Let them eat dust

I have written to the government asking for the funds to develop a programme of ‘tightly focused ret

I have no wish to add to Gordon Brown’s troubles. I am happy to leave him in peace as he rolls up his trouser legs and takes the family shrimping at Walberswick.

So let me say this to those who have reacted with glee to the news that his favourite charity is in trouble for getting involved in party politics.

It happens that the Smith Institute shares a building with the New Statesman in London. And I can report that, leaving aside an unfortunate incident involving some coffee mugs, I have heard nothing but good of it from my friends on the magazine.

Last time I visited the Statesman offices, Julian Clary was holding court. I elbowed my way through the crowd to congratulate him on the publication of his first novel.

Eyeing the broad acres of the inside back cover, I suggested he would soon be giving up his column.

“No,” he replied, “I like to keep my hand in.”


A smooth public school voice comes on the radio to tell me that the unemployed will soon have to work for their benefits. “The longer people claim, the more we will expect in return,” it says.

Obviously a Labour minister. I turn over and go back to sleep.

But later I get to thinking.

Commodity prices have risen so fast there is talk of reopening tin and tungsten mines in the South West. But the authorities there are worried about the effect it will have on the mining heritage industry, which is now one of the region’s major employers.

So why not reopen the mines here in Shropshire?

There is lead in these hills. And zinc and silver too. I know the historians say all the good ore was taken by the Victorians, but I have never believed them. Occasionally I go down to the cellar with a pick and shovel to try a little prospecting myself.

I have not hit pay dirt yet. And the other day the council sent me a letter complaining about the subsidence of the lane outside - just the sort of petty business regulation that all parties now agree we need to do away with.

Listening to the minister - research shows him to have been James Purnell - I got the impression it was important this community work should be visible to the public. And I think I can help there.

Because those same historians say the old miners did not all live locally. Some walked miles to and from their work every day, through rain, hail and snow. This had the advantage of turning the unmetalled tracks to mud.

Will the work be hard enough? Unfortunately, the mines beneath these hills were generally dry and so roomy that tunnels could be seven feet high and six feet wide. On the positive side, it took half an hour to descend the ladders at the start of a shift and a full hour to climb back up at the end of it.

So this morning I have written to the government asking for the funds to develop a programme of ‘tightly focused return-to-work training’. It will take time to get the details right, but I have pitched it halfway between the Boys’ Brigade and Guantanamo Bay.

In the past I have promoted similar schemes as punishment for juvenile delinquents, a reality TV show and a conceptual artwork. And I have been knocked back on each occasion.

But I have a good feeling about it this time.

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England