Former Chancellor George Osborne announcing the budget in 2014See Li

Extravagance in the Roman world often worked in cycles. Following the madness, excess and folly of Gaius Caligula, the sensible and stuttering Claudius was chosen. The same is true with Vespasian, who, following Nero, is noted with being incredibly modest both in terms of his diet and his leisure. In a rough and imperfect sense, this same cycle of periods of wild luxury preceding periods of stringency and frugality can be found in much of European history since the emperors of the first century AD.

“This idea of shaming those who spend money on non-essentials, would perhaps make more sense were it not for the incredible hypocrisy of the Conservatives”

In the 20th and 21st century, however, our relationship to modesty, extravagance and any shame associated with those ideas has become more complicated. Never has the relationship been more strained and confused than now and in the years following the economic crisis of 2008. The Conservative Party has managed to take control over the centre and right through the false idea that only cutting public programmes can provide a strong economic foundation for the UK, whereas investment and spending are the domain of the foolish and economically unwise.

This has led to many shaming those who ask for financial aid from the state. Shows like Benefits Street on Channel 4 have produced huge backlash at the idea of people on jobseeker’s allowance buying anything other than water. In 1844, Marx suggested that ‘every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury.’ This has once again come to the fore in recent weeks with Prosecco Gate, in which a benefits recipient, upon receiving a ‘Christmas bonus’ of £10, bought two bottles of Prosecco over the festive period. The Daily Mail go on to claim that just under £3,000 was spent by the claimant over the holidays, who then went on to boast about her wheeze and raised a glass to the taxpayer. This was all wrapped up in a nasty anti-benefit and deeply classist rhetoric, in which the fact that the woman had four children with four different fathers was somehow inexorably linked to the audacity required to go on such a gross £10 binge.

This idea of shaming those who spend money on non-essentials, the line that the Tories have been pedalling for the last decade, would perhaps make more sense were it not for the incredible hypocrisy of the Conservatives. As well as shaming the poor, the Tories have also introduced the idea of ‘aspiration’, which, superficially, sounds like a positive quality, one which promotes hard work. However, aspiration has become a poisonous term which enables the Conservatives to justify their cutting of corporate taxes, or their chummy relationship with city bankers as policies and friendships which push people to strive for more, to take that next step or work that extra hour. Rather than closing any gap between the poor and wealthy, however, seven years of a Conservative government has seen the gap between the richest and the poorest in our society widen, while middle level incomes have stagnated and public sector workers, and particularly women in the public sector, have seen their pension, the age at which then can retire and their prospects in their career, complicated, raised and decreased respectively. In short, the Conservatives have created a narrative of necessary austerity and middle class aspiration, a narrative in which the only reality has been the cruel and targeted nature of Tory spending cuts.

James Turner Street, the subject of “Benefits Street”. Many residents on the street struggled with poverty despite being in employment, but none of these were featured in the documentarypeter whatley

Over the last year politics has had almost nothing to do with people’s pay, the dearth of jobs for young people or the state of our public schools and hospitals. Instead, since the Conservative victory in May 2015, politics has been about immigration. The financial inequalities we have seen worsen over the last few years are now the fault of workers from the EU, they are nothing to do with the Tories, nor with the big corporations they prop up or the CEOs they lunch with. We are, now more than ever, developing into a country of the 'haves and have nots' in which the notion that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich, rich, is a totally valid one. A country in which feeling financially vulnerable is due to personal weaknesses and failings, and success is purely brought about by hard work, ignoring the educational, cultural and economic disparity up and down the country.

What we need is not empty slogans like ‘One Nation Tories’ or ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and the façade of a government which cares for all, but a genuine movement away from blame, shame and guilt. At the moment, there is not a party in Westminster capable of delivering the kind of unifying and humane politics we all deserve

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