How appropriate that, just when Mr Blair has announced plans to make the House of Lords more 'democratic' by filling it with party placemen, peers should tomorrow be debating a curious microcosm of the Blairite view of democracy, in discussing the National Trust. The Trust's more active members have become increasingly angry at what they see as the dictatorial way it is run by its chairman Charles Nunneley, a businessman, and its new director-general Miss Fiona Reynolds, formerly head of the women's unit in Mr Blair's Cabinet Office.
Because the Trust was set up under Acts of Parliament, Lord Patten (formerly Tory minister John, rather than his Brussels-loving namesake Chris) will tomorrow draw peers' attention to the strange fashion in which Mr Nunneley repeatedly uses a pile of proxy votes to swing motions at the Trust's annual general meetings the way he wants, over what appear to be the wishes of the vast majority of members present. This practice has aroused questioning since 1998, but only this year, the first time the figures were revealed, have suspicions come to a head.
At the Trust's annual general meeting nine days ago, Mr Nunneley and Miss Reynolds were particularly keen to see their own nominees elected to its ruling council, including architect Elsie Owusu, hailed as evidence of the Trust's ethnic inclusivity, and to exclude critics of their own management. These included Robin Page, the farmer and journalist, Roger Scruton, the philosopher, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, the television cook and Henry Keswick, a City businessman and farmer who is also chairman of the National Portrait Gallery. In addition to their more general criticisms of the regime, it did not help that three of these candidates also oppose its anti-hunting policy.
When direct votes by the membership were counted, only one of these candidates received fewer votes than Miss Owusu. Mr Page, with 40,660, was 7,000 ahead. But Mr Nunneley used 10,805 of the proxy votes with which he is entrusted by members to use at his own discretion, to ensure Miss Owusu's election. Even more dramatic was Mr Nunneley's use of his proxies to quash a strongly worded resolution from Dorset, deploring the high-handed manner in which earlier this year the Trust sacked the successful, long-established warden of its 2,000-acre estate at Golden Cap, near Lyme Regis. On the direct vote of members, this resolution should have been carried, by 42,449 to 19,405. But Mr Nunneley cast no fewer than 24,861 proxies to ensure his victory.
Mr Nunneley's use of proxy votes first drew suspicion in 1998, when they helped ram through support for a report allegedly proving the cruelty of deer-hunting by Professor Patrick Bateson, even though an independent study replicating experiments on which Bateson based some of his key findings had come up with results so different he was forced to withdraw them. So controversial was the Trust's conduct that several substantial benefactors withdrew promised bequests, including Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. In 1999 Mr Nunneley again used proxies to ensure the exclusion from the Council of several leading critics, including Mr Page, showjumper Lucinda Green and Robin Hanbury-Tenison, formerly chairman of the Countryside Alliance.
The Trust's role is sensitive since there is widespread feeling that, as Britain's largest private landowner, it has been too muted in standing up for rural interests when the countryside is under such relentless attack from Government policies. The Trust's urban, politically-correct, centralised management style has attracted derision from country people, notably in Cumbria, where many of its tenant farmers are being forced to retire by the demands the Trust imposes on them. The Countryside Alliance has been all-but sidelined since being taken over by its Labour-supporting director, Richard Burge. The NFU, purporting to represent farmers even though only 30 percent are members, has been equally supine in protecting rural communities against the Government's anti-farming crusade.
As peers will hear tomorrow the Trust, in its increasing remoteness from its members' wishes, seems to echo too many other institutions in our national life. More than one speaker will argue that a step to remedying that breakdown of trust must be to remove those proxy votes from its chairman's grasp.
There are murky goings on over the way the Government is currying favour with Brussels by bringing pressure on Britain's various dependencies, notably Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in direct contradiction of the special status given these territories when we entered the Common Market in 1973. On one hand, Britain is now planning a deal with Spain to grant joint-sovereignty over Gibraltar, even though polls have consistently shown that over 98 percent of its inhabitants wish to remain wholly British. This accords with a top-level Foreign Office briefing two years ago at which, as I reported, it was proposed Britain should do a deal with Spain, to win her support on issues such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. At the same time, in compliance with an EU report on 'unfair tax competition', chaired by Treasury minister Dawn Primarolo, Brussels is mounting a full-scale offensive to end Gibraltar's status as a tax-haven, threatening to wipe out the thriving financial services industry which provides most of its income. So aggressively is the Commission pursuing this that, although Gibraltar enjoys fiscal independence, there is even talk of holding the British Government liable to repay billions of pounds in back taxes.
On the other hand, in accord with the same Primarolo report, Britain has agreed to a draft directive, 2001/400, promising to whip the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man into line with EU policy forcing banks and finance houses to disclose all transactions to any EU state's tax authorities. Although publicly the island governments insist this is no threat to the financial services which yield 65 percent of their tax income - the Channel Islands are second only to Switzerland in the money they put through the City of London - the fact is none of these islands are part of the European Union. As Crown dependencies, under Britain's 1972 accession treaty they were guaranteed sovereignty over their own affairs for ever. The fact that Britain is now preparing to hand over part of that sovereignty to Brussels when they do not even belong to the EU is not only in flagrant breach of the treaty. For islands depending on tax sovereignty for their survival, it is the thin end of what could be a very dangerous wedge indeed.
Last summer I received a press cutting from Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis reporting a crisis facing the Netley steam and craft show in his Hampshire constituency. For 30 years this annual family event has been raising tens of thousands of pounds for charities. Although visitors never gave trouble and policing was minimal, Hampshire police had obviously decided to target it as a nice little earner. In 1998, police charges for attendance were #840. By this year this had risen to #3,574. Soon it would be #12,000. Half the charity funds raised would be diverted to police coffers. So outraged were the organisers, led by Tony Greenham, that they called on their MP for help. Nine days ago Dr Lewis made their plight the subject of a Commons debate, describing how, when a nearby housing estate at Totton is terrorised by child vandals, police are nowhere to be seen. Despite a weaselly reply from the minister, Keith Bradley, last Thursday Mr Greenham again met Hampshire police, to be told the threat to the rally was no more. Policing will return to its original modest level. Furthermore two squad cars had been sent to the Totton housing estate, following which the vandals' reign of terror miraculously ceased. In these dark times, it is good to know some stories at least can still have happy endings.
At a dinner on December 4 at the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels, attended by various European Commissioners, the magazine European Voice will announce the winners of its annual awards, including 'European of the Year'. Short-listed nominees include Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Delors, Chris Patten and two Sunderland greengrocers, Steve Thoburn and Neil Herron, for their campaign against compulsory metrication (the pair have also been shortlisted under 'Campaigner of the Year'). Computerised readers of this column who have contributed so magnificently to the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund may wish to know they have just four more days to cast their votes, on www.ev50.com (just look for 'vote','poll' or 'award'). Alastair Campbell is busy drumming up support for Mr Blair, so vote early and vote twice.