Matthew Norman: They are gambling with my future

Thanks to the archaic severity of our gambling laws, I avoided becoming an addict who routinely blows the mortgage

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Of all the neuroses, irrationalities and minor lunacies covered by the Yiddish word "meshugas", the one that irritates me most is patriotic pride. So deep and immovable are the roots of this tribal emotion that even those who find him the personification of Home Counties smugness can barely watch Tim Henman play for fear of him losing. World's worst national anthem though it must be, few can hear the opening bars at an Olympic medal ceremony without welling up. Even the knowledge that Britain, in pursuance of that fabled "ethical foreign policy", remains the planet's second biggest exporter of arms is, on some gut level too hideous to contemplate, a source of satisfaction.

Of all the neuroses, irrationalities and minor lunacies covered by the Yiddish word "meshugas", the one that irritates me most is patriotic pride. So deep and immovable are the roots of this tribal emotion that even those who find him the personification of Home Counties smugness can barely watch Tim Henman play for fear of him losing. World's worst national anthem though it must be, few can hear the opening bars at an Olympic medal ceremony without welling up. Even the knowledge that Britain, in pursuance of that fabled "ethical foreign policy", remains the planet's second biggest exporter of arms is, on some gut level too hideous to contemplate, a source of satisfaction.

So it came as no surprise, settling down earlier this week with the Daily Mail's front page, to feel that frisson of misplaced pride. An explosion of gambling, ran the story, "has lifted the British industry ... to become the biggest in Europe and third in the world, behind the US and Japan". And it gets better. "Analysts see it increasing at a similar pace and possibly becoming the most lucrative in the world." We may no longer make anything anyone else would dream of buying (except for those armaments, of course, and Colman's mustard), our post-Thatcherite utopia may be little more than a gigantic clearing house for global financial transactions, but so what? Within a decade, we could be world ranked number one at gambling.

The figures are startling. According to a scholarly, 900-page report called Double Or Quits? from the Midlands-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, the industry's annual non-racetrack turnover - in betting shops and casinos, on the internet, and via interactive satellite channels ("press red," was the message on a station I flicked past last night, "for 24 hour Roulette!) - has quintupled in four years to some £40bn; and will continue its rise once the forthcoming bill deregulating the casino business permits Vegas-style resort complexes, massive fruit machine jackpots and 24-hour casino drinking of the kind that led Wayne Rooney to blow some pocket money at poker the other night in Manchester while reportedly "blotto".

Somewhere in all this, you begin to sniff the familiar scent of hypocrisy. Bless his puritan heart, Gordon Brown is hardly the kind of man who gets home at 5am and mutters to his half-asleep wife, "I wouldn't go using the credit card at Baby Gap for a bit, love. Black came up 17 times running ..." No, with his dutiful Calvinist upbringing and love of fiscal caution, it's a sure thing that this Chancellor disapproves violently of the weakness and frivolity required for a disastrous stint at the roulette table.

As for the Secretary of State nominally responsible (as if she'd be allowed to blow her nose without Gordon's express permission) for this new bill, Tessa Jowell is just the kind of breathily-concerned former psychiatric social worker who, in her heart of hearts, knows that the liberalisation of gaming is exceedingly dangerous.

And so it is. I know this as well as most, having flirted with addiction for 25 years. As a boy, the pocket money went in fruit machines. My first month's wages went in an hour chasing a recalcitrant 33 black in Cannes. On honeymoon in Atlantic City, they fed me enough free bourbon to ensure that, when we left Donald Trump's Taj Mahal the next morning to catch the 747 home, I had to bum coins off a bellboy to get us through the New Jersey Turnpike.

It has been thanks to the archaic severity of our gambling laws that I just about avoided becoming the kind of addict who routinely blows the mortgage. Since the law demands that you become a member of a casino 24 hours before you can play there, I simply never joined one.

This important barrier to self- destruction is soon to be officially demolished - although in effect it already has been. Nowadays, it's a real struggle to pass a high street betting shop without nipping in for a crack at the touch-screen roulette machines that have quickly come to contribute more to bookies' profits than all sports betting combined.

To watch people play these electronic bandits is to glimpse the true extent of the menace. Their backs turned to the screens showing horse and dog racing, and resolutely ignoring the "Do You Have A Problem With Gambling?" Gamcare leaflets stacked above them, they remorselessly feed their wage packets, pensions and doubtless the proceeds of their criminality into a device that greedily sucks up the £20 notes like a D-list celeb snorting cocaine.

Last year, to mention one among myriad sob stories, an Albanian walked into my local Hill's in west London and in three hours blew the £3,000 he'd spent three years saving to help the family back home. That, you might say, was entirely his choice. Whether it's a construction worker from Tirana, a 76-year-old woman living on the state pension, or even a dissolute Independent columnist, everyone has the perfect right to choose their own highway to hell. Generally, I take the libertarian line too.

In this case, however, a government with anything but libertarian instincts isn't seeking to enable people to indulge a harmless existing taste. It is actively encouraging them to develop a new one while affecting blindness to the potential damage: the last time I wrote about touch-screen roulette, one of Ms Jowell's juniors responded with a letter explaining why control of these machines had lain beyond a government that pushed through highly contentious terrorism legislation in a day. "Andrew McIntosh," he signed himself, with no ironic intent, "Minister with Responsibility for Gaming".

As for his boss, she appears belatedly to realise the danger, stating recently that the size of the stakes and potential winnings will be reviewed before the gaming bill is published later this month. Yet so addictive is roulette, which releases adrenaline surges and God knows what other psycho-chemical reactions with each spin, that the equivalent would be to legalise heroin one year, and limit the daily amount a pharmacist can sell the next.

The only conceivable reason that this socially authoritarian administration - Ms Jowell once advocated mandatory boot camps where the unemployed would be taught how to clean their fingernails - wishes to liberalise gambling is almost too obvious to state. Like one of those saddos who spends hour after hour shoving quarters into a slot machine on the floor of Caesar's Palace, the Treasury stands in front of this burgeoning industry, bucket held out waiting for the metallic cascade. Only in this case, the one-armed bandit's microchip has been nobbled, and the tax yield jackpot guaranteed.

The last government report on its forthcoming legislation was called A Safe Bet, and for the Treasury that's precisely what it is. But there can be no winners without losers, and these will be the small but significant percentage of people who will go out looking for harmless kicks, and swiftly get hooked. An existing social problem will be dramatically worsened, and many thousands of Mr Blair's hard-working families will be traumatised, and even ruined.

The worst domestic bet this government ever struck, until now, was wagering £800m that the Millennium Dome would be a glorious encapsulation of what Britain represents today. In three years, the Dome is due to reopen as one of the largest casinos in the world. The metaphor speaks, I suspect, for itself.

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