Image: National Trust Images

‘Woke’ is meaningless, says the National Trust’s communications lead

Celia Richardson on combatting accusations of virtue signalling from the media—and Restore Trust
January 15, 2024

Celia Richardson had been director of communications at the National Trust for nearly two years when it published a piece of “depthless virtue signalling” (the Telegraph), a “charge sheet and a hit list” (the Spectator), “one of the most intellectually fraudulent documents I’ve ever read” (the Daily Mail). The object of this ire was a rather dry, academic report into the Trust’s links with colonialism and slavery. But the apoplexy it provoked has forced Richardson to spend the past three years insisting that the charity has not, in fact, been captured by “shrill, demented, wokery” (the Sun).

Press criticism was only the start. In the spring of 2021, a few months after the report was published, a group called Restore Trust emerged and started loudly arguing that the National Trust had lost its way. “At the time, it did seem like a grassroots group set up by members,” Richardson says. “And we met them, we talked to them.” The group gained thousands of members and received a huge amount of sympathetic media coverage. It appointed paid staff and directors—including Neil Record, who chaired climate change-sceptic campaign group Net Zero Watch and the Institute of Economic Affairs. It lambasted the Trust’s policies on rewilding and social inclusion.

Richardson says Restore Trust was cherry-picking facts to create a story that wasn’t true. “[The National Trust] looks after everything from the peat bogs in Wales to uplands in the Lake District to Cornish coastal paths and tin mines to the Stourhead estate,” she says. “If you have a particular narrative, you can walk into one of the 400 pay-for-entry sites and find something to evidence your view.” Some of the outrage was based on misinformation. “They’ve often said that we have hidden objects because of their link to slavery, when in fact they’ve been on loan to another museum or gallery.” 

If you benefit this community, it’s good work, it’s charitable—but if you benefit this community, it’s woke virtue signalling

With over five million members, the National Trust is the biggest conservation charity in Europe. It is still hugely popular with the British public—and most of them, Richardson argues, are more interested in its conservation than its culture wars. When the Sycamore Gap tree was felled in what police say was an act of vandalism last year, Trust members were “devastated”, and thousands reached out to suggest how to help. “People really care about that,” Richardson says. “Whereas, if you listen to the Today programme, you believe that our members are worrying about what Restore Trust might say.”

Richardson uses her X account to counter some misleading claims. “Obviously you can’t argue with every Tom, Dick and Harry, but you can correct the record,” she says. “When you’re in my job, you’ve got to be open to a certain level of debate.”

Nebulous accusations about going “woke” are particularly difficult to deal with. “Journalists will always talk about wokery because it’s easy,” she says. “The Charity Commission chairman has asked people not to complain to them about charities being ‘woke’ because it doesn’t mean anything. Charities are there to do virtuous things.” Look at how the right attacked the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for rescuing migrants in the English Channel, she says. “If you benefit this community, it’s good work, it’s charitable—but if you benefit this community, it’s woke virtue signalling. It’s the luck of the draw who decides what’s woke and what’s not.”

A week after Richardson and I meet, the National Trust holds its annual meeting. Restore Trust puts up five people, including former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption and Boris Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson, for the council. All are rejected. The group’s two resolutions do not pass. Restore Trust’s director, 24-year-old Zewditu Gebreyohanes, announces that she is stepping down to focus on her work at right-wing thinktank the Legatum Institute. A week later, GB News declares that the National Trust is trying to “cancel Christmas”. It’s not clear how. War rumbles on. 

Correction: this piece originally stated that Restore Trust submitted resolutions at the National Trust’s annual meetings criticising the rewilding of Trust farmland as a “fashionable environmental fad” and condemning its “divisive” participation in Pride parades. These resolutions were not tabled by Restore Trust and the text has been amended to reflect this.