I’ve never been a library lover. I’ve never taken to sitting there, in some dusty corner of my local archive of books, losing myself not just to the act of reading but the musty, hushed atmosphere of the place itself. I don’t depend on libraries for my books. I haven’t been to one in years.
When it was announced that libraries across the country would be closed down, I was frankly unmoved and more concerned about prioritising the threats of more devastating cuts to public services and investment. Reading will not end without libraries. In many ways they are outdated and unappealing. The future of reading, writing and knowledge lies elsewhere.
But recently I’ve been thinking about the issue again. And it’s certainly wrong that the Coalition are getting away with the quiet removal of libraries and other amenities, just because they happen to be less important than other areas in danger of being swallowed by the avalanche of cuts. The government is constantly striving to be radical, often for no practical reason. In all their years of opposition our current leaders appear to have built up such extreme levels of restless energy that they desire to drastically change everything, regardless of its merits. Some things are less broken than others; they should stop wasting time and money by meddling in too many areas.
I’m not saying libraries do not require government attention. Part of my attitude to them is down to the problems of the system. However they are also something that democratic, educated, developed nations, ought to be preserving rather than eradicating.
As I’ve said, my view of libraries is largely passionless. But once, reading both the novel Fahrenheit 451 and an explanatory introduction from its author, Ray Bradbury, I was entranced by the power, mystique and heritage of the institution that is the library. Across the world they have been the foundations of our knowledge, the records of our history, for centuries, if not millennia. Particularly in modern Britain they are vital bastions of cultural identity and heritage; a heritage the government is unthinkingly decimating with its deficit hacking cuts. Most of the cultural organisations hit by the government’s spending plans require little funding but produce massively disproportionate benefits. The case for the pluses of cutting them is wafer thin.
I began by stating that I had never been a library lover. This isn’t 100% true. As a boy, my attachment to reading began with the free books of the local library. Back then I discovered that an hour is better spent with a book than a games console, and that hour would be unbeatably absorbing. I only read trashy children’s and teen fiction, detective stories like the Hardy boys for example, but gazing around at the shelves it was then I knew that the written word and the ability to devour them was the gateway to entire worlds and experiences and information.
I still didn’t like reading in the library itself, an unattractive mid 20th century building, but I liked taking the books home. I liked that it was free and always remembered that reading needn’t be expensive from then on. I liked learning how to interact with the librarian and make my choice. It taught me more than just the importance of reading. Of course then I didn’t realise how meagre and disappointing the choice at my local library really was. That’s the main reason I abandoned it at quite a young age, and the same factor behind me shunning my school library as a source of information and a place of work throughout my school years.
I still think that only the most wonderfully impressive libraries retain a magical air; provide the sort of feeling I got for them reading Fahrenheit 451. Great historical libraries with their own stories and vast collections are beautiful, captivating buildings. Even an ordinary academic library, when devoted to your favourite subject, can be inspiring. Whilst regular local libraries lack the architectural magnificence and legacy, they remain vital lifelines, if only for a handful in the community.
David Cameron’s Big Society, “DIY” and “help yourself get on in life” message, is in many ways perfectly encapsulated by the library. And yet he cuts them. He removes hundreds of local centres for people looking to educate themselves, for children encouraged into reading and away from useless, sometimes harmful diversion. Instead of getting rid of libraries he should be increasing access to them and strengthening the ones that are already there; with wider stock and more attractive, better designed spaces. The Prime Minister’s political party no longer seem worthy of the name “Conservative” but the changes they propose are hardly for the better. I’ve made it pretty clear here that libraries have not been integral to my reading life for a long time. But it seems to me that the Big Society, if it is a real concept at all, would depend on community assets like the library for cohesiveness and development.
Obviously I don’t think we’re heading for quite the apocalyptic decline in information and knowledge vividly rendered in Fahrenheit 451. But Bradbury’s work highlighted that reading and access to learning can be a right as much as health care can be in civilized, fair society. And with the decline of independent bookstores and even Waterstones, libraries could have remained an inexpensive safeguard and positive starting point for the young. In a way the cuts have rallied some communities around their local library. But most will simply fade away, like so much else to be cut under this government. I feel part of a generation that is less widely read than any before it at times. So for me, for nostalgia’s sake at least, the loss of libraries is a grave mistake and a regrettable shame. They should not be allowed to die enveloped by the silence demanded within their walls; a nationwide, noisy debate about the future of reading should begin.
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
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Cast your minds back to the days of the last election. All the talk was of cuts and the campaign was curiously short on optimism. Nick Clegg rocketed to popularity because of his outsider status and a rare ability to sound slightly hopeful about the odd issue. Cameron and Brown battled over grim details, tainted by all that had gone before. One of the few rays of hilarity to shine out of the darkness was the very British ridicule of one of our current Prime Minister’s key policies and publicity stunts.
I’m referring, of course, to Cameron’s notorious airbrushed poster campaign. The abnormally clean image of the old Etonian presented on billboards everywhere to the entire nation, took the Tory drive for renewal to the laughable extreme. Dave was not wealthy and out of touch, merely handsome and approachable. As funny as the image and tactics themselves were however, it’s the snappy quoted message alongside his shiny face coming back to haunt the Prime Minister now.
I certainly do not pretend to even partially comprehend the reforms to the NHS this Conservative led government is proposing. Indeed the lack of understanding from its own ministers seems to be a large part of the problem. And it’s no secret the Conservatives have long planned a shake-up, fuelled by the steadfast belief of their long serving top dog on health, Andrew Lansley. However whilst the faults and flaws of the plans that are becoming clear are extremely important, in terms of political capital and strategy for Number 10, they are in many ways besides the point when it comes to that infamous election promise.
“I’ll cut the deficit-not the NHS” translated for voters to “This is a new kind of Tory party that treasures the NHS above all else. We will not mess with it anyway.” Cameron will argue his promise did not say he wouldn’t change the NHS and that it needs modernisation for the better. But he knew the implication of his promise and the votes it would win him. His protestations about the benefits of his reforms will therefore mean little to those his promise swayed.
It’s also especially hollow given that the Prime Minister has since watered down and diluted that concrete pledge, which formed the symbolic heart of his campaign, again and again and again. First it became merely a safeguard for frontline services and then promised improvements, like an increase in the number of midwives, were scaled back and ultimately scrapped altogether, with even plans to maintain current numbers reversed. Fears about privatisation which the reasonable man might have attributed to overzealous, sensational leftist press, are now emerging to have hard evidence behind them. 50,000 jobs are set to be cut. How exactly is this not cutting the NHS?
If the workers within the system themselves were in favour Cameron would have a much stronger argument. But countless GPs have written to newspapers, as well as other types of professional, warning against the changes as unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister continually insists that locals have the right to opt in our out, but what are those that oppose and don’t sign up to the scheme meant to do? Even in my quiet rural area GPs feel overworked and many local people distrust the vested interests of certain doctors. Is handing over the biggest budget in the country to them really a good idea and what people want? It’s doubtful if the new system will even be able to produce what the public need.
Another argument constantly wheeled out by the Tories is the pressing need for modernisation and reform, which make it necessary. There is nothing necessary about these plans though. Whilst the health service has its flaws, the current system leads to a mostly positive service. There are undoubted challenges in health care such as an ageing population and emerging drugs, which often seem insurmountable. Government proposals do not do enough to ease the burden and according to many that know, they actually complicate the fight. For a leadership so keen on cutting the deficit, you would think that such costly, ideological plans could wait for better times.
It would also do more good in the long run, and reduce the deficit substantially, to work out some realistic spending priorities centrally. Vital areas and treatments need to be protected nationally and things the NHS can’t afford to provide should be phased out. The private sector does have a role but it should grow independently of the NHS and take up the slack for treatments it shouldn’t be wasting resources on. Taxes and other initiatives should encourage healthier living. Devolving decisions to GPs is no magic pill, no silver bullet and it doesn’t even equip the NHS for the critical, worsening challenges it will face in the future. It would be a far more sensible decision for the government to begin a nationwide debate about what we expect, want and need from our NHS now. It would fit with the “new politics” of plural cooperation and potentially produce actual solutions.
Perhaps the main reason the government looks less likely to bow to pressure from the public on this issue is the Prime Minister’s ego and pride. He’s been happy to recognise the weaknesses of coalition and concede on issues like the forests and sport in schools. But the NHS plans are too inextricably linked to Cameron’s personal brainchild; the Big Society. Its philosophy of localism and choice in the community over centralised solutions marries nicely with Lansley’s ideas for health. The health reforms open the way for the sort of community cohesion and interaction, fuelled by voluntary, charity involvement, that Cameron wants to see. He genuinely believes it’s the path to a social recovery for Britain that’s sustainable and empowers government to do what it does best, as well as liberating people from the state. He’ll continue to be blind to all the irreversible wounds the “reforms” will inflict on the NHS itself and his popularity with the people as long as it remains tied to his vision. His recent attempt to re-launch the initiative demonstrates his huge commitment; it cannot afford to fail.
The real shame for the country and even the Conservative party, is that Cameron’s election pledge could have been a clever way of dumping a responsibility and challenge for maximum political gain. His implicit promise of not touching the NHS meant it could have been left as it was, a gargantuan issue for a future administration to tackle, ticking over just fine for the time being. There are after all, enough problems for the coalition to face. If this government had done mostly nothing on health, the public would have thanked them for it, the Conservatives especially. But Cameron is so determined to be radical and appear to be so, that he will press on, regardless of the consequences. It may prove to be the well meaning project that took his remodelling of the state too far.
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I have just finished watching Ed Miliband’s first speech as the new leader of the Labour party. It began with a volley of jokes, of human humour, that must have had many Labour supporters sighing with relief that they at least now had a leader who could smile and appear accessible to the public, following the stoic, grim Scott that preceded him. Indeed the strongest feature of the speech was a man with beliefs and ordinary concerns defining himself, announcing himself to the people of Britain. Here was a reasonable, genuine man the public could relate to but did he have the stature of a leader?
Yesterday elder brother David delivered a rallying cry to his party that had the media scrambling to suggest Labour had picked the wrong Miliband and that David Cameron had been right to fear the Shadow Foreign Secretary the most. Losing by the narrowest of margins, the bouncy figure once derided as Mr Bean and Banana Man looked like a leader, like a man who could be Prime Minister. In contrast Ed can sometimes look like a rabbit caught in the headlights, particularly in the acceptance speech immediately following his victory and again at times today. He can also look a soft geeky presence rather than a strong inspiring one, ready for the challenge of leadership and Opposition.
But David lost for a reason. The elder Miliband was content to ride a wave of guaranteed support to the leadership, with minimal effort. He may have honed his demeanour and conducted himself like a leader, but he did not reach out enough in the necessary ways. He was essentially lazy. He had incredibly strong support and need only had made some minor concessions to the trade unions and supporters of his brother to secure victory. He lost because he refused to break with the past of New Labour in the way that many grass roots voters wanted. He was admirably defiant about New Labour’s positive legacy but made few moves to indicate where the project went wrong and more importantly in which direction he would take it. David did not grab and harness the mood of change.
Ed, like David Cameron and Barack Obama and even Tony Blair, who emerged from almost nowhere to lead their country, did recognise the value of a clean slate, of a breath of fresh air. He recognised that the party knew it had stagnated and the electorate were no longer interested unless it refreshed its ideas, reconnected with its ideals in a new optimistic way. Ed ended his speech by declaring his Labour to be the party of optimism in contrast to Cameron’s cuts. He began his speech talking about a new generation. During his speech we learnt little more about Ed’s policy vision for the party, as he perhaps wisely kept most hands close to his chest, vague and adaptable to the demands of Opposition. However during his campaign Ed’s denouncement of Iraq, and his support for a living wage, AV and a graduate tax, were all bigger indicators of Ed’s Labour party than David was willing to offer. His brother simply didn’t offer the progressive policies that even many in the Labour old guard wanted to see championed now by a new wave of youthful renewal, equal to the challenge of Clegg and Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition.
Following Ed’s triumph though the media have blasted him and he has been labelled a puppet of the unions, “Red Ed”, out of touch with the core middle England vote. He moved quickly to counter these claims with interviews in the Sunday Telegraph and on the Andrew Marr show, saying he would fight for Britain’s “squeezed middle”. Reading the coverage of his victory I noticed that David Cameron had called Ed to congratulate him from Chequers, and warned him that his job would be a tough one. I can’t help but think Cameron would not have been so eager to call, or so superior and wise in his manner, had the more experienced and in his view more threatening elder brother won the contest. Cameron no doubt sees Ed as an easy target and may already be eyeing a second term, free of Lib Dem constraint. “Red ED” will be inexperienced and easy to sideline as an illegitimate Union toy, keen on tax rises and simply not credible on the economy. He also authored Labour’s last, losing election manifesto, and is not as new and fresh as he would make out. Cameron should easily get the better of him at PMQs for a while and any Labour poll leads will prove superficial when 2015 comes around and the coalition has secured economic recovery.
Ed must obviously be cautious that he is not unfairly painted by the Tories and that his policies do not alienate the very voters Labour must win back in the south, the voters who chose Blair in 1997. This accounts for his soothing rhetoric with regards to the middle classes. But Ed must hold his nerve and be bold too and learn the lessons of his leadership victory. He won because he presented a more dynamic vision on policy than his brother. He won with a clear progressive message. He also won because although he may not look like a leader at times he does look genuine, not a fake performer but an actual idealist, committed to what he says, reasonable and pragmatic in his approach and willing to talk about love and compassion in ways other politicians of different generations cannot. He must not tarnish the positive, honest image he is building for himself with the British people by muddling his message. He must not take fright at the newspaper headlines and give out mixed views but continue to pursue the radical, progressive and optimistic agenda that carried him through his campaign. He should not be afraid to take a distinctive stance on the deficit with a different emphasis on tax and other kinds of cuts than those proposed by the coalition, as long as it is credible. He should prove he is a man of his word and not simply a career politician by putting a green economy, green taxes and carbon emissions reductions at the heart of his party’s policy, following his role as Climate Change Secretary. He has the potential to both inspire a new youthful generation on issues of the day such as new politics and global warming and reconnect with the values of older generations on issues like family, Afghanistan and tax. The formation of his Shadow Cabinet in the coming weeks will be the first true test of Ed’s leadership qualities and also be crucial to defining his vision for the party. Whatever his brother decides to do Ed must remain proactive in challenging the establishment as he said in his speech and not budge on his message of a progressive alternative for Britain, regardless of media pressure. Voters will repay passionate consistent calls for change in the long run.
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