It is my annual lecture tonight at 6.00. You can watch it below. Or hear my account of it this morning on the Today programme (from 02:56:30). Or you can read this short summary of the core argument…...
The RSA is a strong supporter of Universal Basic Income - the proposal that every citizen receive an unconditional living allowance from the state. UBI provides security for the growing army of part time workers and improves work incentives for low paid people. Among its other virtues, by enabling Government employment services to move from enforcement to helping people advance in their careers, it makes the state less intrusive in people's lives.
So if Theresa May was to ring me at the RSA tomorrow to say she had read our work on an affordable way to introduce UBI and had decided to announce it as Government policy in the Autumn Statement, surely I would be delighted? In fact, with respect and some regret, I would advise the Prime Minister to think again. Why?
Too often, ministers and civil servants - and all of us who urge them to act - view the levers of central Government as the best way to change society. But new laws and regulations tend to be cumbersome and blunt and the record of failure is long and depressing. It’s not just the big disasters like the poll tax, Child Support Agency, rail privatisation and now Universal Credit, after forty years of almost continuous reform of public services, social inequality, low productivity and economic marginalisation remain intractable. Traditional policy struggles in an ever-more complex and fast-changing world, comprised of citizens who are unwilling to believe or do what they are told.
Major policy shifts can only succeed if they go with the grain of public opinion. To take two very different examples, the smoking ban and Scottish devolution were smoothly implemented, and are now overwhelmingly supported, because the ground work before legislation had been done, respectively by public health campaigns and the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
The invisible death of the Child Trust Fund (a policy that I worked on with my respondent this evening, former ippr Director and Number Ten policy chief, Professor Nick Pearce) demonstrates what happens when public buy-in is an afterthought. I was proud in 2005 to be involved when the Government created the Fund to address poverty and growing asset inequality by giving each child a cash nest egg at birth which would mature when they reached 18. But though the case for it remains strong, public awareness and support was not. When the Coalition scrapped the policy in 2010, there was hardly a murmur of dissent.
Support in the UK for basic income remains weaker than other countries. Whilst there are issues to resolve around its interaction with existing benefits, the biggest political hurdles are matters of principle. After decades of rhetoric about welfare 'scroungers', a benefit providing everyone with a very modest living feels not only counter cultural but unjust to many people. There is also a perception - ill-advisedly reinforced by some UBI advocates - that the policy is a path to a golden future in which robots have taken all the jobs and we can all lead a life of leisure. UBI is about making work better, not abolishing it.
From employers to community groups, UBI supporters must explain the opportunities it provides for new approaches which offer people more choices and greater fulfilment. As with other major social shifts like the rejection of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality, its success will depend on how citizens and civil society respond.
Universal Basic Income can shape economic and technological change in a way that gives many more people more control over their lives, but only if everyone understands its potential.