When David Cameron didn’t quite win the last General Election he distanced himself from one of Margaret Thatcher’s famous lines: “There is no such thing (as society).”
He concluded there was such a thing, but that it wasn’t the same as the state. What he set out to create with his ‘big society’ project was a way of encouraging people to play an active part in the community and make it easier to run a charity or voluntary organisation.
Four years on and it’s not a buzz phrase you hear a fat lot – not, at least, as often as you hear ‘bedroom tax’ or ‘help to buy’ or even ‘regional growth fund’.
But it’s still there in the background. It didn’t come into play when Tory councillors in Staffordshire started discussing the sacred cows that are libraries, even though it fits their proposals to use volunteers.
In Wolverhampton, a Labour plan to scale back opening hours and recruit an army of volunteers was met with a wave of petitions and protests and the idea of creating ‘community hubs’ where libraries would share space with something else was made to feel about as welcome as a dog at a game of skittles.
Half the battle, I always thought, was in a name. Everyone knows what a library is. It’s a place with lots of books where pre-schoolers can go and have story time and sing The Wheels On The Bus and where grown-ups can get on the internet. A community hub was something else no-one had ever heard of, even if it was still going to do all those things.
So Staffordshire has at least been savvy enough to use the word ‘library’ in the plan its councillors haven’t quite yet unveiled. They’re going to be known as ‘library core’, ‘library local’ and ‘library extra’, the latter two sounding suspiciously like branches of Tesco.
Key to making sure libraries are open will be moving away from the ‘one size fits all approach’. And that means the public will have to step in and volunteer.
In a climate of squeezed public spending, coupled with increased demand for services from an ageing population and looked after children, it’s no longer enough to just say ‘use it or lose it’.
Now, if you want to keep something going you have to offer to run it as well.
The big society is based on the idea of people wanting to volunteer their time to help out.
But at the same time, if the government’s figures are to be believed, there are millions more people in private sector employment than when the Coalition came to office. I barely have the time to read novels as it is, let alone run a library.
I’d love to believe there are so many people out there that have the time and the inclination to save their libraries from dwindling stocks of books and shorter opening hours.
I certainly don’t criticise the county council for asking if there’s anyone out there prepared to do it. I’m just a little worried what might happen if the answer is no.
The children’s author Toby Forward (he wrote Dragonborn, it’s in the library), said: “Civilised nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.”
Bailey's on the Christmas countdown
The mercury has climbed into the low 20s in recent days but Adrian Bailey is clearly an MP who believes in planning ahead.
While most of us were planning barbecues and then scrapping them due to the torrential downpours, the member for West Bromwich West was organising a competition for schools.
A Christmas card competition, that is.
It might seem a little premature. But there are only 193 shopping days left.Subscribe to our Newsletter