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This item is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

'It's the economy, stupid.' In the first Clinton campaign this seemingly Republican phrase was hammered like a stake into the heart of George Bush père. Mrs Thatcher remarked that we no longer have politics, only economics, dressed up in different party colours. Values are measured in pounds and pence. The policies of the present coalition government, or management, focus on the national balance sheet: not the economy, but the world of finances which is often regarded as synonymous with it. It is its shadow, an abstraction at best, but the shadow, sufficiently credited, begins to bend and contort the very body that casts it. This is not the playful, fleeting shadow of Peter Pan but something more like Mr Hyde.

Despite a frail Labour front bench, politics is not dead. People can take to the streets, today the students, tomorrow the increasingly (Mr Clarke assures us) pinched, punched and pummelled middle classes. The villainy, the vandalism of many of the cuts begins to register, not only among Liberal Democrats who feel raw at their party's betrayal, but among old-fangled Tories for whom a humane one-nation culture and profitable services are not synonymous.

In Manchester, the City Council gave details of £109 million savings this year, to rise to £170 million next year. The major cultural festivals have lost their funding altogether, though the city will continue to support the ceremony of turning on the Christmas Lights. The council has so far cut more than 2,000 jobs, 17% of the work force. All public toilets, except for those on Mount Street, will close. Public swimming pools at Levenshulme and Miles Platting will shut. This is local news, replicated throughout the country.

Among other public inconveniences in Manchester are the closing of five libraries, at Clayton, Miles Platting (again), East City in Openshaw, Rackhouse in Wythenshawe and Barlow Moor in Chorlton. While youth centres are being handed over to voluntary groups, no such provision has yet been formally proposed for the libraries, some of them in areas with already very poor civic provision.

A recent BBC survey, drawing responses from ninety-three councils across England, put libraries at the top of the list for cuts. Nationally, the service has already been decimated and redecimated. At cut-time, cultural areas are always seen as expendable, no matter what constituencies they serve, or how. In this instance the acceleration is caused less by economic crisis than by ideological imperatives and political (Mrs Thatcher was premature in her analysis) calculation. The geographical and civic areas targeted are those most likely to remain mute. To take the case of Manchester, it is the fourth most deprived local authority area, and is among the five hardest hit. A Labour council is implementing the cuts, its face wet with tears. There are always choices to be made: some councils realise that cutting amenities altogether is an irreversible act and find less damaging strategies. Manchester, it would seem, wants residents to feel the pain and blame the coalition government.

Is the public library service now fatally damaged? The Manchester library closures brought the total number of library buildings in the United Kingdom threatened to 431, with fifty-nine mobile libraries also set to go. Hundreds more community and mobile services are likely to go in the second wave of cuts. Over 1500 librarian jobs are at risk or already over. The professionals, if councils permit, may be replaced by volunteers, the unemployed footsoldiers of Mr Cameron's Big Society, his 'great legacy' which he is constructing with minus signs and broken promises. The new government, flailing its vorpal blade, decided that responsibility for libraries and archives might be handed over to the Arts Council, itself condemned to a 50% reduction in an already reduced work force. Perhaps in the Big Society these things just don't matter.

The library service has its vocal friends. Collective advocacy is taking place. Will it affect policy? An open letter dated 11 February and addressed to Jeremy Hunt, who in the midst of the damage he is doing to culture still sports the title 'culture secretary', and to the 'culture minister' Ed Vaizey, called for closures to be stopped. The letter, composed by the energetic Alan Gibbons of Campaign for the Book, followed the protests and one hundred read-ins on Save Our Libraries day, and was signed by a range of writers including Anne Fine, Terry Jones, Jackie Kay, Kathy Lette, Kate Mosse, Philip Pullman and Sarah Waters, and by representatives of The Reading Agency, the Federation of Children's Book Groups, and the Royal Society of Literature. Gibbons commented, 'We hoped for a dozen events, but local people took up the call and made it something refreshing, urgent, local and liberating. They have put out a positive message: our libraries, our communities, our right to have a say over their future.'

More petitions will be signed, more read-ins and sit-ins and picketing will take place, but causes and their effects are local and scattered; a day of library protest hardly makes the national news. For those who do not live in Miles Platting, for example, the problem might seem remote. It isn't. The damage done to the service is not yet terminal; there is still a pulse in the wrist.

What's really stupid is to use the economy as a precipitate excuse for destroying cultural resources.

This item is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

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