Farenheit 451: When Swindons Politicians Attack

Collateral Damage of Swindon’s Library Wars.

Members of the Talkswindon Forum and a reporter from the  Swindon Advertiser attended, reported on and discussed a recent meeting of Swindon Borough Council at which elderly residents and other petitioners were kept waiting for more than two hours before they were allowed to speak after the ruling Conservative group of Councillors voted to keep them waiting.

Borough Councillors tell me that they have never known this to happen before and have expressed multiple opinions, but all of which are along the same general theme:  That Rod Bluh and his Bluhligans hoped to punish them for their determined scrutiny of the council’s library plans, and that keeping older people waiting  for such a long time would ‘encourage’ them to leave the chamber and go home frustrated and, (they hoped), vowing  never to come back again.

Some did leave early but one elderly lady, 85 year old Mary Ratcliffe who worked for Bletchley Park during the second world war, waited patiently through this  blockading of democracy until she was ‘allowed’ to speak.  Mary had attended the council meeting to ask a public question about Council cutbacks and how they might affect local libraries.  She later described the meeting as ‘absolutely horrendous’ and ‘painful to witness’.

Chris Watts, a member of the Talkswindon forum, remembers Mary’s public humiliation very cleary:

“This Lady eloquently started to deliver the question when part way through Mr Mayor, once again interjected, demanding that the questioner get to the point. Several members tactfully informed Mr Mayor that she was, in fact, delivering the question and after a little confusion was asked to continue. Once again the Lady started to deliver the question and Mr Mayor interjected a second time”

As unpleasant as this experience most definitely was for Mary,  I am afraid that the subsequent media coverage and discussion, as good as they both have been,  have, (to the relief of both Tory and Lib Dem members), rather missed the politically sordid reason for the Conservative members mob handed gang-banging of Mary Ratcliffe and other petitioners.

Mary Ratcliffe and the other library petitioners are the innocent victims, (collateral damage if you like), of an ongoing political battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Old Town and Lawn ward.  The bitter irony of this is that the Liberal Democrats, dreamily fascinated with the reality of their coalition with the Conservatives, seemed utterly unaware that the Conservative councillors chamber (pot) behaviour towards attending members of the public was because of them, (the LibDems), and one of their own – Shirley Burnham.

Yes, it’s a sad indictment of Swindon’s local political ‘scene’, but I believe Swindon’s libraries have become increasingly politicized since Rod Bluh proudly ‘delivered’ the Conservative groups only regeneration success, the Central Library.   It is also Rod Bluh’s one and only useful legacy.

But, once the spanky new library was opened, Swindons older, smaller and, (in Tory eyes), tattier library’s were immediately under threat.  Especially so the nearest neighbour of the central library, the Old Town Library, which the COnservatives immediately set about closing.   A protest movement quickly sprang up, led by a local library campaigner, Shirley Burnham.

Shirleys campaign,  in itself, was of no particular consequence to the Tory group who, historically, are quite skilled at deflecting and suffocating dissenting campaigners, (and luring them into the ‘Big Tent’  if the campaigner(s) stand a real chance of damaging them politically – recent example: Stephanie Exell).  Shirley did go ‘into the tent’, but it was the smaller Liberal Democrat one, not Rods Big Top.

Swindon’s library wars raged quietly back and forth, mostly unobserved and under-reported by the Swindon Advertiser and, even  when Shirley Burnham stood in the 2010 local elections as the Lib Dems candidate for Old Town and Lawn, not much news was made of it, even though the election results gave the Conservative group a nasty shock.

Shirley didn’t win, but she did cut the incumbents majority almost in half:

Old Town & Lawn

Brian Mattock            Conservative    3144
Shirley Burnham    Liberal Democrat    1501

Initially, Swindons Lib Dems were beside themselves with pleasure and lost no time in proclaiming:

“Swindon voters have started to punish Conservative Swindon Borough Council. This is the first time in years the Tories have seen a massive drop in support as their share of the vote dropped by 22.4%. Most of this 12.3% swing from the Conservatives benefitted the Lib Dems, as our vote share increased by over 50%.

Lib Dem candidate Shirley Burnham halved the Tory majority in Old Town and Lawn

The tide has started to turn as the complacent conservatives are increasingly taking the town for granted.”

Probably most worried by this at the time would have been Cllr Matttocks colleague, and Old Town and Lawn incumbent Cllr,  Fionualala Foley, who is up for election again next year.  How relieved she must have been when, a few days later the Conservative party formed a coalition government with the liberal democrats, which immediately gave Rods Conservative Bluhligans an additional morality stick to beat the local Lib Dem Councillors with.  One can imagine the conversation going something like this:

Rod Bluh: “We’re all in this together now Stan, all in the same tent and we must all row in the same direction, pulling together for the national good….and we both hate the Labour group, don’t we?”

Stan Pajak: “Yes Rod”

So, just a little over 4 months later, when Shirley Burnham, the Liberal Democrat candidate that had  ‘Punished’ Swindons Tories,  arrives at the civic chamber with a group of literate, well educated and well meaning people, all of whom are anxious to give voice to their concerns over the local library service, Conservative councillors were ready and waiting for her, and whoever came with her.

For their part, members of Shirley’s group were simply expecting to take part in a dignified, civic and respectful public meeting,  to see democracy done, and enabled by, their elected members.

Instead, what they received was a spiteful and arrogant denial of democracy, forced on them by  a group of councillors so self-adsorbed, self-important and politically inbred, that they view holders of dissenting opinions as ‘enemy combatants’ who deserve  ‘punishing’ for daring to attend ‘their’ council.

Rod Bluh waited until the story of his Bluhligans behaviour had spread so far and so wide, that it was no longer plausible to deny it, and the next day he picked up the phone to apologise to Mary Ratcliffe.   It seems to me that his ‘apology’ is as worthless as one of his regular visions.   The conservative group acted according to a pre-agreed script for that council meeting and were engaged in nothing which Bluh hadn’t already approved so, when he says….

“It was very unfortunate and did nothing to enhance the council’s reputation.  All members need to think very carefully about the part they played in it and we must make sure that in future we show our best side and not our worst side.”

….. do we conclude that he is an honest and well meaning man who can’t control his own political group, or a ruthless, disengenuous and hypocritical poltician who had his hand firmly on the tiller that evening?    I think the latter but, given the nature of Mrs Ratcliffes’ war-work,  I very much doubt she would be taken in by an insincere apology spilling from the lips of a second rate politician.  Mary, I believe, really can tell the difference between shit & shinola, although, being a corteous and lovely woman, she wouldn’t approve of me describing her skills in that way.  Sorry Mary.

I think most people will understand my reference to ‘Fahrenheit 451’:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a novel based on the short story “The Fireman” (originally published February 1951), follows the exploits and self-examination of ‘fireman‘ Guy Montag in a dystopic society where books are banned, and firemen create fires, rather than put them out, in order to protect society from the dangers of reading.

451 degrees Farenheit is the flashpoint of paper.   It is considerably higher than the political temperature at which Swindon’s conservative group turns into a flash mob.

A Parting thought:

“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

What is it about Swindon’s librarys, and the people that love them, that the Conservative group despise them so?  Mary Ratcliffe went to Big Rod’s house and the Bluhligan Fire Brigade burnt her.

Talkswindon Discussion topic open here: http://www.talkswindon.org/index.php?topic=6476.msg43219#msg43219

Posted on
Wednesday, October 6th, 2010
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