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Basic Income as Technocratic Liberalism: Framing a Policy Idea in Twentieth-Century Britain

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Universal Basic Income in Historical Perspective
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Abstract

The contemporary basic income movement in the UK and Western Europe is largely a product of deindustrialization and the rise of mass unemployment during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet British basic income proposals date back at least as far as the end of the First World War, when Dennis and Mabel Milner published their Scheme for a State Bonus (1918). This chapter explores the emergence of basic income as a policy option in mid-twentieth-century Britain and examines how these early debates have shaped subsequent basic income proposals. In particular, it argues that the Milners’ ‘state bonus’ scheme and Juliet Rhys-Williams’ campaign for a ‘new social contract’ during the 1940s framed UBI as a tax-benefit reform, designed to establish a minimum income floor and simplify the financial relationship between the individual and the state. This focus on the tax-benefit interface was also reflected in post-war academic work—for instance, in the writings of economists such as James Meade and Tony Atkinson. As a result, British UBI campaigning has been marked by a persistent focus on devising costed basic income schemes which would provide a pragmatic and affordable solution to poverty.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Hermione Parker, ‘The “BIG” way to full employment’, June 18, 1983, Rhys-Williams papers, B 8/6, British Library of Political and Economic Science, London (hereafter BLPES).

  2. 2.

    The inter-war history of basic income has been meticulously reconstructed by Walter Van Trier: Walter Van Trier, Every One A King: An Investigation into the Meaning and Significance of the Debate on Basic Incomes with Special Reference to Three Episodes from the British Inter-War Experience (Leuven: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 1995).

  3. 3.

    Rory O’Kelly, ‘Why Social Dividends Are Not the Answer’, Policy Studies 5, no. 2 (1984): 24–30. For a recent restatement of this view, see Jon Cruddas and Tom Kibasi, ‘A Universal Basic Mistake’, Prospect no. 224 (July 2016): 50–52.

  4. 4.

    Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 1.

  5. 5.

    Daniel Béland et al., ‘Instrument Constituencies and Transnational Policy Diffusion: The Case of Conditional Cash Transfers’, Review of International Political Economy 25, no. 4 (2018): 463–82.

  6. 6.

    David Purdy, ‘Citizenship, Basic Income and the State’, New Left Review no. 208 (1994): 30–48, at 31.

  7. 7.

    Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice (1797), reprinted in The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure Daniel Conway, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 3:322–44, at 331; Thomas Spence, The Constitution of Spensonia (1803), reprinted in The Political Works of Thomas Spence, ed. H. T. Dickinson (Newcastle: Avero (Eighteenth-Century) Publications Ltd., 1982), 104–18.

  8. 8.

    J. E. Meade, ‘Outline of Economic Policy for a Labour Government’, in The Collected Papers of James Meade, eds. Susan Howson and Donald Moggridge, vol. 1 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 33–78, at 53; Oskar Lange, ‘On the Economic Theory of Socialism: Part I’, Review of Economic Studies, 4, no. 1 (1936): 53–71, at 61.

  9. 9.

    G. D. H. Cole, Principles of Economic Planning (London: Macmillan, 1935), 235.

  10. 10.

    Cole, Principles, 235–36.

  11. 11.

    Ben Jackson, Equality and the British Left: A Study in Progressive Political Thought, 1900–1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 64; Cole, Principles, 252.

  12. 12.

    Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1918), 119.

  13. 13.

    E. Mabel and Dennis Milner, Scheme for a State Bonus: A Rational Method of Solving the Social Problem (Darlington: North of England Newspaper Company, 1918), 7.

  14. 14.

    Juliet Rhys-Williams, Something to Look Forward To (London: MacDonald and Co., 1943).

  15. 15.

    George Wansbrough to John Maynard Keynes, December 11, 1939, and Keynes to Wansbrough, December 14, 1939, in John Maynard Keynes papers, HP/1, King’s College, Cambridge.

  16. 16.

    Labour Party, Report of the Twenty-First Annual Conference. Brighton, 1921 (London: Labour Party, 1921), 60–62, at 61.

  17. 17.

    Peter Sloman, ‘Beveridge’s Rival: Juliet Rhys-Williams and the Campaign for Basic Income, 1942–55’, Contemporary British History 30, no. 2 (2016): 203–23.

  18. 18.

    Rhys-Williams’ maternalist approach was reflected in the differential structure of her proposed work requirements, which involved full-time paid work for adult men and part-time work for single women and young widows without dependent children.

  19. 19.

    Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Royal Commission on the Taxation of Profits and Income (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953), 3–9.

  20. 20.

    Ian Gazeley, Poverty in Britain, 1900–1965 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2003); J. H. Veit-Wilson, ‘Paradigms of Poverty: A Rehabilitation of B.S. Rowntree’, Journal of Social Policy 15, no. 1 (1986): 69–99.

  21. 21.

    José Harris, ‘From Poor Law to Welfare State? A European Perspective’, in The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688–1914, eds. Donald Winch and Patrick K. O’Brien (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 409–37, at 437; Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 214.

  22. 22.

    Milton Friedman and George J. Stigler, Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1946); Peter Sloman, Transfer State: The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 29–60.

  23. 23.

    A. C. Pigou, The Economics of Welfare, 4th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1932), part IV, chap. 10; J. E. Meade, Planning and the Price Mechanism: The Liberal-Socialist Solution (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 7.

  24. 24.

    Richard Toye, ‘The “Gentleman in Whitehall” Reconsidered: Douglas Jay’s Views on Economic Planning and Consumer Choice, 1937–1947’, Labour History Review 67, no. 2 (2002): 187–204.

  25. 25.

    Tom Clark and Andrew Dilnot, Long-Term Trends in British Taxation and Spending (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2002), 5.

  26. 26.

    Cmd. 9105, Royal Commission on the Taxation of Profits and Income. Second Report (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1954), 2, 9.

  27. 27.

    Cmd. 9105, Royal Commission … Second Report, 17.

  28. 28.

    Minutes of Evidence, 39–46, 49–59; Alan Peacock, Anxious to Do Good: Learning to be an Economist the Hard Way (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010), 45–85; Roy Harrod, ‘The Outlook for 1949’, World Review (Jan. 1949): 15–19; Barbara Wootton, ‘The Labour Party and Social Services’, Political Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1953), 55–67, at 64–65; and Michael Young to Juliet Rhys-Williams, April 25, May 12 and May 18, 1952, Rhys-Williams papers, J 2/6.

  29. 29.

    Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, ‘Notes on Reform of Redistribution of Income as a Business-Efficiency Exercise’, 13 May 1969, Conservative Party Archive, CRD 3/7/26/11, Bodleian Library, Oxford; see also Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, The New Social Contract (London: Conservative Political Centre, 1968).

  30. 30.

    Sloman, Transfer State, 95–124.

  31. 31.

    Tony Atkinson to C. V. Brown, 1 Oct. 1969, Atkinson papers, 03/01, BLPES. Atkinson recalled later in life that he was ‘first prompted to look at basic income schemes by James Meade’, who introduced him to Juliet Rhys-Williams’ work and put him in touch with Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams: A. B. Atkinson, Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), x. Atkinson also analysed a Political and Economic Planning pamphlet by Chuck Brown and Diane Dawson, which itself drew on Juliet Rhys-Williams’ work: C. V. Brown and D. A. Dawson, Personal Taxation, Incentives and Tax Reform (London: Political and Economic Planning, 1969).

  32. 32.

    A. B. Atkinson, Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 169–84.

  33. 33.

    Atkinson, Poverty in Britain, 185–95.

  34. 34.

    James Meade, ‘Poverty in the Welfare State’, Oxford Economic Papers 24, no. 3 (1972): 289–326; J. E. Meade, The Structure and Reform of Direct Taxation. Report of a Committee chaired by Professor J. E. Meade (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), 269–307.

  35. 35.

    See correspondence on Social Security and Income Maintenance chapter in Meade papers, 6/9, BLPES.

  36. 36.

    Sloman, Transfer State, 119–21, 125–43.

  37. 37.

    Peacock, Anxious to Do Good, 78; F. A. Cockfield, ‘A Negative Income Tax’, August 2, 1971, T227/3335, The National Archives, Kew.

  38. 38.

    Cockfield, ‘A Negative Income Tax’.

  39. 39.

    Cmnd. 5116, Proposal for a Tax-Credit System (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1972).

  40. 40.

    Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘Neoliberalism and Morality in the Making of Thatcherite Social Policy’, Historical Journal 55, no. 2 (2012): 497–520, at 507.

  41. 41.

    Minutes of first meeting of Tax and Social Security Policy Group, November 24, 1982, and report, March 31, 1983, Conservative Party Archive, CRD 4/4/200.

  42. 42.

    Hilary Rose, ‘Up Against the Welfare State: The Claimant Unions’, Socialist Register 10 (1973): 179–203.

  43. 43.

    Bill Jordan, Paupers: The Making of the New Claiming Class (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 73.

  44. 44.

    Toru Yamamori, ‘A Feminist Way to Basic Income: Claimants Unions and Women’s Liberation Movements in 1970s Britain’, Basic Income Studies 9, no. 1–2 (2014): 1–24.

  45. 45.

    PEOPLE, A Manifesto for Survival (Coventry: PEOPLE, 1974); Ecology Party, Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (Stroud: BIJA Press, 1978), 18.

  46. 46.

    For instance, the Turning Point network held a day conference on ‘The Redistribution of Work’ in London in November 1980, with talks by Charles Handy, Sheila Rothwell, and James Robertson, and Annie Miller spoke about ‘A Guaranteed Income’ at a Turning Point meeting in November 1984: see Turning Point, The Redistribution of Work (Ironbridge: Turning Point, 1981), and Turning Point Newsletter, August 1984, available online at http://www.jamesrobertson.com/turningpoint.htm.

  47. 47.

    Charles Handy, The Future of Work: A Guide to a Changing Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), xi.

  48. 48.

    Handy, The Future of Work, ix.

  49. 49.

    Annie Miller, interview with the author, April 17, 2018. Miller recalled that the NCVO conference on ‘Income Maintenance Systems’ took place in autumn 1983, and that the idea of forming a research group took shape in the pub afterwards; the group adopted the title of BIRG in July 1984.

  50. 50.

    Peter Ashby, Social Security After Beveridge – What Next? (London: National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 1984), 1; BIRG Bulletin no. 2 (1984): 1.

  51. 51.

    Miller, interview; Keith Roberts, Automation, Unemployment and the Distribution of Income (Maastricht: European Centre for Work and Society, 1982).

  52. 52.

    Malcolm Torry, interview with the author, March 30, 2017; ‘Mimi’ (Hermione Parker) to Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, ‘BIG scheme’, August 3, 1982, Rhys-Williams papers, B 8/6.

  53. 53.

    Parker, ‘The “BIG” way to Full Employment’.

  54. 54.

    ‘Note of meeting of the Basic Income Group, Friday 13 July [1984] at 11.30am at NCVO’, Annie Miller papers (private collection); ‘Why Basic Incomes and Not a Negative Income Tax’, BIRG Bulletin no. 2 (1984): 3.

  55. 55.

    Anne G. Miller, ed., Basic Income: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Basic Income, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 4–6 September 1986 (Antwerp: Basic Income European Network, 1986).

  56. 56.

    Hermione Parker, ‘Costing Basic Incomes’, December 4, 1984, Rhys-Williams papers, B 8/8.

  57. 57.

    Tony Atkinson and Holly Sutherland, ‘Notes on Social Dividend Schemes’, February 1983, and Tony Atkinson, ‘Note on Tax/Benefit Models’, March 1, 1985, Atkinson papers, 04/37. Atkinson was happy to provide advice for BIRG but declined to become a member: Tony Atkinson to Peter Ashby, November 14, 1984, Atkinson papers, 04/37.

  58. 58.

    Parker, ‘Costing Basic Incomes’.

  59. 59.

    Tony Walter, ‘What Are Basic Incomes?’, BIRG Bulletin no. 8 (1988): 3–5; Hermione Parker, Instead of the Dole: An Enquiry into Integration of the Tax and Benefit Systems (Abingdon: Routledge, 1989).

  60. 60.

    Paddy Ashdown, Citizen’s Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s (London: Fourth Estate, 1989); J. E. Meade, Fifteen Propositions Concerning the Building of an Equitable, Full-Employment, Non-Inflationary, Free-Enterprise Economy (London: Employment Policy Institute, 1993).

  61. 61.

    Martin O’Neill and Stuart White, ‘James Meade, Public Ownership, and the Idea of a Citizens’ Trust’, International Journal of Public Policy 15, no. 1–2 (2019): 21–37.

  62. 62.

    Samuel Brittan and Barry Riley, ‘A people’s stake in North Sea Oil’, Lloyds Bank Review, April 1978: 1–18.

  63. 63.

    Ruth Lister, interview with the author, July 18, 2018; Commission on Social Justice, Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal (London: Vintage, 1994); Liberal Democrats, Opportunity and Independence for All (London: Liberal Democrats, 1994); Patrick Wintour, ‘Tax and Benefits Plan Survives but “Utopian” Scheme Scrapped’, The Guardian, September 22, 1994.

  64. 64.

    A. B. Atkinson, ‘Beveridge, the National Minimum and its Future in a European Context’, in Incomes and the Welfare State: Essays on Britain and Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 290–304, at 300, 301.

  65. 65.

    Philippe Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All: What (If Anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Brian Barry, ‘Real Freedom and Basic Income’, Journal of Political Philosophy 4, no. 3 (1996): 242–76; Stuart White, The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

  66. 66.

    Malcolm Torry, ‘Static Microsimulation Research on Citizen’s Basic Income for the UK: A Personal Summary and Further Reflections’ (EUROMOD Working Paper EM13/19, University of Essex, Colchester, 2019).

  67. 67.

    A. B. Atkinson and Holly Sutherland, ‘Analysis of a Partial Basic Income Scheme’, in A. B. Atkinson, Poverty & Social Security (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), 327–35, at 327.

  68. 68.

    Luke Martinelli, ‘A Basic Income Trilemma: Affordability, Adequacy, and the Advantages of Radically Simplified Welfare’, Journal of Social Policy 49, no. 3 (2020): 461–82, at 480.

  69. 69.

    Minutes of Evidence, 62.

  70. 70.

    Anthony Painter, Jake Thorold and Jamie Cooke, Pathways to Universal Basic Income: The Case for a Universal Basic Opportunity Fund (London: Royal Society of Arts, 2018).

  71. 71.

    Lisa A. Gennetian and Eldar Shafir, ‘The Persistence of Poverty in the Context of Instability: A Behavioral Perspective’, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 34, no. 4 (2015): 904–36.

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Sloman, P. (2021). Basic Income as Technocratic Liberalism: Framing a Policy Idea in Twentieth-Century Britain. In: Sloman, P., Zamora Vargas, D., Ramos Pinto, P. (eds) Universal Basic Income in Historical Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-75706-9_2

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