“Are you here for the attempted murder?” asks a punter when I step into the Red Lion. My answer — I’m here for the return of lithium mining — stirs little interest among the pub’s patrons. The last time the town of Redruth played with this sort of idealism was when it overwhelmingly backed Leave in 2016, shocking the idyllic coastal fringes of Falmouth, Truro and St Ives.

These days, the bloody-mindedness remains but has long since given up on the rebellious politics of 2016. Little has changed after Brexit. Westminster and anything associated with it — London, politicians, tourists, journalists — are despised. Alternatives such as Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish independence party, are seen as a joke. In fact, everything is a joke: spurning my predictable questions about life in the area, one gentleman does a 10-minute skit about how he’s been smuggling migrants from Calais on an old fishing boat and leaving them on the telegenic beaches for second-home owners to deal with.

Tourism has helped to create a sort of neo-feudalism in this era, warping the rental market for existing residents, and trapping locals in a seasonal economy of unreliable incomes and unresolved resentment. The prosperous parts of Cornwall have become “a giant theme park”, as one punter describes it, leaving Redruth as one of its many servile outhouses, lying beyond the gates of Poldark-cum-Surfing Land.

In another age, Redruth was one of the wealthiest towns in the world, its copper playing a part in everything from the Industrial Revolution to Britain’s naval hegemony. That economy fell into decline in the late-19th century, long before the rest of Britain’s manufacturing base. The result is an eerie hodge-podge of industrial marvels, social deprivation and abandoned mining infrastructure. On the high street, next to some of the finest 18th-century architecture in the country, stands an abandoned Wilko.

But, in the last few years, an opportunity for recovery has presented itself. Now, it’s the area’s lithium, discovered in “globally significant” quantities in 2020, that could yet realise some of those visions of abundance and revival: the rare-earth element is essential to the production of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. Come 2026, Cornish Lithium will soon start extracting the gold of the green industrial revolution. The company estimates that 7,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) can be produced a year, alongside the 20,000 from 2028 provided by rival companies Imerys and British Lithium operating down the road in St Austell. This would, however, still leave Britain dependent on some of the world’s biggest producers in Australia, China and Chile, with such schemes only partially covering the 80,000 tonnes a year the UK is predicted to require by 2030.

Despite these deposits, both companies have had to jump through hoops merely to survive. But having previously relied on angel investors and crowdfunds, a package of £67 million announced in August from the UK’s Infrastructure Bank placed the project in the national interest. When Emmanuel Macron declared that “made in Europe” should be our continental motto, lamenting that a Europe without a serious industrial policy risked being left behind by the changing tides of globalisation, he was talking about the viability of quixotic projects such as lithium mining in Cornwall.

“I’m acutely aware of the sad state of the economy in the area and the potential to make a difference,” says Jeremy Wrathall, the founder of Cornish Lithium, when I speak to him the next day. Wrathall trained at Camborne School of Mining, now underwhelmingly known to the area as the “Pool Innovation Centre”. The name change is symbolic of some of the local cynicism about the project, a relic of the area’s previous attempted makeover from industry and mining to services and tourism.

But Wrathall is well-rehearsed to shrug off such doubts about the return of mining to Cornwall. He laments the “inbuilt scepticism” towards the rejuvenation of the UK’s mining industries. Cornwall, unlike other sites in Europe being touted as potential sources of lithium, has a history of mining. One comparable site in Portugal is currently battling locals who fear the opencast mine will destroy the village. Wrathall’s method is slightly more benign. This is less mining, more extraction, pulling lithium-rich brine from the springs beneath the 280-million-year-old granite sheet Cornwall sits on. Beyond the usual suspects of rent-a-gob environmentalists and ardent Nimbies, it’s difficult to find anyone overtly opposed to the project.

But there are also factors beyond his control. For all the rhetoric about deglobalisation, the allure of cheaper lithium abroad will endure, particularly without a proper homegrown industry to sell to. While rhetoric about restoring Britain’s industrial capacity is in vogue politically, it is estimated that £100 billion would be needed to set up a sustainable electric-vehicle industry. BritishVolt, the most recent attempt to construct a domestic lithium battery factory went into administration in January. When I raise this with Wrathall, he falls back on the sort of quiet idealism that remains in pockets of the old mining country. “Our project transcends politics,” he confesses. “We don’t want to let people down.”

Here lies an almost mystical appeal to the project. Britain has a strange relationship with its mines. Dirty, exploitative, abundant — the petri dish for both our industrialisation and our first revolts against capitalist excess. From Conrad’s Nostromo to the post-Thatcher nostalgia for the demise of the coal industry, mines are a catalyst for the history-making seams that run through the nation: pride, self-sufficiency, rebellion. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it’s a mood you can unearth quite easily when visiting an area where tourism, welfare and the faint promises of 2016 have been left to fester.

Nowhere can the faint glaze of revival be better felt than “Heartlands”, built on an old centre of Cornish mining at Robinsons Shaft. It’s a surreal non-place of conference meeting rooms, environmental hubs educating visitors on the woes of climate change, tourist tit-tat shops flogging Cornish language books, and a mining-themed tearoom. Were lithium extraction to start up just a stone’s throw away from the site, it could cast a welcome shadow over this failed offering for Cornwall’s future.

It’s a feeling suggested by many of the locals: “We’ve become a nation of numpties unable to make anything ourselves,” says a local businessman preparing for a drinks reception in one of Redruth’s reconverted buildings (ahead of a local arts festival which he describes as a “load of wank”). For all the regeneration that has taken place here, there are some wounds that Britain’s “creative” and “services” industries cannot heal.

The return of mining, however, must rest on more than just symbolism. On the outskirts of Redruth, Stephen Barnes, the town’s mayor, reveals the stifling hold these old mining shafts still have, not just on the town, but on its visitors too. In the summer months, they lure in the tourists with plumes of dark smoke blown through the old chimneys. For a brief afternoon, the landscape is once again dotted by working satanic mills. Yet the new lithium mines offer not just an escape from England’s nostalgic doom loop, but a different socio-economic settlement. The jobs initially created would number only in their hundreds, but Barnes believes it would be a way of “restoring pride”, and make a start in lifting stagnating wages away from the exploitative grips of the tourism industry.

Back in Redruth high street, the potential tragedy of all this expectation materialises. At present, the hope of the UK setting up an electric-car industry to compete with the subsidised might of China and the US is a struggle, if not a fantasy. And so too is the idea that lithium mining alone might set the area on a path to abundance and innovation. That’s not to say the quiet longing is not there.

Next to the town’s landmark statue of a miner, a Metro station has appeared, like one of those AI-generated engineering marvels shared by dejected Anglo-futurists on the social-media doomscroll. A map shows a high-speed underground train traversing the old network of mining tunnels underneath us. It’s an art installation, erected for the festival that starts tomorrow. But for a moment, it’s also a flicker of belief under grey skies on a late Friday afternoon, as the pubs open their doors and the high street once again starts to empty.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/