Phyllis Schlafly, whose drives against abortion and female equality galvanised conservatives and helped reshape America, used to compare political campaigns to an iceberg with “eight-ninths under the surface”. Her army was invisible – until it was required. Then it would appear out of thin air when a crucial vote was to take place, armed with horror stories about what the passage of a progressive change would entail. Ms Schlafly’s rhetorical tactic was to remain reasonable-sounding, despite peddling alarming arguments, until an exasperated adversary lost their sang-froid in response. It is a playbook now, alas, being deployed against the National Trust, which looks after scores of the country’s historic houses, gardens and landscapes. After a year of weathering unfounded attacks, the charity this week broke cover to say it was facing an ideological campaign from a little-known group that it claims is trying to sow division.
It’s hard to disagree. A slate of conservatives, backed by an organisation called Restore Trust (RT), is running for election for six vacant seats on the charity’s 36-strong consultative council. One candidate supported by RT – Stephen Green – vows to take the trust “back to its founding principles … and to end its promotion of fashionable ‘woke’ causes”. The council is the National Trust’s “guardian spirit”, with a say over trustee appointments. Mr Green is the leader of a Christian fundamentalist lobby group, who accuses the trust’s leadership of being “obsessed with LGBT issues”. The vote takes place at the trust’s AGM this month.
While rightwing Christianity might lend a grassroots flavour to the campaign, there’s also a feel of astroturf. RT’s directors include a financier who has backed a leading climate-sceptic lobby group and chairs another. It is also supported by rightwing Tory MPs. The communications strategy appears to amplify political information through confusion, and manufacture the illusion of popularity. RT claimed this year to have toppled the trust’s chairman after saying that he was too “woke”. In fact, its motion of no confidence received just 50 signatures from the trust’s 6 million members. The chair was already on his way out. The purpose appears to have been to create a bandwagon effect – and the more people jump on, the harder to slow it down.
While being firm in rebutting overblown complaints, the National Trust must not lose its cool. The charity became a target after its report last year detailed the links between historic slavery and colonialism in 90 properties. The report was timely, sober and academic. It was meant to provoke discussion, but instead generated waves of often unreasonable media and political attacks. One RT-promoted council candidate complains about the trust expending energy on “colonialism and the slave trade”. The Conservatives have reasons to stir the pot. Voters who turned to the Tories for the first time in 2019 and more traditional Conservative voters agree on little apart from culture wars. The term “culture war” is too often employed when describing a campaign of racism or climate denial. But here it really does apply. The Conservatives and their allies are targeting soft-power centres to push a reactionary agenda. It’s an advance that needs to be resisted.