British attitudes blighted by colonial past, says National Trust academic conducting review 

Comments made by Rita McLean in 2007 likely to stoke political row over Trust and its properties' links to the slave trade

Rita McLean
Rita McLean, a museums and heritage consultant, is chairing a group looking at how to implement the Trust's findings about its properties and slavery Credit:  Birmingham Civic Society

Racism and discrimination exist in the UK because Britons have not "wholly understood" their country's history with the slave trade, according to the academic in charge of a review at the National Trust.

Rita McLean, a museums and heritage consultant, is chairing a steering group looking at how to implement the findings of the Trust's report into the links between its properties and slavery and colonialism.

She was appointed to lead "a working group of external specialists" that will be "advising and steering the Trust" in its approach to the review. The Trust has declined requests to say who is on the panel.

Speaking in 2007 on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, Ms McClean said: "A lot of the problems in society in terms of racism and discrimination stem from this episode in history and that needs to be addressed.

"That's still to be recognised on a wide scale and I think the issues and implications from that are not wholly understood."

The Trust is at the centre of a political row after it published a 115-page report titled the "Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery" in late September.

That triggered an approach from the Charity Commission into whether the charity had deviated away from its charitable purposes, while ministers said the review was "unfortunate", and told the Trust to concentrate on its "core functions".

Trust members also criticised the charity's annual general meeting, accusing it of pursuing "a witch hunt into the lives of past property owners" and pursuing a "woke agenda".

Conservative MPs criticised the remarks. Tory MP Sir John Hayes said: "What Ms McLean needs to understand is that we are a product of all that went before. You can't sanitise history.

"Consequently what we are as Britons is a product of the whole mix of things that has happened historically. Out of what has been before has grown what is now. You can't pick and choose which bits of history you want to disown."

Sir John called on the Trust to publish more details about the working group, saying: "We should have names so we know that they are proper people, who can be relied upon by National Trust members.

"What is Ms McLean's plan? It is clear this work caused great offence at the Annual General Meeting, and Parliament where members of parliament think they compromised their charitable status.

"We now need some transparency about the details of this and the cost of it. Anything other than that would suggest a deal of embarrassment on the part of the National Trust, or a desire to conceal, which might cause further damage to its reputation."

Chartwell, Winston Churchill's former home, has been the focus of the National Trust's recent attention Credit: Prisma by Dukas 

Andrew Murrison MP added: "Conflating slavery and colonialism, the title of its disturbingly unbalanced survey immediately gives the Trust’s game away.

“Dripping confirmation bias, this must rank as the least evidence-based publication put out by a charity in recent times. The regulator is right to be asking questions.

“I’m surprised the Trust’s leadership ploughs on instead of learning from useful work on similar material by, for example, English Heritage.

“This episode can’t be seen in isolation. The Trust’s leadership is losing its way on several fronts. It has clearly lost the trust of a significant part of its membership, hitherto loyal supporters of a cherished national institution. A reset is urgently needed.”

Ms Mclean was at the time Head of Museums and Heritage Services at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. She declined to comment when approached by The Telegraph.

A Trust spokesman added: "We are not going to comment on something said by Rita McLean in her capacity as Head of Museums and Heritage Services at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 13 years ago.”

A National Trust spokesman declined to say who is on the working group: “The working group is chaired by Rita McLean and made up of professionals from a range of backgrounds including academics and specialists from the museum and heritage sector.

“It has been formed to steer and inform relevant interpretation at our properties, ensuring that it is balanced and clearly set in a historical context.”