One thing Brexit has done is to throw into sharp relief the divisions in wealth, income and opportunity that exist in the UK - while sucking out almost all the political energy which could deal with it.
Similarly in Europe, the fights over immigration from outside the continent have subsumed the political energy needed to deal with glaring inequalities within and between European countries, to say nothing of why so many people from Africa and the Middle East risk their lives to get here: wars, environmental degradation, land dispossession.
As well as splitting the electorate, Brexit has highlighted the failure of both the UK and EU governments to make flexible employment really feasible for those who need it and to make rights on the job accessible. Freedom of movement has not been accompanied with the means to stay in poorer areas, nor even harmonisation of wages and conditions. It not only results in the depopulation of poorer countries, but sets working people - especially those on low incomes - against each other in host countries.
For example, it’s not surprising that North Derbyshire - since the pit closures, an area blighted with high levels of poverty - voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Exposure of the Sports Direct scandal a couple years ago - where some 4000 people were imported from Poland to work in horrific conditions on the site of a closed mine - happened not through the efforts of either the UK or EU governments but Unite the Union & the local Unite Community.
Nationally, unemployed people forced onto the Work Programme often had to sign attendance slips stamped with the European Social Fund logo. In Wales, projects funded by the EU for economic development reportedly didn’t employ local people, nor made a lasting economic impact.
I’m not going to argue here that universal basic income - whether in the UK or Europe, or elsewhere - would be a sufficient answer to all these problems. What I will try to do, however, is make a case for UBI’s potential to help people make a start - using money to confirm everyone’s fundamental equality in our divided society.
An unconditional, individual payment is needed to replace our current conditional, capricious system of both work and benefits which assumes the worst of everyone. Basic income assumes the best - that people can decide for themselves how best to use their money, and how best to use their time. Indeed, when asked what people would do if they had a basic income, the response that comes up most often is that they’d spend more time with their families and volunteering in their communities.
In the arguments for or against UBI on economic or moral grounds, what is rarely considered is the symbolic power of everybody getting the same basic amount of money from the state. We live in a society which measures human worth in terms of money. Yet not all beneficial human activity is paid for, and much activity which is not beneficial attracts extremely high levels of remuneration. Combined with the strict link of income to employment (albeit not for the wealthiest), we have a situation which sets people against each other at a fundamental level.
We must compete for jobs in order to support ourselves and our families. We compete for housing, even though there’s a surplus. Education aims to make us ‘more able to compete on the job market’ rather than better able to express our talents for the benefit of society. The emphasis on individuals’ lifestyles in relation to healthcare ignores the social factors which limit real choice. People are encouraged to blame themselves for ‘bad decisions’ on all these fronts, and unsurprisingly they often end up blaming others they feel in competition with - who usually have even less power.
This most often plays out in families - as income becomes more insecure, stress levels rise and domestic violence skyrockets.
No wonder our success or otherwise at getting hold of money on the job market becomes bound up with our self-worth as well as how we perceive others. The fact that care for ourselves and each other has little to no financial support, devalues care to the point that even just ‘caring’ about something or someone is often viewed as a sign of individual weakness instead of a social strength.
One of the most striking things about the experiments in making social money more unconditional - whether an individual and universal basic income in India, or limited to poorer people in Canada or Finland - is that it changes how people feel about themselves and how they treat others. During the pilot in India girls were for the first time given as much food as the boys, young women lost their shyness, disabled family members became more involved, and were more accepted, into family and village life. The income from some of the projects set up during the pilot have been shared by entire villages since. In Finland, participants in the pilot have reported being able to pursue activities - paid jobs or not - which more fully use their skills and talents. In Ontario participants have said that, in contrast to being on benefits, they ‘feel more human’.
So let’s not underrate the symbolic value of universal basic income. If everyone gets an equal token of freedom, society can move towards the unity it needs to solve our many other problems together.
This essay was written for the Compass publication 'Causes and Cures of Brexit' published in September 2018. The complete booklet, with contributions from a wide range of people can be found by following this link. Compass is grateful to Open Society Foundations and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung London for funding this publication.
Thanks to Russell Higgs @citizen_higgs for the illustration.