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Panem et Circenses (Bread and circuses – the students’ choice.)

Twitter was busy this week with Manchester students moaning about the cold whilst protesting against cuts outside the Tory conference in Birmingham. Black and red posters appeared hastily pasted up in their usual fashion around the campus, “Stuff your cuts, we won’t pay!” read the slogans. But it’s not just the Commies who are upset; there is an atmosphere on campus from many students and staff that they are on a collision course with the Conservative-Liberal government.

It’s a fashionable norm on campuses to despise the Conservative party; we must be sure to hate them with a burning passion without logic or question for thirty-year-old prejudices. Eating baked beans, drinking wine from jam jars, listening to peculiar music, reading The Guardian and hating the Tories are all well respected student pastimes.  What I find puzzling is that the majority of the political student body want to be waging a vitriolic war against the Con-Lib coalition’s austerity measures, yet they are only implementing cuts that must happen.

Public debt is at an eye watering level of £800 billion; that amounts to an astonishing £77,770 for every single Briton with a job. It’s a debt that we all inherit upon graduation. According to the Labour party’s own pre-election figures, this amount will continue to rise rapidly, up to £1,400 billion by 2014-15 if left unaddressed. It was Labour’s own Liam Bryne who, in a parting shot to his Conservative treasury replacement left a note: “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m sorry to tell you there is no money left. Kind regards and good luck.” Yet students seem resolute that public spending needs to be maintained at the very least, if not expanded upon to pre-recession levels. It’s a peculiar stance to take, especially from university student who are expected to become the new social-elites and the next generation of decision makers in our society.

The situation is brutally simple. If there isn’t money in the treasury, then government spending cannot occur, because the money doesn’t exist. If the treasury continues to spend money it doesn’t have (or prints money to pay its huge public sector), then either workers will not be paid or inflation increases. It appears to be a difficult formula for some to follow or understand, but one the European Commission is desperate for at least our politicians to comprehend.

The situation of the current government is especially interesting because it draws a clear parallel with the situation that many students find themselves in, graduating with £23,000 worth of debt, another popular subject for twitter discourse.  This debt is due to the reckless lifestyle many students lead, living well beyond their means, borrowing money they are ill prepared to pay back. Perhaps it was inevitable for a generation who had grown up under New Labour to lack any monetary discipline.

What is worse, is that none of the student critics of austerity have any real suggestion as to who should repay the huge deficit created by the Labour government, (or indeed their own student loans) as long as it’s not them. “Tax the rich” members of the angry crowd cry, “Flog ‘em at the same time!” scream some others. But the fact is, that that particular beast doesn’t exist. Less than 15% of working people in the country pay the top rate of tax (which is already at 50%). Crippling the wealthy with Robin Hood taxes won’t cut the budgetary deficit.

Bread and Circuses is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace. It’s a policy that governments resort to when they are out of ideas. The Tories did it during the late 1950’s and many of the last Labour government’s public works schemes fall under this category. Maintaining or increasing public spending at a time like this is exactly that. It’s a short-term strategy for us to feel better about ourselves without thinking about the future.

Students’ Union’s across the country often argue on behalf of their members that they aren’t taken seriously. Be it by their institutions or the government, the claim is that people aren’t listening; but must we ask if our views are sensible or demonstrate reasonable thought? Is it rational or at all feasible that many of us want to have nearly twenty years of fully state sponsored education and retire only forty years later at the age of 65 on a full state pension, with benefits and health care? It’s complete lunacy, hence, ‘Bread and Circuses’.

Austerity cuts are undeniably necessary in Britain. Nobody likes cuts to defense contracts, which render whole Scottish ports without work. Nobody wants to see public funding slashed for higher education, leaving students struggling. But if the money isn’t in the bank, then it cannot be spent. David Cameron and Nick Clegg aren’t milk snatchers, they’re realists and as students studying history, economics, philosophy and politics, we should be to.

Tags: cuts, Joe Sheffer

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