Sunday, March 09, 2008

A friend in the north

Over at Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic, Freens is sadly calling it a day. Always well written and original, it is a blog that I will miss.

Coincidentally, Freens and I are currently reading the same book, David Kynaston's Austerity Britain. He has picked up on an eye-catching quote, which I spotted too, in a section on the National Trust. This is the subject of one of his latest posts. He uses it to illustrate one of the themes of the book that the Labour Government of 1945-51 was not as radical as frequently portrayed (Kynaston also makes the point that neither were the people) and that the National Trust was more about the preservation of the aristocracy than the placing of national heritage into public hands. He uses this striking quote,

The gem of the meeting in October 1946 came from Sir Robert Abdy who remarked that 'the public could not of course be admitted to the house because they smelt.' This stunned his fellow committee members who were probably in complete agreement with him but realised that this was a surefire way of removing a publicly-subsidised roof from over their heads.

Freens' post reflects the influence on him of Peter Kropotkin. There has been a growing interest in Kropotkin recently as Greens, when they finally got around to realising that there was nothing really new about Green politics, began to identify Kropotkin as a precursor and a sort of 'gentle' hippy. Not so Freens who, partially inspired by the behaviour of the landed classes in their Highlands playground, has bought into the other, less often celebrated, side of Kropotkin; the revolutionary communist and believer in the expropriation of private property. And this informs his scorn.

For a contrast I turned to Ben Pimlott's biography of the then Labour Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, one of the best political biographies I have read. Pimlott quotes Dalton's pride in the NT, which he described as "Practical Socialism in action". Dalton wrote that, "It has behind it a fine record of public service and commands a widespread public goodwill. A Labour Government should give it every encouragement greatly to extend its activities". This Dalton tried to do through the establishment of a National Land Fund as a way of using death duties to attack the concentration of land ownership.

There we have it; an interesting contrast of interpretation between two social democratic historians - the National Trust as practical socialism or a system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy. Freens makes it clear what side he is on; he will be missed.

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