Momentum Toward Basic Income in Scotland, feat. Jamie Cooke

Momentum is building in Scotland to explore basic income as a policy that can be a centerpiece of the modern social contract. While automation is often mentioned as a catalyzing force in the basic income discussion, Scotland is looking at the policy more from a social justice angle. In this episode, Owen interviews the Head of RSA Scotland and Board Member of Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland, Jamie Cooke.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh. One of the countries where there’s actually been quite a lot of progress around basic income is Scotland. There’s been a lot of political development, people are talking about new ideas, but it’s been a bit difficult to actually follow everything going on from the media reporting around what’s happening there.

Owen: To get an actual sense of what’s going on on the ground, I got a chance to interview Jamie Cook. He is the head of RSA Scotland and sits on the board of Citizens Basic Income Earth network in Scotland. Here is my conversation with Jamie Cook. Welcome, Jamie.

Jamie: Thank you for having me on.

Owen: To start, can you just tell us about the work of RSA Scotland?

Jamie: Sure. So we’re an international think and do tank. We’ve got a presence in about 90 countries around the world. Headquarters down in London, between 90,000 fellows in different parts of the world, and covering a broad range of different topics and ideas that we’re looking at. Particularly around civic impact, and how we can not just think about things but actually make a difference with it.

Which I suppose is partly where we’ve become particularly interested in ideas around the economy, the future of work, artificial intelligence and automation and obviously connecting all of those really, basic income.

Owen: Of course we’ll get into that in a moment, but first I’d just love it if you could ground us a little bit in the general political climate in Scotland. What’s that like these days?

Jamie: It’s really interesting time we have here. Obviously, 2014, we had a referendum on Scottish independence which the new vote, so the vote stay in the United Kingdom, won by 55% to 45%. Since then, we’ve had quite an interesting political context I suppose. The Scottish National Party are very much the dominant political force in Scotland controlling Scottish Government and most leaders of political representation. I think there was a feeling that perhaps after the referendum that was once in a generation votes and therefore we would go into a different context.

The referendum in European Union membership that we took, and obviously the fact that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU whatever that may end up looking like, at the same time as Scotland actually across every single local authority area voted to stay in the EU, I think created quite a different context. Again, showed a bit of a disconnect between the politics and the discussions in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. That’s really kind of kick-started some of the debate again around Scotland’s constitutional future.

Just now, we’re at a position where we’ve just had the launch of a new growth commission by the Scottish National Party and Scottish government looking at what the economics of an independent Scotland could look like. I think very much signaling the beginning of at least a new discussion around Scotland’s constitutional future. At this stage I think it’s Brexit is so chaotic, and we’re not quite sure where it’s going.

I’m not entirely sure anyone knows what’s going to be the next steps or the next elements of discussion, but as it stands, I think there’s a very real chance we’ll have another referendum in our discussion around constitutional future of Scotland, whether that’s within the UK or actually as an independent nation.

Owen: Well, that’s really fascinating. We always have these conversations in a political context, but that one is very much in flux it sounds like. As you alluded to, the basic income discussion is alive and well in Scotland. Can you tell us what the status of that is right now?

Jamie: Sure. I think this reflects partly the fact that in Scotland, I suppose, wherever anyone stands on the constitutional debate, there is an understanding that as a small country, whether that’s independent or as part of the UK, Scotland is trying to find its place in the world, and how it can interact with other nations, how we can make decisions for some of the challenges we face here in Scotland. Really, what’s been quite exciting about that is opening up a space for considering more radical ideas and perhaps would be considered at other points.

For example, we’ve seen quite a push in Scotland around world-leading environmental change targets. There’s questions you can have around the implementation of those, but certainly the targets we’re aiming for are quite hard. We’re looking around new ideas for our Social Security and how some of these ideas can work in a different way in Scotland to the rest of the UK. I think that’s opened a really interesting space that basic income has been able to find a bit of traction.

I’ve been involved in it for a couple years now, and really the shift in momentum and interest during that period has been phenomenal. From something that was very much a fringe concept, as we’ve seen in other countries around the world, to one that actually in September last year the Scottish Government, so Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister, arranged within her program for governments, the outlining of her strategic or policy priorities for the coming year, basic income experimentation being one of those key priorities.

I think that’s been a massive step forward in terms of the engagement with political decision-makers but also the wider push within Scotland around whether we could explore some of the ideas attached to a concept like basic income really has pushed forward a lot of momentum. We’re at a position now where the Scottish Government has put money aside to support feasibility work by four of Scotland’s local authority, so council areas, to look at what basic income experiment might look like in those areas.

Glasgow and Edinburgh is our two biggest cities. Glasgow is the biggest, Edinburgh is our capital. Also North Lanarkshire and Fife, which are two areas that combine both commuter towns but also rural communities as well, it’s quite a diverse spread. We’re in a really interesting space of testing out these ideas and seeing where they might be able to go for Scotland.

Owen: And the conversation also in the US has really picked up in the last few years. What’s motivating that sudden surge over where you are?

Jamie: I think it’s been really fascinating having those conversations with our colleagues in the US, but I think there are slightly different pushes. I’m generalizing slightly here, but I think in the US there’s definitely been a huge push for you guys around the future of work, automation, artificial intelligence, how this is going to impact on jobs and how we see the next stage of, if you like, economic evolution. I think that’s partly why there’s been such a push and buy-in from some of the big tech leaders and so on.

I think here in Scotland, the pitch has been primarily from a social justice perspective; how can we create an economy and a society that is better balanced and better supportive to all of our citizens? I think there’s been a huge disconnect in many ways between political decision making in Scotland around social security and welfare in the United Kingdom. We’ve seen a system introduced under Universal Credit from the UK Government, it’s very much rooted in sanctions and presuming the worst of people. Really the idea you have to force people to behave in a positive manner or they will game the system.

Even though that isn’t written in any sort of evidence or, in fact, much to the contrary, it’s defined how our approach to social security has been in the UK over the last few years. I think within Scotland, there’s been a bit of a push back against that. I think as well within a Scottish context, there’s a recognition that in some of our communities, we have very long-standing challenges.

A city like Glasgow has been booming, has done a lot of really good renovation work over the last few years, is recognized on an international level for being a very attractive place to visit, to do business, and so on. Yet, there are also communities, particularly in east-end of Glasgow and the north of Glasgow, that have deeply entrenched issues around unemployment, around education, around health, well being, addiction, and so on.

I certainly have found with my conversations with a lot of community leaders and local authority representatives, that there’s a realization that we’ve tried to do the same things over and over again and they haven’t made those changes. In fact, we can’t just look to incremental change anymore to hope that the economy will pull everyone up with it. Actually, we need to try something quite radically different.

I think basic income has therefore offered space to challenge and to debate some of the norms or the expectations around the economy and around society that perhaps we’ve taken for granted for several decades.

Owen: That starts to get into what I wanted to ask you next, which was, if you have this goal of a more balanced society where people are a bit more equal, why is basic income the answer as opposed to say a jobs program or other social benefits?

Jamie: I think there’s several reasons that. One is there’s almost that kind of philosophical element to basic income and the recognition of us all having rights, connections, responsibilities, and opportunities as citizens. Actually, taking away from the idea that what we receive or give in to society is purely based on our economic activity. Actually, all of us, every single one us citizens, are entitled and deserve to have an element of security from that wider system that we’re in.

I think that recognizes those who’ve gone before us. The cliche about being an island, no man is, no woman is, we all are based on those who have come before us and those who come after. I think there is that recognition of having a better connectivity amongst society. Probably, and I think in a Scottish context, we shouldn’t over exaggerate these ideas of being more socially progressive as a nation than other places, I think we try to and that’s not always borne out.

But I think the political environment lends itself to the type of discussions around community involvement and connectivity and social responsibility that are sometimes harder elsewhere. I think though as well, there’s a recognition about the way that the job landscape is changing. Actually, the very nature of work is and should change. When we see the growth of insecurity, when we see the precarious lives that people are living, there are traditional ways we’ve approached that.

The social contract in the United Kingdom we created in the post war period, in response to Beveridge’s giants that he identified within the society, that we had to combat, we created the NHS and all our other fantastic and vitally important social security and welfare systems, but actually, they need to evolve and adapt to a different world were in now. There is a recognition that that’s an important space for us to start to get into.

How do we create a flexibility? As a small country, I mean Scotland is a very small country. It’s one of our strengths and one of our challenges where we have a smaller population than London does. That gives us a great flexibility, but it’s only a flexibility if we are able to give security and the ability to change and adapt to our citizens. There’s partly a recognition within that of this is a system that gives people the opportunity to grow into try new ideas and respond to the opportunities and challenges that arise for them.

Owen: Along those lines, there are a lot of different versions of basic income that you’ll hear proposed, from a straight universal basic income to a negative income tax, to a carbon dividend, or a sovereign wealth fund. What do you think might be the most feasible and best fit for Scotland?

Jamie: I think for Scotland, it’s funny, in some ways when we talk about the universality of basic income, you can sometimes get a bit of a instinctive negative response to that in Scotland. Because there is a feeling of, why would we be giving money to people who have more money than they need already? One of the important things we emphasize within all of our discussions in Scotland, is the basic income is not a policy that can operate in isolation.

For me, it’s a foundation stone to a new social contract. We wouldn’t introduce a basic income in Scotland with nothing else alongside it. It would go alongside reforming the tax system. It would go alongside, for example, looking at rent control, because if you don’t introduce some control of our own rent, our basic income would just vanish into the pockets of landlords. It would go around looking at the current measures we have in place for a minimum and living wage, for example.

That’s an important element whereby we look at that, and actually the universality therefore is very attractive. I find it very fascinate — I find it funny when I talk at quite a lot of events, sometimes people will stand up and shout at me at the end and say, “Basic income is a policy that Hayek and Friedman supported. You’re just trying to destroy the welfare state,” which I’m quite happy to defend the fact that I’m not.

The negative income tax as variation upon or way to approach it, hasn’t had the same resonance. It has a lot of negative connotations within the Scottish political context because of some of the proponents behind it previously. I would expect if we were to see success with this moving forward, and I think we have a very strong opportunity with the work we’re doing just now to really push towards basic income as a national policy in future years in Scotland, if we can demonstrate the evidence of success, I would expect to see that on a universal level.

I would expect to see it across society, because within the Scottish combination and political environment of basic income being both policy that supports individual decision making, but within a wider social context. It’s not one or the other. It doesn’t ignore the individuals, but also doesn’t ignore the fact that society does exist. That’s probably the most natural way that we would see that fit in Scotland moving forward.

Part of the interesting element of the experiments: one of the things I would give the most credit to the Scottish government, and to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon for, is the fact that, when you see a policy that suddenly picks up a lot of interest and momentum, and quite frankly fashion in some ways as basic income has, which is great and we’re really excited about. It’s very easy, I think, for a political decision makers, especially leaders of a country, to go one of two ways. Either they throw themselves into wholeheartedly and this is the answer to all their problems, which is not helpful or sustainable, or they reject it because it’s just a popular decision.

I think actually what’s been really positive to see from Scottish Government from the First Minister, is that what they see the popularity showing is that basic income is worthy of being explored further and being explored within a Scottish context, but with global conversations. They’re not throwing themselves into saying this will definitely be the policy in Scotland moving forward, but they’re also giving the space for us to experiment and explore and see what kind of implications this might be able to have for Scotland.

I think that gives us a really interesting space and opportunity and environment, that we can actually create quite a Scottish specific and targeted version of the policy in many ways that will work within a particular context that we have here, but also can learn from what’s happening in Finland and Stockton, California and Ontario and various other places just now as well.

Owen: You started to get into it there, I’m wondering what the public reaction has been to this whole basic income discussion. Do you think people are generally supportive?

Jamie: I think it’s getting there. I think one of the biggest things we need to do over the next year or so is really work on that public engagement. I think there’s probably still to big a proportion of the Scottish population haven’t engaged with the context yet. What I found in doing a lot of public speaking and public events and workshops and so on around the topic, is within a Scottish context you tend to get one of two reactions.

I think we’re lucky in Scotland in that we have a political context where we’ve had quite an open space to start from, maybe more so than in some other countries. For example, after the independence referendum debate, I think you had this huge growth in civic and citizen engagement in politics around the independence referendum. Registration for voting the referendum was not far shy of 100%; a huge turnout, people engaged in events.

I think when the referendum finished, people wondered where to go with that. Some people joined political parties, but I think for a lot, they were looking for that idea of a better Scotland. Whenever they sat on the constitution that was what was motivating them. I think therefore, we’ve had this great parts of the population we could tap into in a sense, who are looking for a progressive positive idea to really get behind, and I think basic income has lent itself to that.

Interestingly, the other reaction you find is quite a knee-jerk. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it’s quite an instinctive reaction, which is when you talk about the concepts or giving people money and choice over what they spend it on, a reaction of, I know Jimmy in my street would spend that money on drink. He will spend it on alcohol, he will spend it in cigarettes, that’s not a good use of any sort of policy.

It’s a very quick and it’s very powerful and understandable reaction, but what I’ve also found with a lot of those reactions is it doesn’t take much of a space of discussing and allowing people to play with the idea and explore it. To also hear them saying, “I know he would spend it on alcohol, but I also know my cousin has been looking to set up a business and this would give her the spur to do it.” Or, “I know so and so who spent this time where they want to care for their husband who’s unwell, but they haven’t been able to do so because of financial reasons.”

I think it gives me the feeling that we won’t get 100% population behind this concept straight away, because you never do and that wouldn’t be sensible or indeed frankly [unintelligible] in many ways. I think there’s a real space there for us to be able to play with and challenge and experiment with the idea. That actually when we do that, and when we give particularly citizens the chance to do that instead of telling them this is a policy you’re going to accept whether you like it or not, there’s a real appetite in Scotland for doing that.

I think the more we can expand that and that’s — you mentioned me being a board member at CBINS, which is the Scottish affiliate of the Basic Income Earth Network, it’s one of the areas that we’re really looking at within CBINS is how do you train and empower and give the confidence to people to take these ideas out into the communities to discuss and challenge them. Frankly, maybe that will come back and push us in different directions, but that’s good. It’s a good way to engage the wider population.

Owen: What would you say are the next steps for basic income in Scotland?

Jamie: I think there’s a few elements. I think the biggest bet just now is the four local authorities who have been identified as the key test areas, if you like. They’re working. They’ve set up a steering group. They’re bringing in a kind of small staff team who will focus on developing a feasibility study into challenges and opportunities around experimenting with basic income in Scotland. I think it’s worth being honest about the fact that we do face challenges in Scotland.

As it stands, Scotland cannot introduce a basic income because we lack the devolution of fiscal powers and Social Security powers to be able to do that realistically. Currently out of the entire Social Security budget in United Kingdom, about 15% is controlled by the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. We have a realistic situation just now where we can’t do that forward.

If in the feasibility, for example, the financial costs of experimentation or the potential issues around the Department of Work and Pensions who run our Social Security Systems in the UK primarily, or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who run our tax system, we are going to have work to really explore what are the ways that these could impact on any experiments.

Actually, therefore, what can we experiment with, what can we expect to be able to test and demonstrate, and frankly what do we have to be very honest about and say, “We can’t do that in this context.” That feasibility work is going to be to be vitally important and from an RSA perspective, we will be looking to engage with and support a lot of that and contribute to it. We’re looking at a number of complementary areas, but it will be a very important opportunity for Scotland.

I think the other thing that’s particularly important over the coming months and year really, is our engagement in Scotland with the rest of the world. One of the really exciting things with the basic income movement just now, so why we’re on this conversation just now is because it’s taking on a global dimension. Maybe taking on different characteristics in those areas, but we’re very much looking to learn from the rest of the world.

We’ve been working with our colleagues in Finland with a experiment underway just there. We’ve got events lined up in Scotland over coming months with leading basic income academics, Karl Widerquist from Georgetown University in Qatar, Evelyn Forget from Manitoba in Canada. We’re looking at how we can engage, I’m speaking at the Basic Income Earth Network Congress in Finland in the summer.

I think there is a really exciting space there for that global dimension; what can we learn and what can we share? I think that’s one of the things that’s been attractive in a Scottish context, but also shows us that we’re not just being individually radical here, we’re actually looking at something that’s taking on a lot of attraction and a lot of relevance in a number of different geographic and international contexts just now.

So I think the next year will be really exciting. I think it’s a space for us hopefully to identify the challenges to experimentation, but therefore ways around those. I think it’s definitely a space for us to start to design the process of what experimentation in Scotland would look like. I think with very much a strong focus and emphasis around the evaluation stage of that, the capacity building, the way to really build in wider society to the conversations where we’re having.

If we can take those forward, then I think a very exciting space for us to be able to put a package to the Scottish Government, to the Scottish Parliament, to our local authority partners and say, “This is our chance to really experiment and do something radical and exciting in Scotland.”

There are obviously political challenges to that, Brexit is a huge issue. If we are into a second referendum on Scottish independence that could have political connotations for this. I think by creating the model of what a basic income pilot or experiment in Scotland could look like, I think in the very least, we will create something very powerful that could be used in many different parts of world.

Realistically, I think with the discussions I’ve had and the feedback from various people, I think a very powerful opportunity, a real chance that we could do this forward and have a direct impact on Scottish policy moving forward.

Owen: Great. It’s a lot of exciting stuff. Those are the questions I had for you, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jamie: No, I think that’s the crucial bits. I think it really is about that international dimension. I think we’re really keen to learn from what happens in Stockton, discussions you guys are having across California, I think potentially that impact around tech. For me, I feel we need a better synthesis between the element of tech AI focus, automation focus, there has been at points in the US with the social justice focus in Scotland because actually, I think what we need is both of those brought together better. Anything we can we can be learning and we can be contributing to in a global perspective, I think is definitely a hugely attractive particularly given the political context in Scotland just now.

Jim: That was Jamie Cook, head of RSA Scotland, on the Basic Income podcast.

Owen: I thought it was nice to hear that all these experiments, all the trials going on in different countries, it is a global conversation, especially within Europe, but also over here in California, these places are learning from each other and watching each other and it’s becoming a global movement.

Jim: That’s absolutely true. I think we often talk mostly about what’s happening here in the US, but we wouldn’t be having a lot of these conversations if it hadn’t been, well, a few years back for the Swiss referendum, but also the traction that this policy is really gaining in countries around the world. All of that adds onto itself and so I think altogether, that’s what’s led to more this snowball effect and you’re starting to see a lot more general conversation around the policy.

I also thought it was really interesting that his view is that automation is not the driver in Scotland, that it’s really about the social justice framework. I think that, certainly here in the US, the tech motivation is what you hear, at least in the news media for the most part. I think that’s why we feel like there’s more of a conversation today just recently. It’s really interesting to hear that in Scotland it is not about the tech it is about what could this do to really lift people up.

Owen: Yes, and that’s encouraging that the conversation is broadening to the social justice issue because automation provides a catalyst. Instead of us just coming out of nowhere and saying, “Hey, why don’t we just start giving people money”, it’s a motivating force, but there are so many more reasons to pursue basic income beyond that.

Getting back to how so many countries are doing this, it is hard to address every issue at once. Finland’s focusing on unemployment benefits. Stockton is more just about getting stories and lifting people up. Y Combinator, we’ll get a better sense of soon, but it is nice how because there’s so much going on, we are able to segment different parts of this conversation through different experiments.

Jim: Yes, absolutely. I think his view that this is really a foundation stone for a new social contract, and that he’s seeing other policies really going along with this to create that full picture of what it means to move into 21st-century social contract. That’s, I think, an exciting and smart approach to take.

Owen: I think that is where the conversation needs to go because that is an open question of what does the whole social safety net look like when you have a basic income and obviously there are a lot of opinions around that on both sides, but that is the next big question.

Jim: That will do it for this episode of the Basic Income podcast. We’re actually going to be taking a break over the next few weeks. We’ll still be releasing episodes, there’ll be some of our hits over the last year and a half. You’ll still keep hearing from us and we’ll pick up with new episodes in a month or so.

Thank you for listening. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. If you’re like what you hear, please do rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or the podcast service of your choice. Please do tell your friends about the podcast. We’re always looking to reach new people. We’ll talk to you soon.

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