Libraries…redux January 15, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Culture, Economy, The Left.
This is an amazing period of history, amazing – though – in the most negative sense of that word. I read this on the Guardian a short while back and thought it was perhaps hyperbole, a piece by Patrick Wintour which argued that ‘George Osborne is engineering a seismic change in the role of the state’. Wintour notes that Osborne has now jettisoned claims of future, or immanent, prosperity, in favour of a TINA line, one where state expenditures on welfare are slashed yet further (though, as Wintour notes, tellingly, not expenditures on pensions – I don’t mention that in order to get into a sterile argument about intergenerational equity, but simply to observe that there is an hierarchy of expenditures in Osborne’s mind, or more likely, an expedient analysis as to what the public will bear in terms of cuts).
So Osborne is not just admitting that the state is going to have be permanently smaller. He is engineering a fundamental change in what it does. By ringfencing spending on aid, pensions, health and schools, as well as some military spending – nearly £100bn of state spending is now protected – he is putting an extraordinary squeeze on what remains. The money being extracted from the remaining mainstream public services – local government, policing, business support and environment – will leave them unrecognisable.
Now, I in my innocence, thought that last was probably a stretch, but not at all for news comes of another ‘initiative’ by the Tories, this in relation to the area of libraries. Catherine Bennett in the Observer at the weekend notes the following.
Describing it only as “very impressive”, the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, has been too modest about a recorded explosion in the number of volunteer librarians, up 44% last year, from 23,400 to 33,000. Admittedly, a simultaneous 7% fall in the number of full-time librarians might look like a slender pretext for national jubilation. Yet this massive saving in our libraries is not merely a victory over Big Society sceptics, but evidence that Vaizey is achieving the unprecedented and seemingly miraculous: the delivery, for virtually nothing, of a treasured public service.
Bennett is, of course, being ironic. And yet. The idea of ‘volunteer librarians’ is one that even five years ago would have been near enough absurd. And so here we have a situation where the state is retreating from provision of library services and instead of replacing trained and qualified individuals is instead willing to hand over the process to untrained volunteers.
This is dressed up in the language of the ‘Big Society’.
As Bennett notes:
At this stage it remains mysterious by what curious arts the notoriously reclusive library hater, Vaizey, discovered that hundreds of Britain’s public libraries could be harmlessly transferred to amateurs, and whether there are any basic standards or other criteria to which these random operations should conform. But the minister has done some personal research. “All the volunteers I come across say they are running their libraries far more cheaply than the local authority was doing it,” was his response to the above volunteer figures, in which some diagnosed a certain disregard for reading, to say nothing of professional sensitivities. If only for a quiet life, Vaizey might want, before opening his mouth in future, mentally to substitute the word “Romanian” for “volunteer”.
As it is, so far from regretting the rapidly falling number of already low-paid full-time staff, Vaizey anticipates a day when the free community model is actively preferred, not only as a euphemism for eventual closure. He told a newspaper: “We would at least do the work for them in terms of sourcing the equipment – we can provide them potentially with access to our book stock.”
And this is only the start.
Potentially there could still be difficulties with entirely untrained librarians with no understanding of the books over which they might (stock permitting) preside, but this objection, too, Vaizey has anticipated. “We can provide them with training, and a lot of these community groups would happily pay for them if they were raising money.”
We’re now seeing the social democratic compact unravelling before our very eyes. Libraries are engines of progress, vital resources that are needed at times like this – in periods of high unemployment, low job security and so no, more than ever. And it is depressing and worse to see this occurring.
There was a comment on CIF a while back which I think encapsulated what this process is envisaged as leading to. One where – and this is openly discussed in sections of the Tory party, the state will retreat to a US position (or worse) with a thin and cosmetic layer of health care provision, some nod to state education and so on. Add to that the rolling back of labour legislation and protections in the workplace, and the essential removal of safety nets.
Naturally to reach that point will take quite some time. There’s a lot of state left. But when one sees what is happening to libraries…