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Convincing the British to Adopt UBI — Part 2

There’s more to be said about British perceptions of UBI than I thought.

By UK Parliament [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Following my first article exploring the subject of whether we could easily convince the UK to adopt a Universal Basic Income (UBI) system, I’ve had feedback both on Medium and elsewhere. I always try to respond to comments because in writing an article I have begun a conversation, and I’d like to keep the conversation going. So I will take this opportunity to reply to a comment I received on my Facebook page:

“I have been aware for over 40 years that there are very good arguments for UBI. This article is full of stereotypical views of right and left, of progress, of UK attitudes vs European and errors in statistics. I think you could do much much better.”

There’s a few points to address here, so let’s break it down. I’ll get the easy ones out of the way first. There are indeed many good arguments for UBI, and some reasoned criticisms of it. I think the arguments in favour generally have merit, but more importantly, I do think it’s going to happen anyway. While left and right may disagree on the finer points of implementation, UBI is going to be one of those things that just happens, because everything is headed in that direction. Even if the robots don’t take over, wealth is being generated mostly by a small and shrinking percentage of the population. The rest of us still need roofs over our heads and food on the table. If the economy continues to operate in such a skewed fashion, UBI becomes a necessity rather than a hypothetical. But we are still talking about it like it’s a silly pipe dream, when we need to be preparing for a different type of future than what we had maybe expected.

I didn’t really quote any statistics in my original piece, but you might take issue with some of the sources I’ve linked to. If you can suggest better ones — and I don’t doubt they exist, given that I tried to seek out more negative appraisals to illustrate my point — then that’s great, and I could use those in another article on how we could successfully defend the transition to UBI. From what I’ve read so far, the arguments in favour are compelling and stack up both in principle and economically. But the real issue here isn’t what is real, it’s what the British people’s perception of reality is. And I feel the version of events believed by many, who don’t have the time or inclination to look deeply into economic policy or fact-check even some of the views presented in the media, is nothing like the truth. I feel we may be reaching a point where successive governments’ misleading rhetoric on certain policy issues is about to catch up with us. That in itself could present an opportunity to introduce radical changes such as this one under the guise of sorting the whole damn mess out.

That then brings me on to the third, and biggest point: that of “stereotypical views of right and left, of progress, of UK attitudes vs European”. The problem isn’t whether I believe these stereotypes, it’s what the British populace believe — and what the government think they need to convey to us. And at the moment, our main method of debate is this:

Image via New Statesman

We are living in a time when major constitutional matters are decided by plastering any old nonsense on the side of a bus. There is hardly any accountability for politicians and their promises in this country. The media is extremely polarised, so much so that you can take two people who live on the same street, and ask them about a contemporary political issue, and you’ll get two completely different answers. It’s not just because they might have picked up on separate aspects of the problem; there is such a gulf between the presentation of the news from one outlet to the other that they might as well be talking about two different countries.

And then we have the problem of the sloganistic debating and reporting strategies currently being used. I know that PMQs is predominantly theatre, but it’s not exactly the home of nuanced debate. Even when giving press conferences or responses to opposition policies, our MPs give short, snappy answers that completely belie the complex nature of the matter. Statements in the newspapers calling the opposition traitors for urging caution on Russia and Syria, and enough fictitious stories on the EU to fill several volumes. Even watching programmes devoted to political analysis, we don’t get anywhere close to the real issues at the centre of these problems, and we rarely see in the popular press anything about the level of cooperation that goes on in parliament between ministers of all parties. This has to occur for our government to even function at the most basic level, and yet the way it is reported in the papers, you’d think there were still swordfights happening on the floor of the House of Commons.

That’s just what the voting public see, if they’re even paying that much attention. Politicians then need to act, or say that they will act, in ways that will satisfy that voting public. And that then reinforces the problem; as to satisfy a public that sees a gross caricature of British politics, they only need lowest-common-denominator solutions. I’m working with stereotypes of left, right, the British, and the EU, because that’s what so many of the British public actually believe. I grew up in rural Kent, and I can assure you that the mentality that led us to Brexit is far more alive, well, and abundant than many of us in Remain areas realise. I thought that we would vote to leave, because I have the dubious privilege of having lived in an area so different to the one I live in now. People honestly do believe all of the stereotypes that I mentioned in my first article, and our MPs know this. They’re working with a dire set of starting conditions, and until the majority of voters are no longer made up of Eurosceptics and conservatives, we will struggle to move the debate on.

I feel that we may end up in a situation where progress moves faster than the national discussion, and that UBI might end up being ‘enforced’ on an unsuspecting public. Unless we can change the story being told in the media and in parliament, the public aren’t going to catch up. I don’t think on the whole that we are going against progress, but the present administration has undone work that was put in place by former governments and the country is in an artificially impoverished state. The promise of Brexit is to return Britain to the good old days where people had ‘proper’ jobs and we still used pounds and ounces. Of course that makes no sense, but people believe it. It’s those kinds of policies, and that type of thinking, that sets people against the actual progress being made behind the scenes and in neighbouring European countries. We think we’re special, and no amount of facts and figures is going to overcome this misplaced sense of national pride. If we want UBI to work, and to not come as a shock to the UK, we need to change the conversation to one that people want to hear.

As for whether I could do better — I hope that this article has conveyed the message that didn’t come across as strongly as I had intended in the original. As I said, we’re in agreement about the arguments for UBI. It’s everyone else we need to convince.