In search of radical ideas? Look to Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland, in the middle of a loch, surrounded by mountains and connected to the shore by a bridge.

The radical high road to Scotland

Every baby born today in Scotland will receive a box containing clothes, bedding, sanitary products, books and toys. In the stages leading up to childbirth, the mother fills in a baby box registration card and receives the box soon after their child is born. The box is given to every newborn baby in order to, in the words of Scottish Early Years minister Maree Todd, “give them all an equal start in life.” The scheme launched in the summer of 2017, and is still going strong, with companies now able to bid to have their products included in the boxes. As research shows that the early years of a child’s life are some of the most crucial in their development, this radical, universal project will ensure every child born in Scotland today gets a fair chance at reaching their full potential.

The baby box project is only one of several initiatives taking place or due to take place in 2018 that shows Scotland is the place to look to for radical ideas this year.  As the UK government embarks on another year of inertia as a result of the cataclysm that Brexit has caused, Scotland has put its own constitutional questions behind it for the time being, allowing it to try some truly radical and potentially transformational ideas. From the national to the city to the local to the grassroots level of the country, politicians and people around Scotland are either experimenting with or putting into practice inspirational ideas that will help build a better country.

Not too taxing

Beginning at the national level, the Scottish government announced in December 2017 something that is notionally mundane but hitherto believed to be politically kamikaze: an income tax increase. Scottish finance minister Derek Mackay announced to the Scottish Parliament at the end of last year that there would be a new tax band set at 21p for people earning more than £24,000, plus an increase in the higher tax rate (from 40p to 41p) and in the top rate of tax (45p to 46p).

In making the changes, Mackay and the Scottish government may slightly limit household spending for some, but also give the government more headroom to increase spending on public services. In addition, by experimenting with an income tax increase, the Scottish government has reaped the benefits of breaking one of the biggest taboo in modern politics: the idea that increases to income tax have politically disastrous consequences. Indeed, this idea has been shown to be a nonsense by the announcement, with 54% of Scots backing the proposed changes, with only 27% against. A truly radical step by a government that up to now had been blasted as radical in rhetoric but meek in action.

City centric

A less unambiguously positive development – but one that could have profound consequences for the politics and policies of Scotland – are the regional city deals that are being developed for Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Unlike the other innovations in this article, the city deals are very much an import from London – the Glasgow City Deal is believed to be developed along similar lines to those introduced in Manchester, Birmingham and other cities south of the border.

As with these deals, there are a host of issues with the Glasgow deal, not least the lack of democratic accountability around the government in Westminster handing over power to a handful of local councillors (elected to make decisions at the local, not the city, level) with the only elected figure a mayor. As with Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and elsewhere, the areas carved up by these city region deals are often incoherent and heterogenous areas that do not have a unique identity of their own. And these city deals have a uniquely Scottish problem, as many areas of policy (such as health and education) are already devolved to Holyrood, which means that the relationship between the cities with regional deals and the Scottish government could be messy and full of tension, with a lack of accountability over who is responsible for which policies.

However, there are some perks to city deals: devolving power to the city level allows for a more targeted decision-making process in particular policy areas, such as infrastructure or housing. In addition, as the increased levels of engagement in the May 2016 London mayoral contest that led to the election of Sadiq Khan shows, democratic engagement with the city government process may grow as the new city regions become more entrenched in the public psyche. The establishment of city assemblies for those areas with city deals (as exists in London) would aid this, allowing for a body distinct from local councils that can adequately hold the mayor to accounts.

Overall, the city deals could go either way – hopefully they aren’t confused and cluttered, and instead provide a new boost to infrastructure spending in Scotland’s cities and surrounding areas. The founding of a city level of government offers an opportunity that I didn’t expect to see this side of the border – if it is executed well, these regions could flourish.  

UBI jove!

At the local level of Scottish government, there is one stand-out idea that is gaining traction: this year, four councils will be putting forward plans to trial a Universal Basic Income, or UBI. A UBI is a payment given to everybody regardless of their age or whether they are working or not. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire are all going to pilot the idea in order to check its feasibility as an alternative to means-tested benefits and as a solution to an increasingly precarious employment landscape. The pilots have been championed by councillors of all political persuasions, and have even been supported by a £250,000 grant from the Scottish government and explicit approval from the First Minister.

The pilot projects are currently in the process of being designed, but if they go ahead they will be an exciting opportunity, both for those taking part in the scheme – who, if similar pilots in India, Namibia and Finland are any guide, will have greater access to food, shelter, education and training as a result of having this extra, non-withdrawable cash payment – as well as for advocates of UBI.

If successful (and again, the current pilot in Finland suggests it is likely to be) these projects could show the transformational potential of UBI and pave the way for a Scotland-wide pilot or even a wholesale redesign of the benefits system. For a country that combines social conscience with individualism, the UBI is a great fit for the UK as a whole, and it is great to see that – as with many such policy innovations – Scotland is taking the first tentative steps towards a UBI for its citizens. The story is particularly endearing given the number of committed local councillors who have for years propounded the benefits of UBI and get to see the fruits of their stoicism, showing how important local politics has been in improving the lives of Scotland’s people.

Coming into land

New and radical ideas are also bubbling up through the grassroots, as local communities organise to make life better for themselves and their fellow citizens. On the 10th January 2018, citizens of the Isle of Ulva and Isle of Mull voted by a 2-1 margin in favour of buying Ulva’s land for the benefit of the community, rather than letting it fall back into the hands of billionaire landowners. The North West Mull Community Woodland Company launched the initiative, with 109 of the 255 residents who took part in the ballot voting in favour of a community buyout of the island.  

The vote – the result of which is now being reviewed by the Scottish government – could pave the way for community ownership of the island, with those living in Ulva and Mull taking control over Ulva’s land, which (until it had gone up for sale last year) had been dictated by the whims of a billionaire landlord who had little to do with the island. As Ulva resident Rebecca Munro, writing in the Huffington Post, suggests, community ownership of the island would have a profound and practical impact on those living there.

“It offers the opportunity to reverse the social and economic decline of the island, and to secure the future of our fantastic primary school,” Munro writes, “It would enable us to provide housing with security of tenure, and to protect the island’s diverse natural environment whilst still ensuring it remains accessible for everyone to enjoy.”

The case of Ulva therefore shows the radical change that grassroots organisation in Scotland is bringing, while also indicating how important community ownership and local self-determination could be for a lot of areas of Scotland, where land ownership is the least equitable in the west and the freedom of ordinary people is being hamstrung by unimaginably wealthy and remote landlords. The Isle of Ulva is therefore a fantastic case study in its own right, but also one that could spark radical land reform in Scotland, something that is well overdue.

A promising time for Scotland

The Isle of Ulva community’s referendum, the income tax increase, city deals and the universal basic income pilots all offer the promise to transform the lives of people in Scotland in 2018, illustrating how the country is the place to look for radical ideas in 2018. Equally exciting is the fact that there is the potential for more to come – Scotland, once a barren landscape for think tanks that were not wedded to the binary choice of union or independence, is now developing some serious idea-generating institutions. Chief among them are Reform Scotland – which tackles policy areas ranging from prison reform to devolution to pensions – and the Scottish Policy Foundation, which funds insightful policy research in order to inform the public debate. These think tanks offer the possibility that Scotland will be a powerhouse for radical ideas not just in 2018 but in the years to come too.

I recently moved to Scotland from the other side of the border, and the fact that I am now part of a whole new polity where experimental and radical ideas – from UBI to baby boxes – are beginning to flourish excites me greatly. On Ideas For Today in 2018, while continuing to explain and promote radical ideas from around the world, I’ll also chronicle how the ideas generated in my new home are being shaped, and how they are shaping Scotland. If you fancy it, come and join me – it’s going to be one hell of a ride up the high road.

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Jack Perry

Jack is a trustee of Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland.

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