Time for a quiet rebellion over library closures

Budget cuts put more than 375 libraries under threat. We should be outraged, says Robin Ince (but ke

Rebellion can be messy, noisy and violent. But between 12 and 15 January, there was an act of rebellion that was quiet, ordered and fabulous to behold. It took place on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, not always known for the fabulous and rebellious.

The town of Stony Stratford is the site of the first great library revolt of the 21st century. The building is under threat of closure due to council budget cuts. As a joke, a local resident suggested that people should show their support in a fitting way - by getting out their library cards and borrowing every single book on the shelves. Through word of mouth and the internet, this joke became a reality and the shelves have been politely emptied: all the books - some 16,000 in total - are now on loan.

This very British uprising has occurred because upwards of 375 public libraries are under threat of closure as a result of the local authority funding cuts coming in April. (You can see a map of the planned closures here)

The readers are restless and it's no wonder, for, as the science educator Carl Sagan said in Cosmos: "The health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries." When musing on his blindness, Jorge Luis Borges "imagined that paradise will be a kind of library".

Book worms

My first library was the mobile one that visited our village in South Hertfordshire every other Friday, where I borrowed books about the adventures of multicoloured bears. Then it was the local library, where I repeatedly took out The Making of Doctor Who and Usborne books on life in ancient Greece. As an impoverished touring stand-up, I spent my days in the city-centre libraries of Manchester and Sheffield, poring over newspapers in search of fresh inspiration for whatever cellar gig I was playing that night. Now, I sit and wait under posters of cats in hats and potty-training princesses as my three-year-old son spends hours debating which books will be in this week's ration. Libraries are threaded through my life.

They are places where we can immerse ourselves in ideas or imagine other lives and worlds. (As Groucho Marx once said: "I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book.") Mass library closures are an ugly reflection on any country's culture; especially a country that declares it wants the best for its children and then hinders their learning.

I have heard many arguments for the closures from politicians and passers-by in the past weeks but none stands up to scrutiny. "Who needs libraries when you have the internet?" is the charlatan modernists' attitude. This misses the point. Books are an adventure.

There is a joy in going across a stacked shelf, flicking through the chapter headings and searching through the index in the hope that you will find the answer you need to whatever baffles you that day, whether it's something to do with the Napoleonic wars or how to make the perfect meringue. And what about people who don't have the internet at home - where do they go to get online? Why, the local library.

Then there's this argument: "Libraries are the preserve of the middle classes." I have (unscientifically) polled a few hundred people on this subject on Twitter. The replies came thick and fast from librarians and library users, aged between 16 and 78. True, the Downton Abbey screenwriter and authentic posh person Julian Fellowes has just appeared in a protest video for Somerset's libraries, but I had many responses from those in areas without herbaceous borders and farmers' markets; they, too, found their library a place of solace.

Among them was someone who mentored an Iraqi refugee at the local library. Another had been homeless; he used to spend days in the library, working out how to get out of that predicament. Those who had been "outsiders" at school told me about the libraries they used as refuges from aggression. Many said that they always joined the library when they arrived in a new town because it is the perfect place to get a sense of the community.

The revolution may not be televised but, at the very least, it will have a poster confirming its date on the library noticeboard.

Use it or lose it

Some claim that youngsters don't use libraries any more but that's just wrong: they are packed with under-tens. For many, the first experience of the wonder of reading is browsing through the boxes of books or being enraptured by readings of the Charlie and Lola stories or Roald Dahl. The trip to the library can be a weekly highlight. They might stop being regular visitors when the hormones kick in and they become more interested in the mating rituals around the benches outside but they'll be back.

The final argument deployed against library closures is this: "Aren't there more important things to worry about?" Fine. In the struggle for existence, libraries may seem a low priority. But they are a sign that a society believes the life of the mind is important. If some are underused, the solution is not to shut them but to get people back inside them and remind them of why libraries are there.

You might not belong to your library now, but, one day, when you walk by a building site promising luxury apartments, where kids on tricycles once excitedly wheeled back with their new favourite book on dinosaurs, you will be sorry that it is gone.

Get out your library card and start borrowing again. If the Prime Minister really is a fan of the Smiths, then he knows this - there's more to life than books but not much more.

Robin Ince will be touring his"Bad Book Club" from March. More details at:

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.