Member preview

How do we convince the British to adopt UBI?

I’ve lived in Britain all my life, and nothing ever gets done around here.

This was the strangest stock image I could find, so I went with it.

I approached this topic with a sense of doom and gloom, because it seems way too progressive for Brexit Britain to adopt. My elderly relatives are literally expecting the return of pounds, shillings and pence when we exit the EU. I am in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), but I have my doubts over whether, or how, we would implement it here in Little England. So I decided to get all the possible negatives off my chest in one go. These are the arguments that will likely be raised against UBI, so get ready to know your enemy.

UBI will become a reality for much of the Western world, almost certainly in my lifetime. But it’s not something that British politicians or our media are really promoting. Based on the UK’s current politics, it’s an idea that might be practically necessary, but is politically untenable. Compared to the rest of Europe, Britain has always been the odd one out. From about 1950 onwards, British politics has lagged behind that of mainland Europe, in terms of innovation and ideas. Other countries have faced up to the problem of a shrinking jobs market and the effects of automation and outsourcing. But Britain is still clinging on to the status quo for as long as possible, publicly at least.

I wonder what Britain will actually do when we can no longer pad out the jobs market — our benefits system is tricky to navigate and punishes those who do not seek work. But if there are no jobs, will our government still implement draconian policies? Actually, I imagine they would. But that would be as unsustainable as administering our complicated benefits system as it is, with the added risk of civil unrest. There are strong arguments in favour of adopting a UBI system now, but the present government, at least, would never agree to a solution of that nature — it would go against everything they’ve set in place over the last decade in power. But we need to do something — the problem lies in convincing the British that it would work.

Let’s begin with our European counterparts, with whom we bear a token resemblance. Basic Income schemes are being trialled in Finland and The Netherlands, and there is one proposed for Scotland (yes, I know that Scotland is in the UK, but politically they are far closer to the continent than the rest of the Union). The trials underway are reporting positive results so far, but we don’t have all the information yet and it’s not really given much news airtime in the UK, so it’s difficult to find reliable data on these projects.

This is great — some actual serious research happening on UBI, so that it’s not just some pie-in-the-sky thinking. That does leave us open to claims that more research is needed, when the real problem is that no amount of research will be enough to quell an ideology that is opposed to the idea of Basic Income. Having real-world data is one step that could bring us closer to adopting UBI, but UK governments do not have a good track record when it comes to listening to experts.

Another problem with Europe — or, really, with the UK, is Brexit. Since we collectively voted to cut off our nose to spite our face, numerous government agencies and private companies have withdrawn from our shores and relocated somewhere less risky. This has cost the UK economy a lot of money, as has the falling value of the Pound. Whatever form a British UBI might take, it will need to be funded from somewhere. The best options use existing taxation revenue and benefits schemes, and reconfigure them to produce the Basic Income per person. But if the money isn’t there, and we won’t know the full consequences of Brexit until it happens, then we cannot fund such a scheme. Although if the national finances are in that bad a state, we’re all screwed anyway, which seems like a worryingly real prospect.

In addition to the practical considerations, our ministers have a deep suspicion for anything European-sounding. The same as anything that sounds a bit left-wing. You might as well ask the UK government to adopt full-blown Communism. “European” and “left-wing” are not just signals of a policy deemed too progressive for Britain; they are practically insults. It sounds ridiculous (because it is), but that’s the level we’re working at. The main point behind UBI is to redistribute wealth, and that sounds a little bit too Marxist for the likes of the UK.

Our welfare system was initially a source of national pride, but over the last half-century or so, our impression of benefit claimants has deteriorated. This has been fuelled by politicians and the media, driving the public’s jealousy and hatred of those receiving “state handouts”. UBI is essentially one big state handout, and it is not going to be enthusiastically received in a climate of selfishness and judgement.

The saying, that the problem with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money, has become a mantra in the UK. Almost everyone (including benefit recipients themselves) seems to believe that their taxes shouldn’t be spent on other people, and that benefits schemes like UBI would be giving out “free” money to undeserving scroungers. A scheme that rewards everybody would be unable to distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and if we cannot make people work for their benefits or demonstrate their worthiness, then it would be a moral failing under the current economic mood.

Conservative ethics dictate that work is a moral good in itself, and any system that could reduce the incentive to work would be seen as inherently bad. It’s not just beliefs about “good” and “bad” uses of people’s time, though. We have been led to associate holidays and leisure time with reduced productivity. There is no evidence to support this, but it’s ingrained. That leads to two criticisms of increased levels of economically inactive people, concerning the effect of work on identity and character. Even typing that sentence makes me cringe a little; it feels so pseudoscientific.

The former problem may, at least, have a little merit. But only because our culture has driven the belief about one’s profession being intrinsic to one’s identity. We spend most of our waking hours in work (under the neoliberal dream, anyway), so that it becomes our whole life. We choose our educational options between the ages of 14 and 18 to set the path of our careers, and then we live out that life in our university choices and employment options. Certain doors are opened and closed from such a young age, so we have to continue with it. Besides, we need to pay off that student loan somehow.

The second problem has less evidence behind it, but it gets mentioned a lot. It’s a symptom of the disease spread via poverty porn like Benefits Street and The Jeremy Kyle Show, implying that the country will absolutely definitely go to shit if we give any unearned money to poor people on council estates. The predictions are dire: that people will just spend it all on drink or drugs, that it would “reward laziness”, crime would skyrocket and families would break down. This is a classic case of correlation not meaning causation: yes, high unemployment does tend to produce social problems, but this is because unemployment in our society equals extreme hardship — and that’s the problem UBI is trying to fix.

The belief that full employment is essential to social cohesion is based on Victorian ideals and Protestant religious doctrine. We gain our salvation through hard work, and without it we lose status, meaning, and become detached from society. There is, again, a little truth to this, but only because we have made it our truth — we have designed our society to rely on work as the source of income, fulfilment and social interaction, so if we lose work, we also lose the benefits that we have tied to it. Incidentally, there is no evidence that UBI actually discourages people from working, and the theory is that it could actually incentivise work and allow people to take risks with their careers or invest in their education. However, conservatives generally believe that human nature is flawed, selfish and lazy, so their assumption is that UBI will generate a nation full of couch potatoes.

And even if it did — would that matter? To conservatives, maybe, but UBI was conceived to alleviate poverty and restructure the economy, not to gain the approval of those with their heads stuck in the past. Although full employment isn’t necessary for our society to function, the present capitalist system operates by making citizens fearful of losing their jobs, hence keeping them in work for as many hours as possible. The belief that society will crumble if people abandon their jobs is more realistically the knowledge that UBI will redirect power into the hands of the workers — which is not what the leaders of a capitalist system want. It is easier, though, to claim it is a social ill to be “workshy”, and to foster distrust of the poor and unemployed — as May and Cameron’s governments have done.

Under capitalism, the rich benefit the most, and inequality is necessary for that type of economy to function. The richest in our society have a lot of power and influence, and combining this with the traditional British way of looking back to our rose-tinted past, rather than forward (as is the case with the billionaire advocates of UBI), we get a political and lobbying mercantile class that wishes to maintain the status quo, and not relinquish even a little of their power.

In spite of any benefits for the country as a whole, we are more inclined to serve our own selfish interests and damn everyone else. If an individual chooses to be generous and donate money to charity, that’s a personal matter, and not the function of the state. After all, we think that tax is a terrible thing, theft, even. And those powerful, high-worth individuals are the most averse to paying taxes, so any ideas of funding a Basic Income scheme from increased taxes for higher earners is a no-go.

One argument against moving to a UBI is universal to all social strata: we don’t like change, or anything perceived as risky. And change — including change for the better — is expensive. The UBI feels like a very “new” idea, even though it has been around for centuries. It is nothing like the system that we have all become accustomed to — where one has to work a full day in some “meaningful” trade in order to earn a living. Money for nothing is an alien concept to the British, indeed one that has shame attached to it because of the stigma associated with receiving benefits. And no-one likes a tax increase, even if the overall effect on the nation is positive — in fact even if their individual net taxes go down when accounting for UBI. As noted above, we’re conditioned to be selfish, but taxes don’t just have a monetary effect — it’s psychological as well.

Many people will be convinced by the argument that large-scale automation will not happen for a good few years, maybe even decades, or that it could lead to more jobs not fewer. After all, the Industrial Revolution was predicted to mechanise worker’s roles, and yet it created more jobs and improved conditions. That may or may not be the case for us, but we can see the changes effected by outsourcing, and whatever the result of automation there will be a transition period in which people will need paying while they retrain and find new work. But even if automation didn’t affect the jobs market, would UBI still be such a bad idea? Sadly, without a robust justification it would be difficult to argue in favour of it.

When introducing any new political policy, we cannot please everyone. But we do need to please the right people, and enough of them. Britain’s conservative mindset is the biggest barrier to successful adoption of UBI. There are practical pros and cons, and the idea is technically feasible — it has been studied in some depth by economists and academics — but it is not evidence that matters. It is the hearts and minds that need to be won over, and compelling economic and scientific arguments have been consistently ignored by successive British governments in favour of what will win them votes. In turn, this provides the voting public with a distorted view of what works and what doesn’t. We have been told that utilising our labour is necessary not just for financial survival, but also for social, spiritual and mental survival. Any contradictory messages are likely to be ignored. While Margaret Thatcher convinced us that “there’s no such thing as society”, we do exist in a society that influences every single one of us. And that society says that greed is good, and that the economy knows no limits of growth. To contradict this would involve breaking down the foundations of our whole culture, meaning that UBI is either impossible to introduce at this time, or that it would need to be implemented bit-by-bit, over an extended time period, to allow for a transition of cultural norms as well as economic transformation.

The cultural influences that have supported, and been reinforced by, our capitalist economy have permeated all levels of society, meaning that resistance to UBI would face a double-whammy from the powerful elites, and the working masses. Indeed, it is the so-called “working-class Tories” that could be the schemes biggest stumbling block, because there are so many of them. Our national and individual identities are based on our financial and cultural history, most notably from the days of the Empire. That was a time that is still in living memory, and it resonates greatly with large swathes of the British population, as evidenced by the Brexit vote.

UBI might be possible for the UK some time in the future, but it would need to be tailored specifically to suit not just the country’s needs, but the country’s sensibilities. We have a history of voting not for the benefit of who we actually are, but for who we aspire to be. Given this observation, and the ostentatious wealth of those whom we look up to, and who are influential, it is no surprise that we are broadly opposed to the idea of welfare payments — even if we could be the recipients of these benefits. The main problem, though, is the political will to make such a drastic change to our economy. No matter what the evidence in favour of such a scheme, there are pros and cons that will speak to the Left and Right alike, and it will be possible to spin the data to support whatever conclusion the government chooses. While UBI is a policy that left-wing politicians are currently proposing, and that is enough to make it untenable in the UK, there are reasons for right-wing governments to adopt it. Like all economic philosophies, the devil is in the details.

Maybe we will not need to think about UBI seriously for a number of years. The notion that automation will have a delayed effect, or a minimal one, is politically appealing because it involves little work and doesn’t scare the populace with messages of change and upheaval. But it would be silly to rely on that (I bet we do it anyway), as it will simply save up problems for later, and harm people’s livelihoods in the meantime. We’re not yet at the stage where under- and unemployment are high enough to cause unrest — and until UBI becomes a necessity, it’s possible that the UK might keep business as usual.

An Update: I received criticism regarding the way that I’ve portrayed the British’s attitude to UBI, and stating that I’ve failed to address the arguments in favour of adopting Basic Income. For my response, please read my next article:

Convincing the British to Adopt UBI — Part 2