By Jamie Cooke

Basic income is an old idea, but one that has found increased relevance. It is a simple concept at its core – a regular unconditional payment to each individual. In contrast to the current system of social security, Universal Credit, which is characterised by punitive sanctions and conditionality, a basic income does not change as you move in and out of work, and has no requirements attached to it in terms of activity or use.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the economic precarity prevalent in our economy to a significant degree, with many people, whether through jobs in the gig economy or due to self-employment, slipping through the support net that has been introduced by the UK Government. Basic income offers a chance to both respond to the current crisis, but also to create a new foundation for a reinvigorated social contract for the future.

This is strengthened by the evidence of support shown in the polling released by Mark Diffley in this paper today. Of course, data from a single survey does not provide unquestionable proof that the public would back the introduction of basic income. Work on increasing public understanding of the issue would need to be undertaken before more informed estimates of support are given. Having said that, such strong, albeit partial, evidence should, at the very least, lead to a fuller and more considered discussion of the issue.

So, what next for UBI in Scotland?

The findings of this survey demonstrate that there is public appetite for basic income to be explored in more detail as a policy proposal. This opens up space for those who have expressed political support, such as the SNP and Greens, to start from a position of potential public support. It also opens up the space for those opposed or agnostic on basic income to join the discussion.

Willie Rennie recently called for a national convention to discuss the idea between the Scottish and UK Governments – this would appear to chime with public interest. And the level of public support across socioeconomic and demographic groups offers a chance for the Scottish Conservatives to contribute – this does not have to dilute their current opposition, but rather would create an important space for critique of proposed policies.

Meanwhile, while Scottish Labour have been relatively silent on basic income on a Scottish level (with Keir Starmer having recently appeared to rule it out in the short term for the UK party), much of the local activity and interest in Scotland has been driven by Labour councillors.

This crisis has shown the frailty and insecurity of our current economic system, and the profound impacts this has on citizens. Our immediate priority, of course, must be in taking the action required to get us through the crisis with as little loss of life and financial security as possible. An emergency basic income, paid over the duration of the crisis, could offer a stable foundation for people to plan on during the turmoil, and would be an option that the UK Government could introduce to improve their current package of support.

We also have a responsibility, and opportunity, to build bridges to a better economy and social contract for the future, one which can offer enhanced resilience for future shocks. A basic income could be a foundational policy for this new context. It is not a panacea or silver bullet and will not solve every problem in itself. However, it does offer a chance to create a new base for the social contract, one which values individuals in their own right rather than on the extent of their economic activity.

Now is the time to explore ideas once considered too radical, and to create a new normal rooted in security and opportunity, so that all our people can not just survive, but thrive.

Jamie Cooke is head of RSA Scotland @JamieACooke