IT’S either from Margaret Thatcher or the Duchess of Westminster, but it’s the quote about buses you can never forget. Jeremy Corbyn revived it in 2019: “Thatcher once said anyone on a bus over the age of 25 is a failure.”

Well, that’s me a right royal failure then. This last week, as we settled into our new Leith home, I was exploring the nooks and crannies of Edinburgh, almost entirely by means of the number 7,11 and 14 buses.

I like them! I like their municipal burgundy colour. I like the cheap neon disco effect on the stairs to the upper deck.

But most of all I like the crowds of happy, noisy kids and smiling young adults, piling in and piling off them. No wonder they’re skippy: If they’re under 22, they’re not paying a penny for their fare.

This week, we discovered that 100 million bus journeys have been made since the introduction of Scotland’s national free fare policy in January 2022.

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According to the Transport Scotland report, 700,000 have signed up to the card, the lifetime savings are up to £3000, and 34% are saying the scheme has “enabled them to pursue new opportunities” in health, education and leisure.

The Scottish Greens, who made the scheme a condition of their governing coalition with the SNP, are understandably crowing at its success.

Says MSP Mark Ruskell (below): “We are introducing new generations of people to public transport, developing user habits that had all too sadly been lost to our car culture. Allied with our record investment in walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure, this is environmentally defining stuff ... It is one of the most transformative benefits introduced by our parliament.”

The National: Green MSP Mark Ruskell at Holyrood

I think they’re right to claim the win. According to Defra’s stats, taking a local bus emits a little over half the greenhouse gases of a single occupancy car journey. There will be even less impact to come, when they all convert to electric or hydrogen.

So the behaviour is deeply to be encouraged. The Transport Scotland paper is bracingly explicit about its aim of discouraging young people from learning, or even wanting, to drive. The idea that opposing “car culture” restores old habits (of walking then riding) is Green politics at its most resonantly conservative.

But even then, this isn’t about being Luddite. The travel app on your smartphone solves the problem of buses as opaque and mysterious apparitions, requiring much local lore to use (which buses were for many years to me).

Instead, there it is, in your hand: Five minutes late, but on its way.

If a “wellbeing” economy can feel abstract and high-falutin’, this kind of initiative makes it concrete and deliverable.

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This not only prepares a generation for their necessary post-car shift, but ensures a greater sense of safety for young women; relieves pressure on family budgets; and invites youngsters into a space where they’ll meet, in all shapes, sizes and dispositions, the rest of their society.

Experts line up to call free bus travel for under-22s a step towards “Universal Basic Services”. It’s a recent term, emerging partly as a complement to, and partly a critique of, the more familiar term of UBI – Universal Basic Income.

Both of them have arisen as a response to yet another systemic upheaval of capitalism. Yet there are worthwhile differences to explore between them. One route may, at least, be an easier sell than the other.

The UBS folks want to stress the familiarity of their pitch. This is only an extension of the post-war public health and education systems. These are “basic services”, you might say, which are free to use, and collectively provided, in order to raise the floor of our standards of living. Shouldn’t we extend that principle to transport, housing, broadband, energy?

Leftist commentator Aaron Bastani (below) noted in July that a recent UBI plan imagined the amount of £244 monthly to each UK working-age adult (other groups get smaller amounts). Added this on to existing programmes, this implied £170bn a year, the same as the annual UK health budget.

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But for the same price, argues the UBS camp, you’d get free and powerful broadband, abundant public housing built to a passivehaus standard, inflation-proof renewable energy, a national care service ...

“The return on such an investment seems superior to UBI,” writes Bastani. “Not least because it permits society to engage with the principal challenges of the 21st century – the climate crisis, demographic ageing, stagnant living standards and automation.”

Bastani is the guy who wrote Fully Automated Luxury Communism, so you would expect him to be perfectly sanguine about the statist implications of Universal Basic Services. “The truth is that to decarbonise by 2040 we need the one thing market fundamentalists hate,” suggests Bastani – and that is “planning”.

I’m interested in the basis on which UBI advocates push back against UBS as the better option. Their complaint is, indeed, its top-down, overly-controlling impetus. Leading advocate for UBI Guy Standing says that the redistribution of income to each individual is about restoring dignity and agency to many, not just about reshaping behaviour in the required direction.

As he wrote in 2019: “Basic income would enhance freedom. It would strengthen the ability of individuals to say ‘no’ to oppressive or exploitative relations, employers, spouses, bureaucrats and others. It would strengthen liberal freedom – the right to be moral – and republican freedom – the ability to make decisions free from people with unaccountable power.”

Standing can give you a list of positive outcomes from UBI, if you wish. “Psychologists have found that basic security increases people’s IQ, and makes people more altruistic, tolerant, co-operative and productive, as workers and as citizens.”

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Pick your own cherries from the available research. But as you might expect, I’m just as interested in the possibility UBS and UBI might complement and enhance each other, rather than substitute for one another.

In the Scottish context, this talk really isn’t that utopian. Another name for UBS in the research literature is the “social wage”. The more elephant-memoried among you may remember the social wage featuring in the early rhetoric of the Salmond-era Holyrood parliaments: The examples were free personal care, free prescription charges, waived student tuition fees, etc.

I also recently enjoyed the social geographer Danny Dorling rhapsodising recently on a London Review of Books podcast. It was about the Scottish Government’s child payment scheme (up to five children eligible here, three – with the third the outcome of rape – in England).

Dorling pointed to it as an example of what governments could easily do to prevent a generation of “stunted” children. But it’s also a consequence of attaching a social payment to a human’s right to develop healthily. This is very much in concert with Guy Standing’s arguments for the ethical value of UBI.

So in history, and in its current habits, Scottish national policy has always wanted to respond to the question of “universal basics”; what secures a decent life for the entire population?

Very good. So how will these fine aspirations be paid for? The noises in the last few days of a change to the upper bands of income tax in Scotland is one answer to that question.

But it’s a poor, constrained one. One of the irreducible reasons for independence is that we need a sovereign jurisdiction that will empower Scots to fully take on this accelerating, disruptive future.

As the planetary boundaries constrain us, and as artificial powers supplant our routine labours, we have a coming economic meltdown in any case. Yes, Scottish policymakers have shown that we are what the late, great Stephen Maxwell called a “moral community”, facing such megatrends. But we need sufficient power to exercise that morality: A grip on all the elements needing to be integrated.

It’s beautiful to see these kids revel in their freedom, and distribute their energy, on their free bus tickets. But Adult Scots! Let’s get our sovereign act together.