There was once a very silly government minister who floated the idea that Britain's public libraries should be privatised. It was in the days of Margaret Thatcher when such talk was fashionable. Even so, the idea was quickly laughed out of court. The minister's political career was over.
Modern-minded Tories do things differently. They consult. They make sincere speeches in which words that traditional Conservatives used to avoid – "community", "society", "partnership", "delivery" – are deployed. They present their plans in a cosily inclusive manner. But take away the presentational skills, and the actuality of those plans can sometimes seem strikingly Thatcherite.
The culture minister Ed Vaizey has this week launched "The Future Libraries Programme". At first glance, it seems a sensible pre-emptive initiative at a time when the library service is under severe and growing pressure – there are predictions that up to 1,000 libraries are likely to close over the next year. Vaizey, unlike his predecessor Margaret Hodge, prides himself on being a champion of the library service.
His programme nominates 10 areas across the country where "new governance models" will be tested. In Suffolk, the running of libraries will be transferred to local community groups. In Hereford, they will be run on the same basis as charity shops. Supermarkets will be involved in Bradford. Vaizey particularly recommends the example of Hounslow, where a private company now runs the library service. In North Yorkshire, a pub called The George and Dragon is "delivering a library service and a pint" to the community.
Do you hear what I hear? It is the sound of a back door being quietly opened to the privatisation of the library service. The timing is perfect. Radical cuts, it will be argued, demand radical solutions. Significantly, Lewisham, one of the 10 areas chosen by Vaizey, has recently closed five of its libraries. Then there is Cameron's favourite idea; what could be more Big Society than to encourage local people to look after their own libraries?
Beyond the warm message ("Libraries are natural partners and are delivering across a whole range of different areas at national and local level"), the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act is being dismantled by stealth. Under that act, the library service is under the superintendence of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It is the responsibility of central government to take action if a local library authority defaults on its statutory obligations to the public.
All of that will become utterly irrelevant if those services are allowed to slip out of the public sector into the hands of private companies, voluntary or community bodies, or supermarkets. The Government, while claiming to be empowering local groups, will in fact be wriggling out of its own responsibilities.
No one who has seen the lifeline offered by libraries, particularly in deprived areas and particularly to children, will be in any doubt as to the extent of this betrayal. Public libraries are not a luxury, a social add-on, but a necessity. They are never more desperately needed than in times of economic hardship.
Pass the running of them over to private enterprise, local bodies or charities – or to a fashionable muddle of all three – and the effect will be to dismantle it beyond repair. Indeed, the areas where books and reading are most desperately needed are precisely those where communities are enfeebled and private companies are uninterested.
A country's public library service is a sure indicator of how highly it values its citizens, its children and its future. There may well be a place for the new localism around the outer fringes of the service – the library is a focus of local life, after all – but, if the Government allows it to slip into decline in the hollow name of community, Ed Vaizey's promises and his boss's Big Society will be exposed as a heartless sham.