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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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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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    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.

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  14. 14.

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  15. 15.

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  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).

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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  54. 54.

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  69. 69.

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  70. 70.

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  71. 71.

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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.

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