The public discussion around Universal Credit, that extreme exercise of conditionality brought in as an ideological sop to those members of society convinced someone, somewhere, is getting something for nothing, despite all of the evidence of the rarity of this, at least among the poor, has focused, rightly, on the damage done to individuals by the system. The people left in penury, the desperate fear of the debt collector, the homelessness, have all been well documented.
But at a fringe event at Green Party autumn conference, another massive loss and waste came up – the loss of talent, of the potential contribution to society. People are being forced by the system into jobs to which they’re unsuited, which don’t use their talents and abilities, then ground down by the system with insecure employment, low pay, and always that looming threat of swingeing benefit sanctions.
We talked about the music not composed, the plays not performed, the pictures not taken – the talent wasted.
There’s a lot of discussion about the UK’s problem with low productivity – and surely part of that is people being forced into unsuitable jobs for them, lowly paid and little respected, when their talent could be taking them – and us – to different places.
We heard from creative people who’ve fought on, managed to find the time, and often the scantly paid (or unpaid) opportunities to exercise and develop their talents, and how in the rest of Europe they’d found a very different situation, one where creative endeavours are valued, fostered, and properly funded and rewarded.
During the discussion it struck me that when I’ve visited continental cities how much public artwork you see on the streets, not just in the big showpiece squares, but in suburban neighbourhoods, painted on walls of metro stations and community centres, standing beside a bus stop, enriching the fabric of everyday lives.
The desperate situation of the arts doesn’t have to be like this – and it didn’t used to be. “It was better under Thatcher” were words I never ever expected to hear at Green Party conference, but the speaker was referring to one specific policy, the Enterprise Allowance Scheme.
It was a payment set slightly above the unemployment benefit going to people who were starting their own business or developing their career as an artist. They could very briefly set out their plan then go away for a year and try to put it into action. No regular reporting, no hassling to apply for other jobs they weren’t suited for and probably wouldn’t get.
The conference session was talking about an alternative approach to the welfare of individuals and society – that of universal basic income – particularly for creative people. Paid at an adequate level, it would free people to develop their art, their talent , their small business, certain of the security of being able to meet their basic needs.
Payment for artistic work is by its nature often spasmodic, and the work a speculative enterprise. You compose and record an album, but there’s no way of knowing how many will buy it. You rehearse intensively for the profit-share show, but will it be a success? You put your heart and soul into a big piece of weaving – but someone who appreciates it who also has the money to buy it might come along the day it is put on show, or months later.
Universal basic income could provide the certainty of being able to meet essential expenses, while dedicating your talents to best effect. It would make it possible for those supporting children or other dependents to develop their talents, where far too often that opportunity is denied.
The lack of that helps explain why our creative industries have become increasingly dominated by people from well-off backgrounds. If the ‘bank of mum and dad’ is there to draw on in the down patches, it is a lot easier to take risks.
Now I can hear the Scrooges saying: “Well, traditionally writers and artists always starved in garrets”. And we’ve certainly lost a lot of potential work to that over the centuries. Thomas Chatterton is the famous case study, but countless other talents were lost of their contemporary and future generations, consumed by poverty and despair.
But if we look across the Channel, and even into our own recent past, we can see it doesn’t have to be like that, and everyone is richer in societies using the creative talents they have.
And we might even look to Tory Government rhetoric, always celebrating, in the way of the Conservatives, the arts’ financial benefits, to provide another argument for why it shouldn’t be this way.
Even in the Tories’ own terms, failing to ensure future talents are developed (and stopping even creative subjects in schools) is a disastrous policy.
Where will the future British moviemakers, musicians and artists who could enrapture the world, as so many of the current generation do, come from if they’ve no chance to develop their talents?
Asked for their view on whether universal basic income could help unleash a new generation of talent, the room unanimously said “yes”. While arguments for it often rightly focus on security, this is another important focus to develop.