Building the foundations for a fairer future

Written by: Jamie Cooke, Head of RSA Scotland, and member of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Global Executive

Published: 05/05/2020

Jamie explores basic income as a cornerstone of a revamped social contract in Scotland after COVID-19.

The pandemic we find ourselves in has been first and foremost one of immediacy – the need to respond quickly and firmly to minimise danger to those most vulnerable in society; the immediacy of shutting down norms and freedoms we are accustomed to in order to slow or stop the spread of disease; the challenge of trying to analyse and learn from a fast moving and unknown virus in order to best combat it. Keeping people safe and alive is rightly our priority, and our focus lies there.

At the same time, COVID-19 has also acted as a very powerful mirror to fault lines in our society and economy. These are not new, indeed many of us, including the ALLIANCE, have been highlighting them for years. The insecurity, inequality and lack of agency which significant proportions of our fellow citizens experience on an ongoing basis have made the pandemic crisis worse than it had to be, the strain of economic vulnerability forcing workers to go against scientific advice and requirements in order to access money.

This is an opportunity for change that we cannot miss. We have to ensure that our policy decisions are not solely taken on the basis of immediacy, but also look to how we can create a fairer, more secure future that will better prepare us for other crisis that may arise.

At the foundation of this revamped social contract should be a basic income. An old idea, it is one that is needed for the world we are in – a regular, secure and unconditional payment that everyone in society receives, regardless of social status or economic activity. As Andrew Yang, the one-time candidate for nomination for President in the US, has framed it (and in line with the Health and Social Care Academy’s powerful provocations), basic income is a chance to put Humanity First. Offering people the security of knowing that money will be in their account every month, to use as they see best for their wellbeing, would fundamentally shift the balance of power in society, allowing individuals to make choices about their participation in the labour market and community activity, amongst others, that are currently denied to them. It would start to value the importance of carers, and the amount of unpaid contribution that is made by a significant part of our population (with a heavier burden falling upon women).

This relevance has seen the concept shoot up the political agenda, with figures from the First Minister to the Pope calling for the idea to be developed and delivered. Scotland sits in a strange position with this – we have the political appetite for radical change, but lack the powers to do so in the current devolution settlement. As such change will need to come – a discussion that is being taken up across the political spectrum, driven by civic society.

A Scotland that emerged from the COVID-19 crisis working towards the introduction of a basic income would be a country looking to ensure that all citizens are provided with a financial security net that is not based on suspicion, sanctions and top down power as we are currently subjected to in the Universal Credit system. It would be a country that recognised that the world has changed and our economy must change with it, moving the definition for success from moribund ideas such as GDP to wellbeing, security and social connectivity. It would rebalance power so that we all had agency and opportunity, and as such would revitalise our social contract that has been frayed by policy decisions in the UK over recent decades.

Basic income is not a panacea, a magic wand that can solve every challenge we face. Rather, it is the secure base that we can build other policies upon, in order to create the society we deserve. To get to that goal, we need to have the voices and experiences of all our country accurately and authentically represented and heard, to ensure that this is a policy that can benefit us all. COVID-19 has been a heart-breaking crisis, made all the more so due to issues that we could have avoided – basic income is our chance to move from a world in which we struggle to survive, into one where we will have the opportunity to thrive.

You can connect with Jamie on Twitter – @JamieACooke (this link will take you away from our website)

This Opinion is part of a specially commissioned series by the ALLIANCE’s Academy programme looking at COVID-19 and the Five Provocations for the Future of Health and Social Care. The Academy has published an insight paper looking at the ’emphasising humanity and human rights’ provocation in relation to Citizen’s Basic Income.

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