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Brent libraries’ Indignados strike a global chord

By Heather Wakefield
notice in the Kensal Green Library

The campaign for the survival of Brent’s libraries faltered last week when it lost its High Court battle. But the public anger given voice by the Brent campaigners is being replicated across the world, and politicians need to start paying attention.
(this article was first published in http://opinion.publicfinance.co.uk/ and it's published here with their kind permission) 

The campaigners of Brent Libraries SOS, north London, may seem like a small and insignificant spattering of humanity compared to the millions of  ‘Indignados’ and ‘Occupiers’ who set out their stalls in 958 capital cities and major centres of finance across the globe last Saturday. But they’re not. They reflect the same anger at politicians whose ears and minds seem closed and at a distribution of the world’s resources which is tipping alarmingly away from ‘ordinary’ people, as public services across the globe become the victims of the banking crisis.

The High Court ruling on Thursday in favour of Brent Council’s proposed six library closures was met with anger by the local library campaign and others across the UK who are fighting for local access to knowledge – whether of the ‘e’ kind or through those dear old dusty things which have suddenly and conveniently become ‘old fashioned’ – books. Not convinced by the unlikely claim that the council is now going to push ahead with ‘exciting plans’ to modernise the library service when it can’t afford to keep existing libraries open, the campaigners say they will fight on.

Kids in crowded homes, without shiny iPads and laptops to access knowledge, kids who can’t just click that Amazon button and see the tome of their dreams appear, are asking awkward questions. So too are the elderly and unemployed who see the library as a place to read the paper, take out a thriller and share some warm space with other humans. So too are the plain old book worms who borrowed rather than bought and sought the help of the local librarian to guide their literary journey.

Brent had been seen as a test case – one which would either give heart to library campaigners elsewhere or the ‘green light’ to councils looking to close ‘old fashioned’ libraries. In the end Mr Justice Ouseley came down on the side of the council, though took time to say that his judgement was based on local circumstances, seeming to infer that the next council who wanted to lay Philip Pullman and Malory Blackman to eternal rest might not be so lucky.

As news of the judgement was tweeted, protestors headed straight to Kensal Rise library to prevent contractors from moving straight in to board up the building – gifted to the locality by Oxford’s All Souls College and opened by Mark Twain in the early 1900s. The indecent haste of the council to board up the doors on local learning and history in the face of long-term opposition tells the same story of a growing gulf between politicians and the people which ‘Indignados’ across the globe are taking to the heartlands of power.
Kensal Green Library 

The Leader of Oxfordshire County Council last week sought to cast library campaigners in the PM’s backyard as no more than a bunch of ‘lefties’, putting up unfair opposition to local cuts. He ignores at his peril the rainbow coalition of Oxfordshire residents which has taken to the streets to protest – not just at library closures, but the boarding up of local youth centres and other amenities which make a difference – especially in a recession. Members of the Oxford University wing of the Socialist Workers Party they are not!

The closure of Brent’s six libraries should not be seen as a victory for the council, George Osborne’s deficit-reduction strategy or the views of the no-doubt-well-meaning High Court judiciary who – for now – have sent the Indignados of Brent Libraries SOS packing. Their tale is a tale of public services and popular anger now being played out around the world – one in which the old political orders are seen as removed and deaf to the legitimate cries of their electorates. One in which the people are paying a terrible price for the banking crisis and an economic model which rewards the very few and punishes the very many.

As Mark Twain himself said: ‘A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.’ It’s raining hard out there and the Indignados of Brent, Israel’s Rothschild Boulevard, Greece’s Syntagma Square and Manhattan’s Wall Street have had enough of getting soaked. Whatever the courts say, this anger will not go away. If it is to be turned to furnish the common good, then politicians had better start listening.

About Heather Wakefield

Heather Wakefield is head of the Local Government Service Group of the UK’s largest public service trade union Unison, representing over 700,000 of the union’s 1.4 million members. She was previously a researcher and regional official for the union, and a women’s rights officer for NCCL (Liberty). Heather is a regular commentator on local government and women’s issues.
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