Peter Sloman, Transfer State

Peter Sloman, Transfer State: The idea of a guaranteed income and the politics of redistribution in modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, xiv + 302 pp, 0-19-881326-2, hbk, £65

Peter Sloman’s aim in this thoroughly researched book is to ‘illuminate a neglected dimension of British social thought, and help explain the enduring appeal of … providing an income floor for citizens through cash transfers’ (p. v). What then evolves might best be described as a twisted rope that extends from 1918 to 2019, with strands that we might call ‘government policy on income transfers’, ‘unconditional income proposals’, and ‘other income transfer proposals’. To read the book is to watch the three strands of the rope wind together through a period of substantial social, economic and political change.

Readers should begin with the text box on page 9 so that they know how Sloman is using the terms ‘Universal Basic Income’, ‘Negative Income Tax’, ‘Tax Credit’, and ‘Participation Income’ (the definitions of which cohere with normal usage). We shall return to the concept of a ‘guaranteed income’, also mentioned in the text box, later in this review.

The introductory chapter discusses the recent explosion of interest in Basic Income, and then introduces the main subject of the book: ‘how the idea of a guaranteed minimum income has shaped the politics of the welfare state in Britain over the past century’ (p. 5). Snapshots of the history of guaranteed income ideas in the UK then intertwine with elements of the global Basic Income history, always in the context of the social and economic history of the time: a constant and most welcome characteristic of the entire book. Sloman identifies the shift from social insurance to means-tested payments during the 1970s as constituting the UK as a ‘transfer state’, and as a significant reshaping of the relationships between the state, citizens, and society.

Chapter 2 charts changing attitudes to the redistribution of income since the eighteenth century; chapter 3 describes a number of proposals for Basic Income and similar mechanisms made between 1918 and 1939, and in particular Juliet Rhys-Williams’ proposal for something that would have been a Basic Income if it had not been subject to a work test; chapter 4 most usefully explores the rather less well known discussions of Negative Income Tax proposals in various contexts in the UK between 1955 and 1970; and chapter 5 discusses the Heath government’s Tax Credit proposals ( – real Tax Credits, and so rather like Negative Income Tax: not to be confused with the means-tested benefits that the New Labour government called ‘Tax Credits’). Sloman ends the chapter with ‘the Thatcher government … expanding means-tested benefits for the working poor as a way of flanking and legitimizing free-market policies’ (p. 143): the story of which is recounted in chapter 6. Chapter 7 offers an account of how the New Labour government’s ‘Tax Credits’ ‘redistributed by stealth’; and chapter 8, ‘A Crisis of the Transfer State?’, charts the decline in both living standards and tax revenues since the financial crisis, the increasing Income Tax Personal Allowance, and the establishment of the so-called ‘National Living Wage’. Chapter 9 is a history of the UK’s Basic Income debate since the 1980s, again, and most usefully, in its social and economic context. Sloman charts a wave pattern within this relatively short period, with a period of increasing interest, followed by a period of relative marginalisation, and now a period of renewed interest, during which ‘security of income’ has become a dominant theme in the debate. Sloman evaluates illustrative Basic Income schemes and discusses problems with pilot projects. The concluding chapter explores ways in which Universal Credit might be reformed, and the cultural and political barriers to the implementation of a Basic Income.

The sentence that perhaps best characterises the approach of this most useful book is this: ‘Bringing the ideational and public policy stories together … focuses our attention both on the intellectual context in which policy is made and on the transmission and reception of ideas in political debate’ (p. 21).

There are some terminological issues of which the reader might wish to be aware. The first relates to the word ‘guarantee’. The text box on page 9 defines ‘guaranteed income’ as ‘a level of income guaranteed to every individual or household, which may be universal or means-tested’. This is ambiguous. The first phrase looks as if it means ‘a level of income below which the individual or household will not be allowed to fall’, whereas the second phrase suggests that ‘guaranteed income’ means that an income is to be granted by the state, and that that income might be means-tested. [1] In most places in the book – for instance, in relation to the ‘income guarantee’ for pensioners discussed on pages 104-109 – ‘guarantee’ terminology implies a level of disposable income below which a household or individual is not allowed to fall: so the first definition in the text box on page 9 should probably have read ‘guaranteed income: a level of income guaranteed to every individual or household, which might be achieved by the payment of unconditional or means-tested benefits’. Elsewhere in the book the reader will find that such terms as ‘guaranteed income’, ‘income guarantee’, ‘minimum income guarantee’ and ‘guaranteed minimum income’ can be taken to mean either a level of disposable income below which the individual or household is not allowed to fall, or the payment of an unconditional or means-tested benefit. The reader should assume the former definition.

Unfortunately, the real problem is not that the word ‘guarantee’ creates ambiguity in the context of this book: it is rather that the use of the word in the book reflects similar ambiguous usage throughout the current debate on the reform of social security benefits. It might be helpful if the word ‘guarantee’ were to be banished from all future discussion of the reform of social security benefits.

A somewhat less serious issue relates to Sloman’s use of the word ‘transfers’. He normally means both means-tested and unconditional benefits (in connection with which the story of Family Allowance and Child Benefit might have been told in a more connected fashion): but social insurance benefits are also transfers. (Yes, there is a National Insurance Fund into which National Insurance Contributions are paid, and out of which are paid National Insurance Benefits and the costs of the National Health Service: but every year it has to be massively topped up by other taxation revenues.) And an interesting question: Do income tax allowances function as ‘state transfers’?

But while such terminological issues are problematic, they do not detract from the quality and usefulness of Sloman’s book, which has benefited from substantial amounts of original research. All authors stand on the shoulders of giants. Sloman recognises the giants on whose shoulders his work stands. Any future history of the social security system in the UK, and any future history of reform proposals, will have to stand on Sloman’s shoulders.

 

Note

[1] ‘Universal’ in the second phrase is also somewhat ambiguous. Does it mean that the income granted is unconditional: that is, the same amount for every individual – a Basic Income; or does it mean that the income is in principle for everyone, but not necessarily at the same level: which again might suggest means-testing? The context suggests that we should take ‘universal’ to mean ‘unconditional’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Footnotes

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