The National Trust has dismissed claims that its chairman quit in response to a campaign by some members against “wokeness”.
Tim Parker, who was appointed to the unpaid post in 2014, will step down in the autumn, it was announced last week. Because of the pandemic, he had agreed to stay on after completing two three-year terms.
The NT’s announcement of Parker’s resignation came a day after an organisation of members, Restore Trust, had circulated a motion for the annual general meeting in the autumn declaring no confidence in Parker. It called for fresh leadership to “regain the nation’s confidence” in the 126-year-old charity.
The motion was reported to have received 50 signatures among almost 6 million members of the trust by the time the announcement was made.
Parker’s resignation was hailed by some as a “victory against woke”. A statement on Restore Trust’s website said Parker had resigned following the publication of its motion. “His position was clearly untenable given everything that has happened and the current crisis of confidence in the National Trust among its staff, volunteers and members,” it said.
Toby Young, the libertarian commentator, tweeted: “Let’s hope this sends a message to the heads of other national institutions who pander to anti-British, leftwing activists and ignore their patriotic, small c conservative members: Get Woke, Go Broke.”
Sir John Hayes, a Conservative MP and NT member, told the Daily Mail that the trust had “sadly lost sight of its purpose. It is preoccupied with the prejudices of a woke minority”.
But a spokesperson for the trust said the timing of Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion. “Because we were in the midst of the pandemic, he decided to continue [beyond the end of his second term] to ensure the trust had some stability and leadership to get us through the pandemic.”
Last autumn, some trust members criticised Parker’s comments that Black Lives Matter was a “human rights movement with no party-political affiliations”. Parker said at the virtual annual meeting last autumn that “in no way” had the trust become a political organisation that had been taken over “by a bunch of woke folk or anything of that nature”.
The spokesperson said: “Parker could have chosen not to renew for a third term as chair if he had been worried about that criticism.”
Instead, he stayed on until NT houses were permitted to reopen earlier this month, formally telling fellow trustees on 18 May of his decision to step down in October. This was six days before Restore Trust published its motion criticising Parker.
The NT announced the move on 25 May after ensuring staff, volunteers, supporters and stakeholders were made aware, said the spokesperson.
Restore Trust was founded earlier this year to “change the ethos” of the NT, one of its founders was quoted as saying. According to its website, the NT “has recently given the impression that it has been taking sides on divisive issues. This has distracted staff and supporters from the vital task of looking after our heritage”.
Restore Trust did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer.
The NT’s 10-year strategy plan up to the year 2025, “For everyone, for ever”, commits the organisation to “diversity and inclusion and “playing our part to create a fair, equal society, free from discrimination”.
Among issues that have exercised some members in recent months is a report published by the trust last September detailing the connections some of its properties have with slavery and colonialism.
The 93 properties and places in the report, around a third of the total, included Winston Churchill’s country estate Chartwell, because of his political roles and opposition to self-governance in India, Lundy island in Devon, where convicts were forced into unpaid labour, and Hare Hill in Cheshire, whose owner traded slaves on a huge scale.
The trust was not seeking to make judgments about the past, Tarnya Cooper, its curatorial and collections director, told the Guardian, it was to raise awareness about the complexity of history in relation to place.
“We are not doing anything more than present the historical facts and data… People [should] draw their own conclusions and make their own minds up about things,” she said.
Another source of contention was an internal document that suggested the trust focus on its outdoor assets rather than an “outdated mansion experience” to reach new audiences.
The document proposed putting thousands of artworks and other items into storage in order to “flex our mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences”. Specialist exhibitions for the NT’s “niche audiences” should be scaled back, it said.