“It comes with the territory.” That’s what the Head of the National Trust for England and Wales said this week when asked why she hadn’t reported the death threats she’d received to the police.
Run that by me again.
The person who is responsible for promoting and protecting places of natural interest and historic beauty considers living with danger an integral part of the job?
It’s not exactly an outpost in Kandahar or even AC12.
There’s so much to unpack here.
Firstly the idea that such a dream job could have such a dark side.
Hilary McGrady has received death threats for the leadership she has shown over work on colonialism and historic slavery.
She commissioned a report following the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement which led to many prominent statues of historic slavers being defaced or damaged.
Published in September 2020, it found 93 of the buildings in the care of the National Trust had strong connections to slavery.
In other words the great wealth behind the beauty of the buildings in its care was generated by the global slave trades of goods, products and people.
The heritage charity resolved that it had a duty to tell inclusive and honest histories about its places and collections. To tell a broader story and put the history in a context.
— Sathnam Sanghera (@Sathnam) January 4, 2022
Critics say this is an attempt to rewrite history. Correct. Got it in one.
I’m not normally one to quote Napoleon, but here goes: “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”
The truth is the great wealth of the British Empire was built on the backs of the slave trade and the National Trust would just like to lengthen a few plaques to reference that now and again.
To present a more rounded, complete account of history.
And for that the Head of the National Trust has to contend with threats to her life.
Scotland isn’t immune here
Culture wars like this dominated much of our discourse in 2021 and it looks like they’ll continue to do so this year.
But must they?
I really struggle with why this is a debate at all.
Why wouldn’t we want children to know the truth about the past if we’re hell bent on them learning from it?
While this report only covers England and Wales, Scotland has its own story to reassess.
The University of Glasgow has been working on this for some time now and was the first higher education institution to announce it was going to make reparation payments for its links to slavery among numerous other activities.
I spent a good bit of last year reading as much as I could about colonialism and empire.
It also made me look at Verdant Works, a museum I’ve loved since my school days in Dundee, a little differently.
I was last there a few months ago and wondered whether the exhibits there did enough to tell the whole truth.
McGrady is not alone – and none of this is normal
The second most striking thing about Hilary McGrady’s situation is the idea that death threats can be so common place as to be normalised.
You can hear the conversation over the dinner table.
“What did you get today darling?”
“Well I got that Hermes parcel we’ve been waiting for, an Asda delivery and another of those death threats. Pass the peas please.”
She went as far to say that another reason she didn’t report it is that the author of that report, a female academic, had faced far worse abuse.
This festering intolerance and outrage has got to stop.
This morning I’m reading stories about North East MSP Karen Adam, who has had to report death threats because of comments she made on Twitter.
Can’t sleep, not eaten. I’m worried for mine and my families safety after I was just told my personal details are now being shared. Death threats, vile abuse, told to kill myself. Told I’d be put through a wood chipper.
Grateful for litigation advice. I’m off for a wee bit ✌🏻
— Karen Adam MSP (@KarenAdamMSP) January 3, 2022
It doesn’t matter what they are.
This is a young woman with kids who is living in fear.
At the other end of the country, anti-vaxxers are accused of targeting the kids, yes the kids, of the English Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Ignoring death threats won’t make them go away
There’s the danger of a vicious cycle here.
Surely we need the authorities to take incidents like this really seriously in order to show others that behaviour like this won’t be tolerated, that it’s not ok.
Yet if it becomes so commonplace that people just shrug their shoulders and live with the abuse, the authorities won’t feel the need to act.
I worry that the more normalised this becomes, the more emboldened the perpetrators will become.
It is not for us to demand that Ms McGrady reports what she’s experienced.
She is her own woman with her own mind.
But I do think it’s our job to demand a culture of inclusion, tolerance and respect.