Colin Montgomery: Life, liberty and the pursuit of a free day at the Festival
When the robots eventually take over, what are we to do with ourselves? There are only so many games of Gin Rummy a bloke can handle before you succumb to the crashing repetitive nothingness of it all. And as for daytime telly, forget it; a life of watching Jeremy Kyle should be reserved for those guilty of the most perfidious acts (by that yardstick, Kyle could be sentenced to watch himself for all time, though I suspect the narcissist in him would consider such punishment a privilege). Then there's the whole tricky business of well . . . living. Unless we regress to the barter system sometime soon, that means money. Sans gainful employment that could be tricky. Step forward the UBI . . .
The UBI, for those who don’t spend evenings dipping into speculative economic theories, is the Universal Basic Income. To some it’s an antidote to the increasing automation of the world of work (hence the robot invasion up front); to others it’s a crazy idea beloved of lefties incompatible with the true value of work versus the idleness of a “life on welfare”. But hey, as I said, it’s all daydreaming by so-called boffins right? Well, no not really. Because while the idea of providing a basic level of state financial support for a large section of the population, with pretty much no strings attached, may seem the stuff of fantasy; they’re currently halfway through a two-year real life trial of UBI in Finland. Now that’s a bold move. Bolder still is the fact that this revolutionary move to tackle the ills of poverty is being championed by a centre-right government. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice.
So curious to some that there are moves afoot to trial the same scheme in four local authorities across Scotland, including our beloved Capital. And rather like the Finnish example, it turns out that the underlying engineering of UBI has gained credibility across the political spectrum. Even some sporting the blue rosette are saying good things about it.
Why such broad-based understanding? Well, I guess it all comes down to your attitude to poverty and people. Prepare for what could be seen a gross over-simplification folks (but hey, this is my last ever column in this guise, so I can cut and run like some shadowy drive-by ranter after the last infinitive has been duly rent asunder).
Put simply, if you believe poverty is a moral failing, people are fundamentally lazy and welfare is a disincentive that stops you getting on your bike and getting a job, so we should make it as stressful as possible, you’re not going to like UBI. Alternatively, if you think that freeing people from the constant fear or destitution is less a financial cushion to sink into and more a financial springboard to leap from, freed from the labyrinthine bureaucracy of signing on, into more worthwhile and productive endeavours, then you might welcome this pilot.
The latter rationale, I know, will feel alien to many – years of the Protestant work ethic have been drilled into our national psyche meaning the notion of apparently giving someone “something for nothing” is as toxic as publicly admitting to not liking national treasure™ Judi Dench (a crime worthy of a week in the stocks).
Ah, the old “something for nothing” trope. I could get into a fair bit of bother by dismantling the distorted thinking of such an easy riposte to anything that isn’t bare-knuckle capitalism. It’s funny because if we were true to the idea of meritocracy as championed by Thatcher – and parroted by her political disciples as a near religious creed – then we could have lots of fun picking apart the hypocrisy of rewards for failure amongst corporate fat cats. Or cabinet ministers keeping their job when, to use Westminster parlance, they are “strangers to the truth”. But you risk becoming accused of being envious of the successful wealth-generators or some such rot. So moving swiftly on . . .
Anyway, the reason for all this musing about UBI is a flimsy pretext for a final flourish about what constitutes things that should be basic entitlements in life. It’s no surprise that the principles of the Universal Basic Income derive some intellectual legitimacy from the moral philosophy of 18th century political thinker Thomas Paine (one of the founding fathers of the American Revolution).
Again, doing a huge disservice to nuance, Paine’s basic position was that everyone has a right to certain natural rights – life, liberty, free speech, freedom of conscience – and, by extension, civil rights within a modern democratic society too – security, protection and a political voice free from government interference. Despite the best efforts of loony libertarians in the States, it’s hard to argue against that broadside against entrenched interests. So what if, as we approach 2018, we reaffirm our inalienable rights, yet update them to reflect our realities as denizens of the Capital? Call me crazy but I’ll give it a go. And if Thomas Paine should come haunt me for sins against his memory, so be it. Here folks are our universal basic rights as proud citizens of Auld Reekie:
Every citizen shall receive one free bottle of broon sauce a month – the glass ginger bottle variety filled to the brim with lashings of the vinegary loveliness of this defiant expression of Reekieness.
Every citizen shall have the right to travel unmolested on the highways and byways – in other words, failing to sort a pothole in good time should be punishable by incarceration. Harsh but fair.
Every citizen shall be compelled to answer the question “Excuse me, where’s the castle?” no more than twice twixt June and September. Being asked on Princes Street equals a lifetime’s exemption.
Every citizen shall be allowed one ‘Day of Hops’, i.e. a day when the smell of the stuff fills your nostrils, like it did when I first came to this marvellous city. Ne’er has there been a sweeter perfume.
Every citizen shall be allowed a solo visit to the top of Arthur’s Seat at least once a year. If you can’t fail to appreciate the beauty of this northern Athens from that craggy peak, you shouldn’t be here.
Every citizen should be given a free solo tram ride once a year. With a buffet car set up to ensure you take in the delights of Balgreen etc in comfort. We did, after all, pay through the nose for it.
Finally, every citizen shall be given a paid day off in August with free entry to the Festival or Fringe show of your choice. As collective hosts to the world’s biggest arts festival, I think that’s only just.
There you have it folks: seven rights. One each for the peaks that together form this most beautiful of places. I’ve been proud to call it my home for nearly 28 years now – I’ve spent more time here than in the west, where I first emerged kicking and screaming 45 years ago.
Hopefully my time writing these columns hasn’t left you kicking and screaming. Whatever you think, I shall take my leave with the heartfelt assertion that it has been a pleasure to write for the Edinburgh Evening News. May it go on for years to come. But from me, for now, so long and thanks for all the fish.