On holiday on the north coast of Scotland, where the UK mainland stops with a shiver, I enjoyed some peaceful hours fishing from the remains of the harbour of an abandoned slate quarry.
There were rows of slate still standing by the pier, waiting for one of the coastal haulage boats which were mothballed along with it.
There are similar relics in North Wales and elsewhere, of course, but this one struck me as an interesting example – less obvious than the old herring ports – of how livings were once scratched out of British demand in the most environmentally and logistically unhelpful locations of the British Isles. Nowadays, I think, most natural slate is imported from India or Brazil or somewhere else where labour is cheap and a few thousand miles of shipping, using tax-free diesel, does not add enough to make much difference.
But the real killer for British slate was, and remains, roof tiles made of clay or concrete or plastic, easily produced anywhere, using heat rather than labour.
I can only point to the interesting questions suggested by that sad remnant of Caithness enterprise. How much would it cost to subsidise Scottish and Welsh slate to the point where it became competitive again and how much more to maximise the input of manual labour in cutting it, moving it, loading and unloading it? How much would every £ invested save in fossil fuel expenditure and how much would every gallon of oil saved be worth to us when the costs of environmental damage and effort to achieve carbon emission targets are taken into account? And how much would the job creation be worth?
These are, I suggest, important equations to work out for all sorts of reasons. Stocks of hand-cut slate in strategic locations would be measurable outcomes which would keep their value. And getting them would produce some valuable yardsticks – increasingly rare in our economy – for measuring hard labour, and comparing its cost against those of mechanised mass production and distribution.
One way of using the figures would be to translate court sentences into work targets. Prisoners could be offered the option of early release, and some wages in the bank, for their part in moving X amount of slate from Y to Z. The quotas could be set for gangs, with an allowance for variations in individual strength and stamina, which would encourage co-operative working.
Sounds a little too much like the treadmill? Well, the treadmill had its points – including useful measures of human effort. And the Australian government has just announced fresh funding for an experiment in sending prisoners to its salt mines, because it is impressed with the results so far.
I will stop short of recommending a year of slate cutting as compulsory national service but I recall that Maoist China once had a rule requiring white-collar workers to spend some time digging holes and I can imagine it being popular with the hole-digging classes and very good for their bosses. And the graduates of a national labour scheme, certificated as good workers, could make a state workforce capable of subsidising itself, with contract work, and offering a useful fallback for honest job-seekers.
Once the economics of slate production versus tile-making had been thoroughly analysed, the lessons could be applied to job creation in other areas – getting the chewing gum off paving stones and plastic bags out of trees; hand-weeding crops rather than spraying them; chipping the tarmac off good long-lasting cobbles, with their inbuilt traffic-calming properties … write in the bee in your own bonnet.
Politicians and journalists are wary of recommending hard labour as a cure-all, because it sounds Victorian and they wouldn’t fancy it much themselves. But it is not so long since most of us had some taste of what it felt like, as a part of growing up, and thought it did us good. And the Blairist solution for the working class –to educate it out of existence – both over-estimates British brilliance and under-estimates the pride and satisfaction a lot of people get from wages earned by sweat, rather than worry.
The high-speed rail project is, in part, a quest for a good hole-digging project to mop up unemployment. There is an honourable history of these. The fine lakes in my local park were made by soldiers demobbed after the fall of Napoleon, spreading puddled clay with their hands and feet. Our sewers and canals have paid back more than they ever cost in navvies’ wages.
The well-justified worry about HS2 is that it will pay for more hours with spreadsheets and marketing slogans than with spades and spanners. But there is an opportunity waiting for a government to prove itself with some judicious spending on smaller holes.
* Chris Benfield blogs on this and that at

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