25 January 2024

Keir Starmer is no friend of the National Trust


In a speech to the Labour and Civil Society Summit this week Keir Starmer attacked the Tory government, accusing it of anti-woke McCarthyism. Promising to end years of divisive culture wars, he said the Tories had demonised institutions like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the National Trust, and ‘seem set on sabotaging civil society to save their own skins.’

Starmer’s view – that the ‘culture wars’ are stoked exclusively by ‘divisive right-wing rhetoric’ – is a common and well-worn left-wing take. It is also a dishonest one. It does not merely ignore Starmer’s enlistment in the culture wars – such as taking the knee for BLM – but also ignores the capture of institutions by progressives and their weaponisation in service of woke ideology. The ‘civil society’ Starmer speaks of is a largely astroturfed agglomeration of charities, institutions and NGOs that we know and despise as ‘the Blob’.

Some time ago I wrote in these most august pages that in the war on woke, ‘the battleground of the culture war is not hamlets or villages, but institutions’ – and that conservatives are losing the war of attrition. Many of these are not inherently woke, but have rather been captured by a long march by progressives through the institutions. 

The constituent parts of the blob are too numerous to name, but it is hard to think of a single institution in Britain that has not pivoted towards progressive ideology of one kind or another. In the cases Starmer names, the RNLI were initially called ‘woke’ by Nigel Farage, who accused them of running ‘a taxi service for migrants.’ But since then the Daily Mail has revealed that older members of the RNLI – a Stonewall Diversity Champion – has suffered mass resignations of old hands across the south coast in protest at more stringent DEI policies, which many argue puts lifeboat crews at risk. Starmer also commented that ‘It comes to something when the Tories are at war with the National Trust.’ But as Restore Trust member Harry Mount writes, ‘the Trust has increasingly become a political organisation, wading in on climate change, colonial history, gay rights and feminism.’

The influence of politics via ‘civil society’ has long been a goal of progressives. This has even been said explicitly; in a history of the Joseph Rowntree Trusts commissioned to commemorate their centenary in 2004, the group describes an innovation of the 1970s, their decision to host ‘many of the small, single issue pressure groups that were mushrooming at the time’ at 9 Poland Street in the West End: 

‘The basic idea behind Poland Street was to help promote a better-organised and more constructive pluralistic basis for extra-parliamentary democratic activity. It was described in the press as being the centre for ‘the counter civil service’, which it was for much of its twenty years’ incarnation.’

Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 opened the door to an increasing role for this counter-civil service. New Labour developed a strategy that Peter Burnham calls ‘the politics of depoliticisation’, which I have previously written about:

‘He describes it as ‘the process of placing at one remove the political character of decision-making’, in which ‘state managers retain arm’s-length control over crucial economic and social processes whilst simultaneously benefiting from the distancing effects of depoliticisation’. 

Under Blair, government spending on Non-Departmental Public Bodies rose by 106%, a bonanza that reflected their desire to devolve increasing authority and power away from direct governmental control and towards opaque public bodies. This devolvement of power and authority combined with the ‘agencification’ of the civil service under Margaret Thatcher, after which policy was no longer political but evidence-based, and formed not by Ministers but informed by engagement with outside bodies, whilst elected officials – and therefore democratic control – were distanced from operational aspects of public services too. Meanwhile, in 2006, Blair redefined ‘charitable purposes’ to include ‘the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution and reconciliation and the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity’, leading to the rise of what Poppy Coburn calls ‘Radical Chic Charities.

On assuming power in 2010, the Conservatives not only failed to tackle this sector – under which promulgation of progressive ideology was considered non-political – but gave it even more influence. Many saw Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ as a vehicle to reduce the role and size of government. That is a misconception. As he said in his 2009 Hugo Young Lecture, ‘Our alternative to big government is not no government –some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire.’ Rather, the Big Society marked a move from the state as sole provider to a facilitator, an enabler. Cameron continued, ‘we understand that the Big Society is not just going to spring to life on its own – we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society.’ 

This has led to the laughable situation in which a Conservative Government is spending vast amounts of taxpayers money funding institutions and charities that campaign against its’ own policy objectives; as I have previously written, the Conservative Way Forward report Defunding Politically Motivated Campaigns worked out the total spend across government on politically motivated activities at a staggering £7bn a year.

Many of these institutions are now run often by employees coming across from academia (the academy, as one anon put it, is the soil that sustains the Blob) who see their duty, not to the role they are entrusted with, but to social progress – and who consider their role subservient to that goal. The institution is therefore re-shaped to conform to contemporary social values; this is what drives the RNLI’s bond with Stonewall, and the National Trust’s embrace of revisionism to conform to today’s progressive values.

Starmer’s protest on behalf of a ‘civil society’ that promotes diversity of every kind except ideology is entirely disingenuous and offends the natural Tory instinct to reject the politicisation of institutions. But without the will to enforce the neutrality of these institutions, that once-noble principle now owes more to impotence than ideology. 

If conservatives are to wrestle political and cultural power back from progressives, they must be clear in the mind and cold in the heart; they must dismiss the arguments Starmer presents, accept that the culture war is real and that institutions must be won back. As Christopher Rufo argues:

‘The institutions which today shape public and private life will exist for the foreseeable future. The only question is who will lead them and by which set of values. The New Right must summon the self-confidence to say, We will, and by our values.’

One of the notable things about Starmer’s speech is that he accuses the Tories of McCarthyism; but McCarthy was right, and the main problem with McCarthyism was that it underestimated the scale of communist infiltration. Perhaps McCarthyism may be the only viable strategy we have; in the face of pervasive institutional capture, merely appealing to neutrality is an untenable philosophy for the realities of 21st century politics.

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Tom Jones is writer and a Conservative councillor for Scotton & Lower Wensleydale.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.