The British Library Must Walk Away From Identity Politics

The British Library has become the latest once revered institution to succumb to identity politics – which have vanishingly little to do with its function – and seems to be the latest casualty of ‘the long march through the institutions’. In emails handed to The Daily Telegraph, overt political positions are now being demanded of staff even though they work in one of the most esteemed libraries in the English-speaking world.

An internal ‘policy-guiding staff group’ decreed that colour-blindness is an example of ‘covert white supremacy’. The irony of the main message of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech being transformed into a reassertion of racial supremacy is lost on the authors. Not judging people by the colour of their skin has been one of the most laudable aims of Western society in the post-war era. How one is supposed to exert racial supremacy over a black person while working in a library, by seeking not to allow the colour of a person’s skin to influence how they are treated, is not explained. With good reason too: members of the staff group have probably not been required to elucidate on the rather bold claim. This writer would certainly like to see them try.  

Not content with supporting an ideological standpoint which seeks to reverse decades of advancement in societal attitudes, the British Library is also demanding white staff ‘educate themselves’ and has provided a reading list to help the process along. That this policy is itself racist on the grounds that it intentionally discriminates in its treatment of people according to the colour of their skin has again passed the authors of the leaked emails by. Yet the most damming of the contents revealed by The Daily Telegraph is that staff are actively encouraged to donate funds to Black Lives Matter and Labour MP Diane Abbott, of ‘Mao wasn’t so bad’ fame.

Expecting staff to hand over their own money to political causes is, even by the standards of identity politics, a new low. But it is one which should necessitate direct government intervention. The British Library is in receipt of £90m per year from government coffers. It is also not in possession of a remit to indulge in politics. Loath though all of us should be for governments to interfere in institutions of knowledge and learning, now must be the time for government intervention to restore institutions for which this country has historically been revered to political neutrality. The British Library should be where one goes to accrue knowledge, not be subject to efforts to make racial identity primary in people’s thoughts and learning.

In practical terms there is little the government can do. Yet the available options, while blunt, would at least get a point across. Withdrawing all state support carries an underlying message that those at the top of the organization must be replaced with those who treasure the foundational values of the library. Losing government support would be crippling; yet the government only needs to issue a sufficiently strong threat. Preferably, action must come from the library itself. This, however, is not without risk. Allowing governments to take a keen interest in how such institutions are operated would introduce further political machinations where none are needed. For now, the British Library has an important question to answer: Does it want to be a political library, or a library of learning and knowledge?

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