Philistines: neo-liberal Tories force cuts and closures on Tyneside

Who else, but the state, would build a library in Jesmond?

In June, Zadie Smith attempted to express in words how it feels to repeatedly defend the idea of public libraries, only to find your earnest and seemingly watertight arguments have made little impact on the run of things. “There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on,” she wrote. “A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”

While Smith was sitting at her laptop (on a crowded desk in an American library), the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt was busy rolling out a £125m advertising campaign aimed at promoting all that is “Great” about Britain. “Knowledge is GREAT”, “Heritage is GREAT”, “Creativity is GREAT” ran posters hanging from the walls of Grand Central Station in New York. Union Jack-clad subway trains rumbled through the tunnels below. The message was repeated in cities worldwide.

In this instance, “knowledge”, “heritage” and “creativity” exist as marketable items – buzzwords, wheeled out in an effort to promote tourism to the UK. They are not elements of British life valued beyond their ability to generate revenue. If they were, why would Newcastle council be faced with enforcing a 100 per cent cut in arts funding, and why would it be talking about closing the majority of its libraries?

The culture which predicated this year of flag-spasming jingoism (QED Boris Johnson on the games: “Yesterday I cycled down the canal towpath to the Olympic Park, through Hackney; and everywhere I looked there were scenes of riparian merriment of the kind you expect to see at the Henley regatta”), is built of delicate stuff. Earlier in the week, representatives from 23 British theatres argued that “a modest but sustained investment in the arts has had an incalculable effect on the country.” Nicholas Hytner, Creative Director at the National Theatre, said the government’s default promise to encourage arts giving was nothing but “a smokescreen”. He enquired how private funding was to be secured in poorer areas beyond London. “These are not communities where there is space cash floating around. Where are the super-rich of Bolton, for example?” The same arguments have been bandied around with reference to our GREAT universities.

Some of the products of a “modest but sustained” arts investment since the 1950s were archived in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Boyle, whose own interest in theatre might never have emerged if not for a job as an usher at the (state-sponsored) Octagon Theatre in Bolton, said that such organisations “create communities, and these communities come together and make these big works of art like the opening ceremony.” The bottom line, with theatre as with libraries, galleries and museums, is that “they provide something else to believe in … something in our cities and towns that isn’t Wetherspoons and Walkabout pubs and Mario Balotelli and John Terry.”

Across the globe, a history of private financial mismanagement and greed has been successfully repackaged into a reality in which an undeserving public forced the state to overspend and kamikaze into recession. This fallacy is now largely uncontested. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has proposed one way in which the companies who have gained most from doing business in Britain, might repay their debt to the public. Invoking the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, whose red-brick libraries, purposefully built with ascending stairs, a lantern near the door and the motto “let there be light”, Winterson argued:

“Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to legally avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries”.

For the price of a Starbucks franchise and a “take this book home without returning it for only £6.78 online at…” insert on the back page, it’s an interesting proposition. But the kind of paternalistic “big ideas” conservatism which encouraged philanthropy for the public good is a thing of the past. Neo-liberal austerity thinking does not require any such commitment.

Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, Northern Stage, Tyneside Cinema and Seven Stories are some of the institutions may loose 100 per cent of council funding. This does not mean they would fold, necessarily, but it does destabilise their efforts. The Theatre Royal would lose more than £500,000 annually. Chief executive Philip Bernays has pointed out, “we play to audiences about 15% above the national average, so we’re almost as successful as it’s possible to be … such a cult would almost certainly have an impact on the level of service we can offer or the programme that we can provide.”

Of the 18 libraries on Tyneside, only the Central Library is safe. This means that smaller, suburban libraries such as Jesmond – which provides internet access, local history resources, space for community groups, reading groups, lifelong learning courses and, of course, freely available books – are likely to be sold off to developers, despite the fact so many of them are less than 15 years old.

Zadie Smith expressed her frustration at having to write a long newspaper article to defend public libraries. “What kind of a problem is a library?” she asked. The services they provide, as places of free education, pleasure and community focus (perhaps the only indoor space available to enjoy without being expected to open your wallet), do not provide obvious financial benefits, and are therefore expendable. Local authors in the north east have written an open letter to the council, saying: “It is the young and the elderly who disproportionately depend on branch libraries. The cost in educational underachievement would far outweigh any savings made by cuts.”

But their argument, like Smith’s, will only be added to the pile. Because who, today, believes strongly enough that the people of Jesmond want, need and deserve a library? And more importantly, who believes it strongly enough to agree to pay for it, when the state no longer will?

The first Carnegie library, built in Dunfermline in 1883. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times