Top photo by Adam Barnett
Picture the scene: A small rural town in Scotland announces it is going to provide everyone in the community with a basic income, regardless of their circumstances. There would be no more futile job searches or punitive sanctions for the unemployed. People would be free to quit their pointless, underpaid jobs whenever they liked and still have something to fall back on. Wages would rise, and a healthier and happier society would result. Maybe income taxes would go up, and more well-off residents wouldn't feel much direct benefit, but everyone would have a guaranteed level of income and the independence that comes with that, no matter what.
That's the fundamental principle of Universal Basic Income, an idea that has been simmering away in the background over the last couple of years as liberal democracy crashes and burns across the globe and inequality spirals. It's touted as an alluringly simple solution to the complex problems caused by crap jobs, the accelerating automation of work, and an inefficient welfare system, creating an enormous buzz wherever it surfaces.
Utopian? Perhaps. But that hasn't stopped the concept from being taken seriously. Now, two Labour-led Scottish local authorities are giving real consideration to the idea. One, Fife Council, is progressing plans for a pilot scheme. Having already achieved support from political parties in the region—even the local Conservatives are in favor—a strategy is being worked on for how it could be implemented. Glasgow is currently making similar plans, at a slightly earlier stage of development.
It follows the launch of UBI trials in the Netherlands, Finland, and Italy over the past 12 months, although each of those has focused on samples of unemployed people, rather than an entire population. The trial in Fife looks set to take a more radical approach, providing a guaranteed income to every citizen in a town.
On Saturday, around 150 people packed into a sports hall in the village of Kelty in central Fife, around 40 minutes drive north of Edinburgh, to discuss how this bold idea could become a reality. Once a thriving mining community, the major employer is now a sprawling Amazon "fulfillment center," and parts of Kelty measure as among the most deprived in Scotland. Exactly the sort of place, in other words, where a basic-income pilot could yield real results.
Although the details are yet to be worked out, the project is gathering momentum.
"At the moment, we want to find a town in Fife—let's say of between 2,000 and 5,000 people—and we would want to run the pilot for a minimum of two years. The rest of it is up for grabs, in terms of the amount and so on," explained Paul Vaughan, the council official spearheading the scheme. He joked that towns in the area are already competing for the best claim to it. That probably won't be the university town of St. Andrews, a coastal enclave of American undergrads with the most expensive street in Scotland—but it could be somewhere like Kelty.
As local soccer side Kelty Hearts fought to a victory in the snow outside, academics, council officials, politicians, and activists sat in the neighboring sports hall discussing the finer details—and pitfalls—of a UBI pilot. As well as its location, there are plenty of other issues to be ironed out. How would it interact with existing benefits and tax bands? What impact would it have on local employers? How can it be funded? Crucially, how much money are we talking?
Too low, and it would do little to solve poverty. Rather than incentivizing employers to raise wages it could actually encourage them to pay less. But set at a higher level, it would give workers greater independence and put pressure on employers to make jobs more attractive.
There is an expectation that the pilot scheme will be centrally funded by government, although providing a town with a population of even a few thousand with a fixed amount over two years would come in at tens of millions, as well as the costs of administering and evaluating the trial.
Parts of the media are deeply hostile to the idea of anyone receiving "something for nothing," especially if they're poor. While the whole point of UBI is that it's universal, and so removes the stigma associated with benefits, a pilot would be isolated to one area. Its inhabitants could find themselves living in goldfish bowl over the two years, as tabloid journalists trawl their social media accounts for signs of egregious spending habits and the more impressionable residents land themselves reality TV deals. The poverty porn of Benefits Street could pale in comparison to the notion of a whole town sponging on YOUR cash, Great Britain!
At a local level, the proposal has managed to win support from across the political spectrum. A Conservative councillor told Saturday's gathering that UBI represents an "elegant solution to a dog's breakfast of benefits," while the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens reckoned it could be used to give everyone the right to a decent life and to "value them as human beings."
Earlier in the day, Willie Sullivan, chair of campaign group Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland, said: "Local government gets this reputation that it's risk averse, a bit bureaucratic, not open to new ideas, and certainly not at the radical edge of social transformation. But Fife are leading the UK and bits of the world on some of these issues."
If things stay that way, the area could find itself at the center of a huge amount of both hype and scrutiny in the years ahead. While the exact structure of Fife's basic income initiative is still to be figured out, the world will no doubt be watching when it does arrive.
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