Basic Income: a radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy. The 2nd Ailsa McKay Annual Memorial Lecture

This evening, I had the honour of introducing the Ailsa McKay Memorial Lecture 2017, the second such lecture, hosted by the Women in Scotland’s Economy Research Centre, in the Govan Mbeki Building at Glasgow Caledonian University. This is what I said.

Good evening everyone. I am Maggie Chapman, Co-convener of the Scottish Greens, and it is my great pleasure, and a great honour to welcome you all here today to the 2nd annual Ailsa McKay Memorial Lecture.

Our speaker this evening, Philippe Van Parijs, is Professor at the Faculty of Economic, Social and Political Sciences of the Université catholique de Louvain, where he has directed the Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics since 1991. Philippe’s work has taken him all over the world, and he is widely known and respected as a key proponent and defender of ideas such as the Basic Income. Welcome Philippe. Welcome to Scotland, to Glasgow, and to this university.

Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow Caley to many of us, saw fit, in 2001, to name this building after a hero of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. As a South African, albeit one who grew up in Zimbabwe, I am always pleased to have an excuse to talk about the struggle heroes who have influenced my thinking and my politics. Govan Mbeki was a leader of the ANC and of the South African Communist Party. Following the Rivonia Trial, he, along with Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, and several other eminent anti-apartheid leaders, was imprisoned on charges of terrorism and treason, and he spent 23 years in jail. Later, after his release and after the first democratic elections in South Africa, he served in the Senate and its successor (the National Council of Provinces) from 1994-1999.

Mbeki was a man who devoted his life to fighting the great social and economic inequalities produced by apartheid. He and his fellow revolutionaries, amongst them Joe Slovo, talked and wrote much about South Africa’s future freedom, what it would look like, and how social justice and equality could be delivered. Slovo suggested that South Africa required a two-stage revolution: first, a popular movement to overthrow apartheid, and second, an economic revolution to share the fruits of the economy for all.

In Scotland, like elsewhere, including South Africa to some degree – it was, of course, the first country to have equal marriage written into its constitution – we have made significant progress on social equality, on issues like promoting women’s rights, and combating homophobia and racism. There is plenty of work still to be done on these, undoubtedly, but much of the inequality that remains is economic. We have not been successful in taking the revolution into that second stage – economic equality.

Ideas like a Citizens Income, or Basic Income, will, I am sure, be part of the solution to the issues that remain. I remember being at a conference about another heterodox economic theory, Land Value Tax, where one of the speakers said he opposed Basic Income because it would be unearned. We have a strange differentiation in our economy between what is traditionally seen as unearned income (things like inherited wealth and dividends) and unpaid work, which, as we know, is mostly done by women.

It is this unpaid work – the things that make us most profoundly human – caring and creating – that Ailsa was so rightly concerned with in her work on developing proposals such as the Citizen’s Basic Income, on gender budgeting, and so much more. Ailsa, perhaps more than anyone else, made it very clear that our economic revolution has to be on gender terms as well as resource terms: we must value that very human work, caring and creating, properly if we are to achieve economic equality.

Ailsa was perhaps a surprising academic. She left school at the age of 17 and started working at the Department of Social Security. One of her jobs was to assess emergency payments for people on benefits, and she was well known amongst claimants for trusting their assessment of their own hardship and authorising their payments without question … something ATOS could learn from, perhaps.

It was during her time at the Department of Social Security that she became most interested in the idea of the Citizen’s Basic Income. She understood the profound error of viewing the economy as a flow of capital rather than a way to ensure the wellbeing of people. She went back to education in 1981, determined to put herself to work developing ideas that would promote such an economy. In her postgraduate studies that led to her PhD, she drew extensively on the Philippe’s work on Basic Income, and became known as the person to talk to about gender economics. She established the Women in Scotland’s Economy Research Centre here in 2010, and was a founding member of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group.

It is in no small way down to Ailsa that, in Scotland, our approach to the global financial crisis of 2008 has been much better that the UK Government’s “if it moves, cut it, if it doesn’t move, cut it” approach. But too often, still, we prioritise physical infrastructure over social infrastructure. The Christie Commission rightly pointed to prevention as the key to providing public services in the 21st century, but the logical follow through to this – that we create a society where work looking after people and creating is properly valued – is far from finished.

I am very much looking forward to hearing what Philippe has to say to us this evening. His work across the economic, social and political sciences has been influential to many of us in so many different ways. It has been central to a number of arguments around Basic Income, something very close to my heart: we greens are the only political party that has a Citizens Income in our policy documents.

In the social-democratic tradition, Philippe has argued that the right to an income does not interfere with the right to a job, but in fact strengthens it. Similarly, Basic Income does not replace the welfare state; rather it makes it more important, and it reduces the threats to social security. And, most importantly, it forms what he calls ‘the third model’, different to the old social assistance model – charity – and the social insurance model – solidarity. Philippe’s argument for a more egalitarian, more emancipatory perspective was heralded by Ailsa in her work and her desire to be part of a socially just and equal society.

I am sure everyone here today would wish to join me in creating that society – a society that truly commemorates the work of Ailsa McKay. And what we hear from Philippe this evening will, I’m sure, better enable us to create that society.

Welcome Philippe. And thank you.

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