Scotland looks set to be the first part of the UK to pilot a basic income for every citizen, as councils in Fife and Glasgow investigate trial schemes in 2017.
The councillor Matt Kerr has been championing the idea through the ornate halls of Glasgow City Chambers, and is frank about the challenges it poses.
“Like a lot of people, I was interested in the idea but never completely convinced,” he said. But working as Labour’s anti-poverty lead on the council, Kerr says that he “kept coming back to the basic income”.
Kerr sees the basic income as a way of simplifying the UK’s byzantine welfare system. “But it is also about solidarity: it says that everyone is valued and the government will support you. It changes the relationship between the individual and the state.”
The concept of a universal basic income revolves around the idea of offering every individual, regardless of existing welfare benefits or earned income, a non-conditional flat-rate payment, with any income earned above that taxed progressively. The intention is to provide a basic economic platform on which people can build their lives, whether they choose to earn, learn, care or set up a business.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has suggested that it is likely to appear in his party’s next manifesto, while there has been a groundswell of interest among anti-poverty groups who see it as a means of changing not only the relationship between people and the state, but between workers and increasingly insecure employment in the gig economy.
Kerr accepts that, while he is hopeful of cross-party support in Glasgow, there are “months of work ahead”, including first arranging a feasibility study in order to present a strong enough evidence base for a pilot. “But if there is ever a case to be made then you need to test it in a place like Glasgow, with the sheer numbers and levels of health inequality. If you can make it work here then it can work anywhere.”
The idea has its roots in 16th-century humanist philosophy, when it was developed by the likes of Thomas More, but in its modern incarnation it has lately enjoyed successful pilots in India and Africa.
Despite its utopian roots, champions believe that this is an idea whose time has come, particularly in Scotland where the governing SNP voted in support of a basic income at their spring conference (although the proposal has yet to make it into their manifesto).
At the heart of any experiment with basic income is money: how much should people get and where will it come from? Kerr says his instinct is to base the amount on similar calculations to those made for the living wage.
“It’s about having more than just enough to pay the bills. But part of the idea of doing a pilot is to make mistakes and also find out what is acceptable to the public. There will be a lot of resistance to this. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Part of the problem is we’re working against a whole discourse of deserving and undeserving poor.”
As for where the money comes from, “the funding question is always the big one, and really will depend upon the approach a pilot takes,” says Jamie Cooke, head of RSA Scotland, which has been spearheading research on the subject across the UK.
Drawing on the experience of similar projects ongoing in Finland, Utrecht in the Netherland and Ontario in Canada, Cooke suggests: “It could be funding from particular trusts, it could be individual philanthropic funding, as we have seen in the States, or it could be a redirection of the existing welfare spend.” Obviously the latter is much harder to do in a pilot, although that will be happening in Finland next year where the experiment is being taken forward by the national government.
As the Scottish government consults on what it has described as “the biggest transfer of powers since devolution began” – the devolution of around £2.7bn, or 15% of the total Scottish benefits bill, affecting 1.4 million people – both Kerr and Cooke believe that this is an ideal moment to consider the basic income seriously. “It’s a time to be testing out new – or rather old – ideas for a welfare system that genuinely supports independence,” says Kerr.
Cooke likewise believes that cross-party support is key, pointing to the fact that the leader of the Conservative group on Fife council has joined forces with the Fairer Fife Commission, the council’s independent poverty advisory group which initially recommended the trial, with the aim of designing a pilot within the next six months.
Scotland was recently added to the list of “places to watch” for basic income activity by the Basic Income Earth Network, founded by the radical economist Guy Standing, whose hugely influential book The Precariat identified an emerging social class suffering the worst of job insecurity and most likely to be attracted to rightwing populism.
“The thing about Scotland is that they really understand the precariat,” says Standing, who recently visited the country to meet civil servants, local authorities and campaigners to discuss a basic income. “The sense of insecurity, the stagnating living standards, all of those things are clear in Scotland and the fact that so many within the SNP are supportive means there’s a real opportunity to do a pilot in Scotland.”
The momentum is there, he says, and once it is framed around a desire for greater social justice “then you get away from the stale debate about whether if you give people the basic income then they will be lazy”.
“People relate to the idea that everyone should have a social dividend. Everywhere I go, it’s the communities that feel left behind by globalisation that are most interested [in the idea of a basic income]. We have seen a sea-change in attitudes.
“This sense of alarm about populist rightwing politics has brought more people to thinking we need to do something to provide better security for people. We are risking our economic and political stability if we don’t do something about it.”
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