Jamie Cooke: Basic for income for all is not dead

Is giving everyone a basic income a good idea? (Picture: PA)
Is giving everyone a basic income a good idea? (Picture: PA)
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Just because Finland has dropped the idea of a basic income, doesn’t mean Scotland should do the same, writes Jamie Cooke

As my poor beleaguered family and friends can testify to, I spend a lot of time talking about basic income. Conferences, events, pubs, parties or momentary silences all provide opportunities for me to explore this old idea that has come of age, and the work we are doing in Scotland to see whether it might just be the policy we have been looking for.

In a precarious age, where not just jobs but citizenship can vanish before your eyes, a policy which brings security could be worth its weight in gold. And it’s not just here in Scotland that we are looking at the idea – across the globe, from the US to Kenya, the Netherlands to Canada, countries are starting to test what exactly basic income could mean for our societies.

It was therefore disappointing to see the reports from Finland, home of the world’s most prominent current experiment, that the government has decided to move away from basic income before the experiment has even concluded.

Having been held up as bold exemplars of innovation, the Finnish Government is now seemingly dropping the idea before they’ve evaluated what impact it has had, in favour of exploring something like a universal credit-style system instead. It’s worth noting that the experiment itself will continue as was always intended, and will provide invaluable findings for the wider discussion – the Finnish Government’s decision is political, rather than being based on evidence from the trial.

READ MORE: Universal Basic Income explained – How a fringe idea could redefine the welfare state

However, this could still be seen as a significant blow to the arguments we have been making to pilot basic income here in Scotland.

In reality, Finland’s disappointing decision actually strengthens the work we are doing. The Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting feasibility studies, and the leadership shown by the core group of local authorities pushing for a pilot, has been rooted in the idea that we need to test how it might work in a Scottish context. National and local government haven’t signed up to implementing the policy at this point – they have signed up to the idea of experimenting, rooted in the recognition that our current system isn’t working.

This commitment to trying something out is a very welcome one, particularly in a Scottish context of policy-making which has tended to be top down and imposed (similar to policy-making in most countries to be honest).

For Finland to move away from a policy before the evidence is a missed opportunity, and counterproductive given the money spent to date – in Scotland we can avoid that issue. Finland is also a very different political context to Scotland. Despite being held up as a social democratic utopia, it is currently governed by a centre-right coalition struggling to find political impetus for itself. The left and unions in Finland have been opposed to the experiments.

Here in Scotland, the environment is different. The drive for basic income has come from civic society, including think tanks like ourselves, the RSA, and grassroots organisations such as Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland (CBINS); from unions and charities; from communities; and from cross-party interest at a local authority level.

READ MORE: Bill Jamieson: Are plans for universal income delusional?

Long a policy of the Green Party, basic income has picked up support to date from across the political spectrum in Scotland, culminating in a Scottish Government commitment in the Programme for Government launched in September 2017. Even with the Scottish Conservatives starting to take a stronger line of opposition to the experiments (despite previous interest from at least one of their MSPs), we have created a strong and vibrant coalition in Scotland to ensure that this is not seen as a party political issue.

Experimentation is crucial. At the RSA, we believe that basic income could play a central role in creating the type of country we want to see, one able to respond to the rapid changes ahead of us in terms of Brexit, the economy, technology, AI and automation, the very nature of work.

However, we also believe in the need to develop robust evidence that can help shape the decisions made here in Scotland, and in other parts of the world.

Scotland’s chance to be an innovative leader at this point is as much in our willingness to test our ideas as it is to put them into practice.

We have a body of evidence from previous experiments in India, Canada, Namibia and elsewhere, yet deepening this with findings from Scotland will significantly enhance the direction we decide to go in.

It is also a sign of the maturity of the basic income movement that we are willing to put our ideas to the test.

By pushing for a space that will involve different communities, stakeholders and thinking from across the country (and beyond), we will challenge our assumptions, and come out at the end of it with a better idea than we started with, whether that is basic income or not.

So instead of seeing the Finnish decision as a setback, I see it as a chance for Scotland to support and learn from the work that has been going on over there. Olli Kangas and his team at Kela will have fascinating evidence for us to explore, and we will work closely with them to make sure that what they have found can have resonance here, even if it is not used by the Finnish Government. We have a genuine chance in Scotland to turn the debates we have about how we want our society to function into real action.

Do we want a system rooted in sanctions and conditions, where punitive decisions destroy lives; or one that supports human creativity and security? Do we look to create a society ready for the challenges and opportunities of the turbulent times ahead of us; or do we stay with one created in a different time? Finland may have temporarily stepped back from boldness, but we Scots should have no such worries – the time for experimentation is here.

Jamie Cooke is head of RSA Scotland