Why Neil Oliver is a controversial appointment at NTS

Neil Oliver
Neil Oliver
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The appointment of a prominent figure to head up a charity would, in most circumstances, be lucky to merit a passing mention in polite conversation.

However, the announcement that TV historian Neil Oliver was to take over as President of the National Trust for Scotland was met with fury in some circles.

The NTS, which is a conservation charity that also manges many of Scotland’s assets, such as castles, gardens, and tourists spots, was confirmed in the role at the organisation’s AGM last week.

Some social media users have been quick to condemn the organisation, given the previous political stances expressed by Mr Oliver, some in his role as a newspaper columnist.

It does appear from previous output that Mr Oliver’s role is largely ceremonial, with the trained archaeologist unlikely to be stuck behind a desk dealing with the day-to-day output of the NTS.

For example, the National Trust, the rest of the UK’s equivalent of the NTS, has Prince Charles as their President.

Background

The first sign of the political views of Mr Oliver, who attained household name status around 10 years ago as the host of Coast, came in a pre-referendum interview with a Scottish newspaper.

He had, however, previously been criticised after fronting multi-million pound documentary A History of Scotland, which was accused of being too ‘Anglo-Centric’.

READ MORE: Neil Oliver quits social media over ‘abuse’

While leading a 2014 project to try and authoritatively pin down the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, Mr Oliver said: “I’m proud of Britain. I find this kind of internecine squabbling puts my teeth on edge.

“I would rather that it (the Independence referendum) would just go away - or that it had never happened.”

In a later column for a Sunday paper ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election, Mr Oliver described a second referendum, then mooted by Nicola Sturgeon, as a ‘hate fest’.

He also castigated former First Minister Alex Salmond as a ‘round wrecking ball of a man’ as he described the SNP as being in the ‘dead dog business’.

The Backlash

The controversy over the appointment was as speedy as it was predictable, with one pro-independence newspaper calling Mr Oliver an ‘SNP-hating’ historian.

SNP MSP James Dornan said: “Of course, NTS has the right to select whoever it wishes but someone with a track record of criticising around half of Scotland’s population seems a strange choice to try to then unite them behind such an important organisation.”

An unnamed source from the party went even further, telling the National that SNP members with NTS membership could be minded to resign due to the appointment.

READ MORE: Oliver says slave-owners inspired by Sir Walter Scott

Dozens of independence supporters took to social media to express their outrage, many of them claiming to be resigning their NTS membership.

SNP Councillor Mhairi Hunter tweeted: “People should look at the plus side of Neil Oliver getting a top job with the National Trust - he will have to shut up about politics.”

Scotsman columnist Loki warned: “If Neil Oliver’s employment is disrupted over this issue it will reflect very poorly on the Yes movement. I say just leave it. Drop it.”

The Future

At the moment it does seem likely that Mr Oliver’s work at the NTS will continue apace and he will not step down.

Hundreds of people backed a petition calling for the removal of Mr Oliver from his post, though the campaigning site 38 Degrees later stepped in to remove the petition from its website.

Whether there is enough to strength of feeling to trigger any noticeable drop in the organisation’s membership remains to be seen.

However, with sources in the party of Government referring to his pronouncements as vitriolic, a working relationship could be hard to maintain.

And as any politician, charity head, or even civil servant can tell Mr Oliver, with a role in public life, the tide can turn very quickly.