Universal Basic Income in British Politics, 1918-2018: From a 'Vagabond's Wage' to a Global Debate

13 Feb 2018

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has moved rapidly up the British political agenda in recent years, with support from the Green Party, the Royal Society of Arts, and left-wing writers such as Paul Mason. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has set up a working group to examine its implications, and two Scottish councils are hoping to launch pilot schemes. Contemporary British interest in UBI forms part of a lively global debate about automation, inequality and precarious labour, but it also draws on a long history of proposals for tax-benefit reform within UK social policy. This article identifies five waves of enthusiasm for basic income in Britain over the past century and highlights patterns of continuity and change. It shows that interest in the proposal has been greatest at times of pessimism about the future of the labour market, though concerns about the ethics and affordability of unconditional payments have always been difficult to shake. Advocates of UBI have also struggled to reconcile the technocratic approach of its Conservative and Liberal supporters with the transformative ambitions of the radical left. It remains to be seen whether the recent growth of left-wing support for UBI will improve its prospects of implementation.