The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Universal Basic Income: Why the Victorian Tories just won't buy it

UBI might have something going for it, writes Rob Dewar, but we should sound a note of caution. the Tories are almost never going to sign up for it anyway.

As we are all aware, Margaret Thatcher initiated a fundamental shift in Britain’s economy - broadly, from manufacturing to services. (The term “Britain” as used here includes Scotland for historical convenience. The writer is a supporter of Scottish independence). Successive governments, both Labour and Tory, have accelerated this shift. As Britain’s manufacturing base has shrunk, so at the same time economic globalisation has gained ground

Mechanisation of once labour-intensive jobs, and computerization of once skilled jobs, along with Thatcher’s closure of technical colleges and their translation into low-end “universities”, also play a part in the difficulties experienced by many British workers in earning a living today.  So too does the phenomenal increase in part-time, temporary, and zero-hours work. 

The globalised economy pits Britain’s workers not only in manufacturing and industry, but in downstream services also, against far eastern competitors who undercut our markets.

It is of course due to the generally poor working conditions and low living standards for the many that prevail in countries such as India, China and Vietnam, that Britain’s far eastern competitors can undercut her in so many markets: their labour costs, quite simply, are so much lower than ours. 

The Conservative Party would have Britain’s own workers adopt similarly low working and living standards that we might compete with China, Vietnam, etc, in producing goods and services. This is the logical outcome of embracing a global economic system: the lowest common denominator must prevail in the workers’ global race to the bottom.

That it ought not, on moral and ethical grounds, to prevail, is neither here nor there to the Conservatives.  However, it is certainly relevant to those of us who love our compatriots just sufficiently not to wish to see a sizable number of them reduced to becoming desperately underpaid slum-dwellers once again, negating all the advances in working conditions and workers’ pay of the later 19th, and first half of the 20th, centuries. It may be argued that since the late 1950s, no further such advances were made in Britain. It has been downhill ever since for British workers. (Excluding only those members of the working class who benefited under Thatcher from acquiring their council homes at hugely subsidized prices, and who were able thereafter to get onto the residential property ladder: the working class children of these beneficiaries of Thatcherism today mimic the children of the middle class in eagerly awaiting their plump property inheritances).

As long as the United Kingdom remained a member of the EU, there existed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of workers from eastern Europe who were willing to work for low wages. With the UK’s eventual exit from the EU now seeming probable, this supply will dry up. I have come across many apocalyptic stories about entire industries in Scotland that are threatened with collapse for lack of these eastern European workers in the future. Strangely, I have read not one report that suggests that if a business will not or cannot pay a living wage – or pro-rata – it does not deserve to survive. Scotland’s soft fruit will not remain unpicked once her supply of workers from Eastern Europe dries up - if the pickers are paid a decent wage.

We should not blame Britain’s educational systems for unemployment and under-pay. (The corollary is this: let us not assume that better educational systems will overcome unemployment and under-pay). Rather, we should blame economic globalism, which means that there are ever fewer jobs in Britain that pay a genuine living wage. For those workers who are unsuited to attaining advanced vocational qualifications, for those workers who cannot attain advanced vocational qualifications, there remains only work in the horribly inaptly-named "hospitality industry", or in the (retail-dominated) service sector. Living wages are scarce in either of these sectors.

And blame also the new national spirit that prevails in Britain: a spirit of callous disregard for one's compatriots, which means that a great many people in work have been taught to feel scorn for those out of work, and that to derive vicarious delight from persecuting them (along with the sick and the disabled) via successive benefits cuts, is an acceptable, even praiseworthy, attitude. At present, judging from voting patterns, this new national spirit is a little more advanced in England than it is in Scotland – but that could easily change: the Scots are not (contrary to popular Scottish folklore) an intrinsically “nicer” folk than the English. They merely have rather different political priorities. That the percentage of the electorate voting Tory is lower in Scotland than in England, had more to do, during the heyday of the Labour Party in Scotland, with the working class’ loathing for the boss-class, and for capitalist exploitation, and today, has more to do with a sizable percentage (possibly as high as 48%) of the Scots electorate favouring Scottish independence. 

We have eagerly embraced globalism. It is therefore morally incumbent upon us to care for those whom economic globalism has rendered forever unemployable, forever poor, in our own country.

Or we must reject globalism entirely. 

Perhaps we should not after all be looking at decently paid work for the many, rather than only the few, as the answer. Perhaps that is an antiquated concept. Perhaps we can get round the creeping impoverishment of the many that economic globalisation has brought into being in Britain, not through opting out of globalisation, but through advocating the idea of a “universal basic income” which is being increasingly discussed in even the mainstream (ie, neo-liberal) media: whereby everyone of working age is paid, whether in or out of work, the same basic living income by the state. For the capitalist, such a scheme has its appeal: one, it relieves them of “social guilt”; two, it serves to ensure that demand for the products and services they produce continues to exist. (For on present trends, a time is fast approaching when too few people will be left able to afford to pay for what the capitalists produce).  

Given that a majority of the population is not blessed with a creative, entrepreneurial spirit, but prefers to slot into a structured, ready-made working environment, in an ideal world it ought to be possible (as once it was) for those who lack academic skills to earn a genuine living, however modest. However, in a global economy, where more and more unskilled or manual or low-skilled jobs have been relocated to the Far East, it is becoming very much more difficult for the less academically able to earn a genuine living in Britain. (It is also becoming harder for even those with good university degrees to find secure, well paying jobs). The gulf between those who just about manage to survive economically, and those who can no longer survive at all in Britain, may be a tiny one in terms of income – but it is increasingly unbridgeable.

The gulf between the rich and the rest has grown phenomenally wide; indeed, it has never been so wide since the early years of the 20th century. British society is being re-Victorianised. The introduction of a universal basic income that pays everyone a genuine living income, would avoid such a total re-Victorianisation of Britain.

However, the creation of a new Victorian age in Britain, symbolised by the crudest expressions of nationalistic chauvinism, by widespread hardship and poverty, and by a shockingly wide gulf between the incomes of the richest and the poorest, seems precisely what the Tories intend. What, after all, is the point of being filthy rich, if there are not plenty of desperately poor folks around to envy and admire your good fortune?

And THAT is probably why a universal basic income that pays a genuine living income will never be introduced in Britain.     


You can read more of Rob at his personal blog

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen

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