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

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.