From a curse to a chance to show commitment to global change - Jamie Cooke

There is a reason the apocryphal phrase “May you live in interesting times” is viewed as a curse. The past year has seen the world turned upside down, as the COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders, shut businesses and opened up physical distance between each of us.

A Universal Basic Income would mean fewer people needing to use food banks

Political and economic strategies which had seemed unchallengeable in the pre-pandemic world have been thrown into turmoil, while freedoms of movement and contact that we took for granted have been sacrificed for the wellbeing of the greater good. Interesting times indeed.

The pandemic has been first and foremost a health tragedy and we will not lose sight of the many lives that have been lost. However, the turbulence has also opened up space to envisage new ways of how the world might be, different ways that we could operate.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

In light of this, it was fascinating to see how some of the thinking and ambition of the leaders of the main Scottish political parties had shifted in last week’s BBC debate. True, there was the usual point scoring and constitutional fixations; however alongside those ‘normalities’ were glimpses of attempts to imagine a different Scotland one that could build back better from COVID-19.

Jamie Cooke

As someone who has been heavily involved in the discussion around Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Scotland over the past few years, this was particularly evident in the response of the leaders to the question of exploring the idea in Scotland. Four of the five participants expressed strong support for UBI, with only the Conservatives voicing opposition. This growth in public, cross-party positivity is very welcome to see – helping to cement UBI’s rapid move from fringe concept to sensible mainstream policy that has taken place over the past few years; and reflecting the widespread public support that has been expressed.

UBI’s appeal is not a kneejerk reaction to crisis or an attempt at populist policy; rather it is an established idea that offers a chance to respond to the challenges in the economy and society which the pandemic has laid bare. Those challenges are not new or caused by COVID-19 – financial and working insecurity, inequality and power disadvantages have been endemic for years, reflective of an unfair and unsustainable economic system. At the RSA, we have been exploring these areas through our work, collaborating with a wide range of organisations who are helping to drive change and innovation. UBI has been driven by civic leadership from community groups, charities and academics, bringing politicians along with their momentum. At the time of writing this article, nearly 100 candidates from across the political spectrum have signed the #PledgeForUBI campaign organised by Basic Income Network Scotland and the UBI Lab Network, which combined with the support of the party leaders suggests that a majority of MSPs post-May will be pro-UBI. Meanwhile groups such as Scotland’s Climate Assembly and the Social Justice Commission have been including UBI in their deliberations, reflecting on the impact it could bring across a wide range of policy areas and priorities.

The cross-party, cross-society nature of this support will be essential for UBI to develop from idea to reality. The First Minister was correct in the Leader’s Debate when she pointed out that UBI can’t be delivered under the current devolution settlement – and it is therefore not surprising that there has been growing support for UBI as part of a vision for an independent Scotland. At the same time, support for UBI has been rapidly growing across the British Isles, following on from Scotland, with support from the Welsh FM and many Senedd candidates; motions in support of pilots across a wide range of cities across the UK and Northern Ireland; and work developing around links between UBI and positive mental health, inequality, work and other areas. Maybe strangely as a UBI supporter, I also welcome the opposition of the Scottish Conservatives and look forward to working with them to understand that better. Good policy, strong policy, requires robust challenge and their contribution to that will be important – moreover their colleagues in the UK Government would be ill-advised to ignore an idea which demonstrates such support, and which would address areas of great interest to them.

Scotland is recognised as a leading voice in the global basic income discussion – a discussion that has surged in recent years in many other countries. This summer (August 2021) the World Basic Income Congress will be coming to Glasgow, hosted by Basic Income Network Scotland and the University of Strathclyde. Whilst sadly we won’t be able to welcome delegates to the city itself, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland in an online space. We have a chance to demonstrate Scotland’s real commitment to change and impact, and to stake our claim as trailblazers.

UBI is not a silver bullet, some panacea that will solve all our troubles. It is a secure, fair and dependable foundation on which to rebuild, and reinvigorate, the social contract which has been undermined and frayed in recent decades. It is a chance to not only imagine a different Scotland, but to bring it into reality. COVID-19 has laid bare the flaws in our current systems – UBI offers a chance to build Scotland back in a way that is truly better.

This last year has been that interesting time we were warned of – here’s to our political leaders turning it from a curse into a moment for change.

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland, co-Author of the RSA report ‘A Basic Income for Scotland’ and a leading figure in the global UBI movement. He tweets @JamieACooke


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.