA’s aim will be to load the Board with enough supporters to reverse a ban on so-called ‘trail hunting’ on Trust land voted for at the Trust’s AGM in October 2021.

That ban was voted in by 78,816 Trust members to 38,184. Many members at the AGM said they were concerned not only with the illegal hunting routinely taking place on National Trust land, but also the reputational damage being done to one of the largest charities in the UK. At the time illegal hunting was being widely reported on Twitter (now ‘X’) and the Trust’s robotic replies asking the public to report incidents to the police rather than taking any action themselves led to widespread derision.

 

 

Under its own regulations, requests for motions should be invalid if the issue was voted on “at any general meeting held during the three years preceding the submission of the resolution”. Whatever the Board might or might not decide, there should not be another vote on ‘trail hunting’ until late 2024 at the earliest. Opposition to hunting amongst the broader public (who make up the majority of National Trust members of course) is only going one way and will be even stronger by then. There is also likely to be a new government in power, and many of the Tory pro-hunting old guard like the ludicrous Jacob Rees-Mogg (who is said to be one of those behind this takeover bid) will have been replaced by younger, more pro-wildlife MPs from the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrats parties.

Whatever the bloodthirsty lobbyists at the Countryside Alliance might hope, fox hunting is not coming back. The public don’t want it, politicians won’t touch it with a bargepole, and should the Trust even look like wobbling on the issue the potential collapse in its membership would do immeasurable damage.

Given that Trustees are obliged in law to act in a charity’s best interests, enable the charity to carry out its purposes, and to avoid putting themselves “in a position where your duty to your charity conflicts with your personal interests or loyalty to any other person or body“, taking the National Trust down a road dictated to them by the narrow interests of the CA could be construed as illegal as well as extremely unwise.

 

Restore Trust

The CA’s reactionary and highly unpopular desire to make killing wildlife mainstream again is widely understood. What, though, is the Restore Trust?

Wikipedia describes the Restore Trust as “a British heritage advocacy group which seeks to voice the concerns of supporters and friends of the National Trust over its perceived left-wing politicisation“. In 2021 the Daily Mail quoted Restore Trust as believing the National Trust was ‘littered with Left-leaning quango-crats‘. Restore Trust’s ‘anti-woke activist’ director Zewditu Gebreyohanes has accused institutions of pursuing a “post-BLM trend”. On its website, Restore Trust says that it wants to ‘make the trust better…shifting the focus away from identity politics and back to looking after Britain’s beautiful historic buildings’. That sounds reasonable but their focus appears to have been on shutting down debates on issues like slavery (a number of the buildings the Trust now owns were built by slave-owners) and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

In a June 2023 ‘opinion piece’ Restore Trust described investors in slavery as ‘dabbling’ in this ‘sector’ and that ‘there is a growing confusion that racism, slavery and Colonialism are all the same thing, which is not true’. Most people are quite clear now that they are in fact one and the same, and suspect that any ‘confusion’ is being invented by lobbyists.

In August 2023 the Chair of Restore Trust, Cornelia van der Poll, was on GB News talking with Nigel Farage under the banner ‘Wokery at the National Trust’. He leapt scornfully on the phrase ‘diversity of thought’ until belatedly realising Ms van der Poll was actually using it to describe what her five candidates would supposedly bring to the NT’s board if appointed. How much ‘diversity of thought’? All five candidates are white and wealthy: one is a hedge fund manager, one used to write for the Telegraph, one led the Hawk and Owl Trust into a disastrous partnership with Natural England and the ‘brood meddling’ of Hen Harriers to appease grouse shooting, and one is the daughter of the Duke of Rutland, an influencer who in 2018 told the Daily Mail how she was ‘extremely proud’ to be back in the saddle with the Belvoir Hunt (aka the Duke of Rutland’s Hounds) which is kenneled on her family estate.

 

 

Tufton Street

The Good Law Project reported earlier this year that the man behind Restore Trust’s website is  Board member Neil Record, chairman of climate change denial group, Net Zero Watch, which is based at 55 Tufton Street. The Project took a deep dive into Tufton Street, which has become a byword for lobbying groups, because of “its outsized and malign hold over the Government via the opaque lobby groups and right-wing think tanks based there”.

In a response to the campaign to force the National Trust into the alt-right’s dog whistle culture wars, the Trust’s director of communications, Celia Richardson, said in 2022 that she found the idea of “paid-for canvassing for places on our council” to be a “new and concerning” development.

Tellingly, Restore Trust did not get enough votes at the National Trust’s annual general meeting in November 2022 to have its candidates elected, nor to pass its resolutions on the National Trust’s governance. Could it be more successful this time? The country is becoming increasingly divided (chasms created and exploited by right-wing groups and ‘libertarians’ mirroring the tactics of MAGA groups in the US), but linking so openly with the whiny, one-trick ponies at the Countryside Alliance will surely backfire and only strengthen the push back against them.

 

National Trust and fox hunting

If the nakedly pro-hunting lobby group the Countryside Alliance wasn’t backing Restore Trust’s campaign to load the National Trust Board with its preferred candidates, it’s unlikely that Protect the Wild would have written this piece.

Whilst we of course have personal views about whitewashing the UK’s colonial past, our remit is protecting British wildlife and the NT owns huge areas of land that hunts are desperate to be allowed back onto. Keeping them away – which is what members voted for remember – is hugely important.  Other landowners followed the National Trust’s lead, and hunts have increasingly found themselves confined to smaller and smaller parcels of land (the only major landowner still holding out now is the Ministry of Defence, who, for example, are still turning a blind eye to the illegalities of the Royal Artillery Hunt on Salisbury Plain: please sign our petition asking the MoD not to licence ‘trail hunts’).

Any threat to reinstating hunting on National Trust must be fought against – and any future Board members tempted to try to make it happen should be aware that the ban will be vociferously defended.