Universal Basic Income would be part of a proud British tradition

Toy figures of a red postbox, black taxi, red double-decker bus and a red phone box.

Cherry picking British history

In my last couple of blog posts, I took a magnifying glass to the latest rival/complement (depending on your disposition) to Universal Basic Income: Universal Basic Services. This policy, known as UBS to its friends, composes a series of free, universal services, including access to broadband, local transportation, food and shelter – all wrapped tightly, though perhaps inexplicably, into a single package with a traditional, British-manufactured bow on top.

What struck me when reading the original report proposing UBS as an alternative to Universal Basic Income (as well as some of the subsequent articles on the subject) were the central reasons why UBS was an apparently superior scheme to UBI. The argument was twofold: UBS is cheaper to deliver that UBI (a subject I in part tackle in this article) and that UBS is more in keeping with British political tradition of providing public services rather than handing out state-backed payments to citizens.

Looking back over British history since the Second World War, you can see why this might be assumed. The wartime government and 1945-51 Labour government introduced a series of public services that are still the mainstays of the British public realm, including free, state-run, comprehensive education and the National Health Service. These services, particularly the NHS, remain popular to this day. Indeed, the fact that these services survived the rupture of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office and the privatising zeal of subsequent governments merely enhances them in the public imagination.

These services are proud British institutions, and should remain so indefinitely. But to suggest that such services are the only means of the British government improving the lot of its citizens is to cherry-pick from history. Although today British welfare is a patchwork of publicly funded, universally available services and rapidly depleting means-tested benefits, some of the most popular, most radical and proudest moments in British political history to date have been the introduction of universal public payments to citizens.  

Comprehension of pensions

Indeed, arguably the groundwork for the modern British welfare state was laid through the introduction of a simple payment system: old age pensions. Then-chancellor David Lloyd George’s Pensions Act of 1908 saw every British person aged 70 and over receive a non-contributory old age pension. The pensions system was devised to encourage people to take out their pension, rather than degrade them as the current benefits system does. Recipients received their old age pensions from the Post Office – a well-known, friendly British institution that everyone used.

What is particularly striking in reading media reports at the time is that pensioners were not insulted as “scroungers” as today’s benefit claimants are – rather than feeling humiliated, they considered themselves entitled to the payment they received. Most importantly, pensions provided older people with financial independence, as they no longer had to depend on their families or the workhouses to look after them. Today, pensions are perhaps the sacred cow of British politics, even more so than the NHS. This is a testament to the way pensions were devised and delivered back at the turn of the previous century, as well as the importance of universal payments to British history and political tradition.

Assurance on insurance

Even the 1945-51 Attlee Labour government, best known for the NHS and provision of services, made a universal payments system the bedrock of its welfare state. In 1946 – two years before the birth of the NHS – Labour instituted the National Insurance Act, a contributory system which meant worker, employer and public money was put aside for every adult in the country, in case they became unemployed or weren’t able to work due to illness. Expanding on a previous policy, the National Insurance Act was a recognition by the Labour government that while public services are necessary to provide everyone with a basic standard of wellbeing, they are not sufficient in providing an adequate safety net that allows people to live their lives with dignity and freedom.  

Think of the children

The 1945-51 Labour government also introduced perhaps the closest thing Britain has had to a UBI to date: Family Allowances, which was a sum of money paid to every family for every child after the first. This system was reformed in the 1970s with the introduction of child benefit, which raised more families out of poverty by giving them money for every child. Child benefit and its predecessor ensured that every child gained the minimum standard of living from which they can grow and prosper, just as a UBI would do for the whole population.

The governments at the time also recognised the importance of universal payments as a means of stemming hatred against those on the lowest incomes, as many means-tested benefits do today. Indeed, the popularity of child benefit is shown in its survival until the 2010-15 Coalition government, which changed the universal child benefit into a ham-fisted means-tested payment. It indicates that universal payments have been a mainstay of British politics until the fairly recent austerity agenda of the Conservative-led governments since 2010, and the short-termist memory of British politics should not forget this.

To give them credit

There are even more recent examples of direct government payments to individuals, some of which have already become institutions in their own right. In 2003, the Labour government introduced working tax credits. Although the benefit was means-tested, it was the first attempt to eradicate the poverty trap that many people fall into (the fact that unemployment benefits are taken away once people start to earn money, often meaning people are worse off in work than out of work). This is a problem that a universal basic income would eradicate, because those in work would be given the same amount of UBI as those out of work, but tax credits are a good step forward, as they provide a softer transition back into work for many people.

Indeed, the speed at which tax credits have become an important part of the British political psyche was shown in 2015 when the Conservative government tried to cut them, which caused a mass resistance from across the political spectrum, forcing the government into a u-turn. This indicates that government payments are far from universally maligned by the British public as many commentators have suggested. If tax credits can receive such overwhelming support, imagine how popular a universal basic income could be.

A proud history

These examples show that, far from being an aberration, Universal Basic Income would be a proud next step in Britain’s long tradition of public payments to citizens. Although faith in public services is a strong and noble aspect of British political identity, so too are altruism and a sense of personal freedom. The pensioners of 1908, the workers of 1946, the parents of the 1970s and the newly employed of the early 2000s all recognised that government-backed payments to citizens were a way of helping people while securing that personal independence and freedom. A Universal Basic Income would afford this opportunity to every single British citizen, and would therefore not only be part of a strong British tradition, but encapsulate it completely. Critics of UBI should stop pretending otherwise.

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