Ireland’s president’s passionate defence of the Minimum Wage – and Universal Basic Income as well

Above – from Cambridge Ahead’s report on how Cambridge’s housing crisis affects young adults. It’s worth reading – see here. A higher national minimum wage and/or Universal Basic Income might go some way to alleviating the costs of living and enabling more people to participate in civic society. Just two of the reasons why this speech from 2010 is so important even today.

Although made while still in the Irish Parliament / the Oireachtas as President of Ireland’s Labour Party in 2010, the speech made by Michael D Higgins – the now President of the Republic of Ireland has been re-discovered and has gone viral again. And with good reason. Have a watch.

Above – worth watching in full. The then Deputy Michael D Higgins TD in 2010, speaking against a proposal from the Irish Government (then a Conservative/Green coalition) to reduce their national minimum wage.

You can read the transcript of the above speech here.

It’s worth noting that the Irish Green Party, then part of a coalition government in Ireland, would get crushed at the looming general election that followed in 2011 – losing all their seats in the Dáil/lower house. They have since recovered and now have more seats than they did when the above-speech was made.

“The test of one’s citizenship is one’s ability to participate in society without shame”

Listening to the speech – one of the most powerful I’ve heard in this era (i.e. post-banking crash), many of the points the President made about civil society also apply to the principle and concept of a Universal Basic Income.

“I am most attracted to the concept of the social floor. We regularly insult language by saying we live in a Republic. We do not. If we had any version of citizenship, there would be a social floor for health and housing for example, a threshold below which no citizen would be allowed to fall. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, claims the test of one’s citizenship is one’s ability to participate in society without shame.”

Michael T. Higgins TD, 15 December 2010 in The Dáil, Republic of Ireland.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner for Economics and former Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, wrote about the economic causes of famine – in particular the Bengal Famine in WW2 (that too many British politicians seem to forget) that was caused not by a lack of food but by the failure of the British Colonial Authorities to enable people to access to it.

This is in contrast to a lack of food available as a cause of famine – something that popular culture for Generation X associates with the Ethiopia famine of 1984. To today’s generation, the mindset of the political and popular culture response at the time (Band Aid / Live Aid) looks excruciating – and understandably so. But this was also a time when the government of the day (Margaret Thatcher’s) seemed content to go along with the growing trend of large charitable fund-raising backed by celebrity-endorsed TV ‘telethons’. It was mercilessly lampooned by Spitting Image in their ‘charity song’ – now very hard to find.

“It’s all for charity, all for charity! Today it’s all the rage! / Charity begins at home, and ends up on the front page!

“It’s all for charity, all for charity! We do what we can do! / We get a real warm feeling – to show we’re nicer than you!”

Spitting Image 1990
“Who are those people on the minimum wage?”

Up to 60% are women working in the hospitality and retail sector. Many of them are migrants, the very people we have humiliated enough already.”

Michael D. Higgins TD, 15 December 2010 in The Dáil, Republic of Ireland.

Given the direction successive Conservative-led governments have taken since 2010, and in particular since the EU Referendum, we have seen some of the most extreme policy responses (with questionable success rates even by ministers’ own definitions) in relation to:

  • asylum seekers (people seeking refuge for whatever reason)
  • refugees (people who have been granted asylum by the nation state where the individual applied for asylum),
  • migrant workers (people with citizenship of a different country but with the legal right to work).

Whether it is the policies to stop Channel crossings between France and the UK, to the even more treacherous crossings in the Mediterranean that Molly Blackall reported on here, the failure of national and international governments to agree a large scale comprehensive and co-ordinated joint foreign policy response speaks volumes.

It’s not as if the UK doesn’t spend a significant amount of money maintaining diplomatic presences in countries across the world. One of the things culturally the UK still does not realise about the EU is that many of the latter’s member countries are much smaller individually than the UK in terms of population, economy, and geographical area. Therefore maintaining a diplomatic network that the UK has would be far too great a financial burden for them as individual nation states. Therefore it makes more sense for the smaller countries to have day-to-day representation through a European Union office. This applies to other sectors as well.

Given the UK’s – or rather England’s history as a colonial power and the dominant power on Great Britain as a large island (England’s population being 10x that of Scotland and Wales combined, and Greater London having a larger population than the whole of the island of Ireland – Northern and Republic of), it begins to make more sense when you look at the histories and geographies in more detail. Because when you do, the established party political narratives that perhaps we take for granted far too easily, start to unravel.

The President of the Republic of Ireland spoke powerfully in and with a language and an accent – and with a passion that resonated with the life experiences of many of us.

It speaks volumes of our current political class in Westminster that we don’t hear nearly as many speeches spoken with such passion today – instead hearing short soundbites read out as lines-to-take irrespective of the question put to the interviewee on screen. And I should know – I did some of the training during my civil service days! (COM 1 and COM 2 – Communicating in a policy environment some 15 years ago with the old National School of Government!)

Universal Basic Income and residency-based voting as “tests of one’s ability to participate in society without shame”

Scotland has already introduced the latter for local and Scottish Parliamentary elections under the devolution agreement signed in the 1990s.

“The right to vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections has been extended today, with the passing of the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill. The Bill extends voting rights to all foreign nationals with leave to remain, including all those granted refugee status.”

Approval for Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, 20 Feb 2020

In the meantime, the Welsh Assembly Government has approved its first pilot of Universal Basic Income – for one of the most economically and socially-deprived groups of people in society: care leavers.

“From July 1st, around 500 care leavers in Wales will be offered a basic income when they turn 18. If they take it up, the Welsh Government will pay them £1,600 a month (before tax) for two years, equivalent to an annual salary of around £19,000, with no conditions attached to how they spend it.”

ITV News 28 June 2022.

This followed a policy announcement back in February 2022.

The evaluation results of the pilot – one of very few long term pilots globally, will be studied in detail for years to come. (Finland tried one with a smaller sum, but they have a more comprehensive social security system than the UK). There is a network working on the concept of Universal Basic Income – the UBI Lab Network that you can see here.

Universal Basic Income goes completely contrary to the political culture in Westminster which is one of punitive sanctions, means tests, and negative drivers to get people into paid work – irrespective of whether they are the right fit for the employers and jobs concerned. Here’s the former Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley in 1992.

Above – John Major’s Social Security Secretary, now Lord Lilley, who also has issues with policies in response to the Climate Emergency – this from Desmog.

National Minimum Wages and Universal Basic Incomes are not the magic wand solutions on their own

The challenge for policy-makers in the current opposition progressive political parties is weaving these policies into a comprehensive and co-ordinated program for government. And then having the personnel – the candidates at the next election that actually look like a government in waiting. At the moment I don’t see that. But then I don’t see a government in action with the ‘zombie government of inaction and impotence that has been silent on the urgent issues facing us – because the Conservatives are too busy navel-gazing in their party’s leadership contest.

A leadership contest full of obsolete soundbites containing 1980s economic policies

The debate – the clips that I have seen have put me off national politics completely. Both the two candidates left standing that emerged from the soundbite battles seem to have noting to offer but outdated policies that caused misery for many at the end of the 20th Century, and offer little hope as we head towards the worsening climate emergency that is now definitely here in the 2020s. Tax cuts, slogans, and culture wars to appeal to the print press barons. That’s so ‘last millennium’.

At the same time I’ve been wondering whether the collective experiences of:

  • the realities of leaving the EU (where people can compare the promises versus the reality – such as the queues at the ports and airports), the closed businesses and university programmes, and the labour shortages in industries and public services reliant on people from EU countries working in them)
  • Lockdown in response to the CV19 pandemic (and the blatant corruption from ministers over procurement contracts for chums that stemmed from their utter failure to continue with the contingency planning that had been done up to 2010)
  • The climate emergency (where we are now feeling the impact of the Conservatives’ failures in government to invest in renewables, insulation, electrified public transport, active travel schemes, and retrofitting towns & cities at scale)
  • The collapse of high standards and propriety in institutions and public life (which eventually led to Boris Johnson’s downfall)

…is enough of a driver to energise the electorate to demand better from opposition parties – in particular the Labour Party leadership who (for me at least) have failed so far to capture the public’s confidence and imagination in terms of policies and politicians. That said…

…there are two caveats with that.

The first is that since the 2019 general election, the Conservatives have inevitably dominated the airwaves because of the pandemic response. There is very little that any opposition party could have done in that first year of opposition at a time when we all found out the hard way just how much decisions at Westminster can affect our day-to-day lives to the extent that we could not go out of our houses without lawful reasons.

The second is that halfway through a government’s term of office is not the time in the political cycle to be making major detailed policy announcements. It just makes it easier for the government of the day to talk about the drawbacks of your policies in response to any difficult questions you want to pose for them. The problem with that is the public then argue they don’t know what the opposition parties stand for. Apart from The Green Party who have the advantage of their party’s name and colour matching what the public’s image is of their policies. Only periodically do Labour’s politicians remind people that “The Labour Party stands for the working people – the clue is in the name – Labour!”

Which is also one of the reasons why it is sad to see the state that the Romsey Labour Club on Mill Road finds itself in.

You can watch the presentation by the council officers, representations from objectors, and the debate of the councillors before the vote in this video from Cambridge City Council.

In the end the application for the 43 ‘short term let’ apartments was refused, but such is the long history from this particular applicant – here’s the response from the late Allan Brigham back in 2019 when the previous planning permission was granted. Because the applicant has nominally started work on that application, it remains to be seen if he will complete the work, appeal the refusal, or try to sell the site for another developer to complete. Shortly after the 2019 application was approved, Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) spotted the site was then put up for sale with the attached planning permission for £3m.

Allan Brigham’s archive also lists a few more cases:

Which reminds me – the building designs of the above:

Above – Hideous Cambridge, the hard-to-find book which encapsulates the inequalities in and around Cambridge as represented by ugly architecture (reflected by positive reviews in the national print press!)


Note to self and fellow local readers: At some stage we’ll need to compare, collate, and condense the blogposts of the last decade and a half to put together in a document to summarise what’s happened over that time period and what any lessons learnt are that we can put to politicians in the run up to the next general election.

Because it might be one of the few chances where the people of the city can make the case for changes in national policies that might reset the balance in favour of the people who live and work in our city (including those on low incomes who have to commute in to work/shop/attend large events from surrounding towns and villages) rather than the current situation which predominantly benefits the very wealthy interests, too many of whom have been putting their own financial interests ahead of the good of the city. The state of the River Cam being a very visible symptom of this.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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