Libraries: gateways to other lives

Zadie Smith speaks out in defence of libraries -- and a Tory spokesman responds.

Zadie Smith gave a speech last night at a pub in Kensal Green, very close to the local library she hopes to defend. Public appearances from Smith are rare these days, and her most recent appearance is testament to her strength of feeling on the subject of library closures.

Smith delivered a robust defence of the value of public libraries. Books are a form of education, and education is one of the few effective methods of social mobility that this country has. Zadie Smith put this simply: "I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives."

She continued:

It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money. "If education matters to you," they ask, "and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?" They're the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money.

No doubt the government would like to deny this. So who, when Radio 4's Today programme went looking for an official response, did the coalition send to do battle with the dangerous Zadie Smith? They sent Shaun Bailey, "ambassador for the 'big society' project", and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. As an unelected party member, he wasn't a participant in the parliamentary debate held in January on library closures.

Bailey is a former security guard, and a man who puts things starkly. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, he said: "The key wickedness that the Government has perpetrated is the idea that government can pay for everything. If you continually give people things and ask for nothing back you rob them of their will. People have to be involved in their own redemption."

To Bailey, Smith's speech was not about library closures, community disintegration or the dissolution of social apparatus, but rather "about self-driven success".

"The problem with this big massive state that she really enjoys," Bailey said,"is that it actually hasn't had any luck in imparting the notion of education to young people."

What if Smith's point, as the Today presenter Justin Webb pointed out, is not merely that we shouldn't be closing libraries, but we should be encouraging people to use them? Bailey runs what looks like an excellent social charity, which aims to "break the cycle of poverty, crime, and ill-health in struggling communities, through people centered sustainable change". Yet he didn't see how libraries would help this aim.

Smith isworth quoting at length on "community":

Community is a partnership between the government and the people, and it's depressing to hear the language of community, the so-called "Big Society", being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership, as it attempts to renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so they can build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives, and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government, and the protection of public services to government, that being government's mandate, and the only possible justification for its power.

Bailey had other ideas: "it isn't the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it's actually your local authority ... that's why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them. If you, as a group of people, want your opinions heard and that you have the right and the mechanism to go and do that so actually I don't accept any of her points on that."

Perhaps it's more that he didn't understand any of her points? Libraries are, currently, a public service. As Smith recounts: "Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services - not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities."

Smith spoke yesterday for a reason, and it would be a shame if fleeting publicity were to be the only result. Many people have been fighting to save libraries for quite some time now -- if you want to join them, or to check what your own council's plans for libraries are, a good place to begin is here, where Ian Anstice, a public librarian, has created a site that is the most up-to-date mine of information on the web. From there, you could visit Voices for the Library, and add your voice to theirs.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition