There was a time when a casino was to be found on the top floor of the Metropole Hotel, Brighton. At party conferences, two friends of mine, Peter Jenkins and Auberon Waugh, who both died too young, considered it an agreeable place at which to conclude the day's labours. Each year they asked me to join them. And each year I would reply that I would rather spend the rest of the evening in Sodom or, for that matter, Gomorrah. Typical Welsh Non-conformist, one of them would say. Not at all, I would reply: I am an Anglican, confirmed by the Bishop of St David's, who had placed his hand (admittedly with some hesitation) on my heavily Brylcreemed head.
Ah, Brylcreem: does anybody still use it? Is it any longer made? It used to be advertised by another old acquaintance of mine, also dead, though he lived longer: Denis Compton. I imagine he would have enjoyed a night at the casino or, at any rate, he would have raised no objection to such a visit. But his real recreation was betting on the horses. From midday till about one, fortifying glass of whisky to hand, he would work out his bets. He would then repair to the nearest Fleet Street betting shop, after which he was prepared to talk about cricket, though I suspect he was bored with the whole business by then, and was more interested in that afternoon's likely happenings at various racecourses.
There are, I suppose, hundreds of thousands of elderly men, and a few women, who organise their lives much as Compton did. They read the paper at home or in the pub, visit the betting shop, have another drink and perhaps a light lunch, and spend the afternoon watching Channel 4 racing on television. It is a way of passing the time and giving an interest to life. I do not go in for it myself because I object to giving my money away, which on the whole you do by betting on horses, and as you most certainly do by playing the various games on offer in casinos.
But I see nothing wrong with gambling as such. The Puritan who claims it is wicked to make money without working for it would not dream of giving the capital appreciation in the value of his house either to charity or to Mr Gordon Brown, even if he were allowed to keep an element taking inflation into account. I am perfectly happy to place a bet when I think I know roughly what I am doing.
Thus I made a tidy sum in 1980 out of backing Mr Michael Foot at 14-1 to become leader of the Labour Party. I have often won money by backing France, whether in individual rugby matches or for the Six Nations Championship. But I have lost money too, in rugby and in politics alike. What I have never had is a desire to visit a casino. I did once enter the casino at Monte Carlo with a friend just to see what it was like, retiring some five minutes later, suitably impressed by the fairground-baroque interior but with no overwhelming urge to pay a return visit.
Now we are to have casinos likewise, less splendid no doubt, but fulfilling the same function, and organised on the same principles (of which the chief one is that the bank never loses). They are to exist in major cities, if the relevant local authorities want them. Or perhaps the principles are not quite the same: for most of the disapproving comment has concentrated not so much on roulette and the like as on pinball or fruit machines, designed to relieve the customer of as much money as possible while making any return highly remote.
How like, how very like, the home life of our own dear Lottery! - a well-tried device for removing the workers' pennies and, capitalism having taken its cut, handing over the proceeds to various middle-class bureaucrats in London to distribute according to their eccentric whims. With the casinos, the proceeds will go by a mysterious process of osmosis to the lucky towns - Blackpool, which does not deserve to be revived by anybody, is particularly keen on the project - and, by less puzzling channels, chiefly to American firms which specialise in removing money from the gullible.
This, indeed, is one of the principal objections on the Labour benches to Ms Tessa Jowell's Gambling Bill: not so much that cash will be extracted from simple folk who can ill afford a potentially ruinous habit as, rather, that the people doing the extracting will be Americans, even gangsters. It is all of a piece with Mr Tony Blair's desire to suck up to Mr George Bush and with his support for the Iraq war. It stands to reason. Or so Labour members who are increasingly sceptical of Mr Blair, think - or choose to think.
Perhaps they are being unfair to Mr Blair and Ms Jowell. The trouble is, we do not look to either of them for a libertarian or even for a moderately liberal approach. It is not in the character of this government. We remember Mr Blair's denunciation of "libertarian nonsense" at the party conference a few years ago. In Mr David Blunkett we have the most authoritarian Home Secretary since Sir David Maxwell Fife, possibly since Sir William Joynson-Hicks. As for Ms Jowell, she is - partly because she is a woman, partly because of her stern, even if attractive, aspect - the very embodiment of the Nanny State.
The phrase, by the way, comes from Iain Macleod, who first used it in his column in The Spectator in 1965. When Ms Jowell is not telling us to brush our teeth at least twice a day, she is instructing us to go easy on the salt - a substance which the human race has been consuming happily for the last 2,000 years and more, and is referred to approvingly by the Scriptures on several occasions. We simply do not expect a liberal, still less a libertarian, approach from her, from Mr Blair or from anyone else in the Government.
Lord Hattersley wrote in The Guardian last Monday that the Bill had nothing to do with such lofty concepts and that John Stuart Mill would have opposed it. Indeed, he asserted that Mill was in favour of preventing people from doing harm to themselves. Here Lord Hattersley is wrong. Mill deals clearly with the case of a man (it is always a man) harming himself by, say, excessive drinking. He is quite clear that his friends and relations are fully entitled to entreat him to stop; even, if necessary, to address him harshly. But further than this neither they nor members of society generally are entitled to go. About this Mill is quite definite.
Where Lord Hattersley is right is in pointing out that gambling affects other people besides the gambler, chiefly his or her dependants. But then, exactly the same is true of excessive drinking and, even more so, of sexual infidelity. We can admit this and still conclude that society is healthier if people are allowed to go more or less their own ways. But the truth is that people can already gamble as much as they like. They may even go lawfully to casinos if they take enough trouble first. To Ms Jowell, one can only echo the traditional answer of the disobliging London shopkeeper: "There's no call for it, squire."Reuse content