Whilst flicking through someone else’s copy of The Sunday Times late last week, I found this article (yes, that is my bad attempt at tearing). The link to it is here, but you have to subscribe to read it in full. Nevermind, I can give a brief summary of its finer points, even if the headline was disappointingly misleading.
Basically, the article writers – Isabel Oakeshott and Jack Grimston – report that some of Britain’s militant unions are ‘operating luxurious holiday accommodation and rural retreats where shop stewards and members can enjoy breaks’. ‘Militant unions’ are those with strong left-wing policies, seeking to support the fundamental rights of workers, usually those in low or average income roles typically found in the public sector. I worked in the public sector for a while and my own views of unions was, and still is, a bit of a confused indifference.
However, the things that intrigued me most about this article were the notions of luxury and exuberance which somehow have party political connotations. The views of those mentioned in the article seemed to assume that only those with extensive private wealth independent of employed work should be permitted the enjoyment of large architectural structures with plush décor and coffee machines. Apparently, those who claim to have the needs of the working man as their top priority should not be able to justify the use of such accommodation; they become ‘champagne socialists’. Now, that may be true, and it did make me laugh out loud! But these are terms which get bandied about by opposing parties whenever the time is right to test political convictions. That an article like this has popped up is simply due to the muddle of political ideas in Britain today. A muddle within which we see political commentators attempt to define terms like ‘divisive’ for a week after Margaret Thatcher died.
While it seems absurd that the union representative – the shop steward – should be staying at a 5 star hotel at a discounted rate whilst their fellow colleagues slug it out for 8 hours and endure the commute home, it only serves to show how ridiculous politics can be in Britain. But interestingly, the country house has a role in this too. The article gives four sites as retreats, but only one is a ‘country home’ in the truest sense, that being Stoke Rochford Hall in Lincolnshire which is owned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), run by Christine Blower.
Stoke Rochford is entirely commercial and sells itself as a state of the art, hotel, conference and banqueting facility. Finding any meaty historical facts about the place is rather difficult, but the website at least says it was built in the 1840s and has recently undergone a £12million transformation thanks to English Heritage.
So, the question here is not so much about political convictions, but about perceptions of heritage and its accessibility. Certainly this is one of the most regular features of debates surrounding heritage and museums, but I am somehow comforted that a place like Stoke Rochford is still in use. There is the feeling that the ordinary folk still remain excluded though when full rate prices start at £59 for a standard room. I do not know what the solution is since heritage still insists on conjuring up images of class distinction and cultural capital, especially in Britain. Who has access, or who has rights to heritage? It would require a massive shake up of these deep-rooted attitudes in our culture whatever an individual’s financial background and party political stance.
Only days before this article was published did debates over the possibilities of reinstating charges to the national museums begin again. That too was concerned with class and accessibility, and whether the middle classes were making up the visitor numbers by going back more than once rather than the museum attracting new visitors every time.
I’d like to come back to this argument again when economies are brighter and the value of culture is not being undermined.
In the meantime though, there is something I am sure of, and that’s a good old fashioned plot! Many a country house has been host to successful or failed attempts to rid the country of its monarch or particularly unsavoury policymakers. Many were highly destructive volatile acts. The Gunpowder Plot for one got as far as it did because of the links its conspirators had with the elite. Calling like-minded individuals under one roof is a sure fire way of moving things along quicker. Today, those ‘militant unions’ are discussing workers’ strikes and trying to protect pensions, but the sought-after arena has altered little.