We can't choose who wins the Lottery

If large sums of money are going to be given randomly to individuals, they will sometimes go to bad people
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The Independent Online

We like narratives - that is, a story with consecutive logic and a sense of rightness to it. We don't like sequences of events which seem senseless and unfair, and when one happens in real life, we rail against it.

We like narratives - that is, a story with consecutive logic and a sense of rightness to it. We don't like sequences of events which seem senseless and unfair, and when one happens in real life, we rail against it.

The Lottery is always turning up one or the other. Last week, we had the case of a lady with cancer, who, deep in other concerns, forgot to look at her ticket for three weeks. When she did, she found - narrative follows - that the suffering of her cancer was redeemed by the fact that she'd won £20m. Or, if you prefer, the importance of money was put in perspective by the fact that the poor woman had cancer - it works as a narrative either way round.

This week, the sequence of events arising from the winner of the lottery is not such a pleasing narrative, and a certain amount of rage has resulted. Prisoners on day-release are allowed to buy lottery tickets, and this week, one of them won a jackpot of £7m. Unfortunately, he is a convicted rapist. Faced with the impossibility of making any kind of narrative out of this - rapist in prison rewarded with a fortune - the newspapers started demanding that a third element be added, namely redemption. That would turn it into the sort of story they like. The logic of narrative demands that he must use his money to set up foundations for victims of rape, or compensate his victims.

Rational as this sounds on the surface, it's hard to escape the suspicion of fatuity hanging around the suggestion. In the first instance, I can't think of any organisation, or imagine any rape victim, who would be willing to take this money for any other reason than to deprive him of it. In other words, it would really be a matter of an additional punishment. Secondly, if you accept that large sums of money are going to be given randomly to individual citizens, you are going to give them, on occasion, to bad people who may not do good things with the money.

You can't have it both ways: you can't approve of the principle of the lottery, and then try to choose who the jackpot should go to, or to deny that the money, once handed over, is really theirs at all. It is only the logic of a tempting, redemptive, 19th-century narrative which would lead you to attempt to reconcile the two things.

I quite understand why newspapers would subscribe to this logic, even when they make themselves sound perfectly idiotic - "Let this be the last time vermin like Hoare can sully the Lotto's name", The Sun said the other day, forgetting, perhaps, that they were talking about a lottery. They are quite entitled to do so, being - as Rupert Murdoch famously said - in the entertainment business. What is quite terrifying is when government policy starts to be driven by these redemptive fantasies.

David Blunkett was so quick to jump on this particular bandwagon, he was at pains to point out that he'd been the one who'd hired the band in the first place. "We can't stop a prisoner or their family from buying a ticket, but we can look closely at making sure they don't benefit from a single penny while in prison. I have legislation before Parliament to do just that."

Of course, what lies behind this is not legal propriety - after all, I don't believe that prisoners have access to their own financial resources while in prison, however they were acquired, and it should hardly need new legislation to ensure that lottery winners don't either - but the pressures of a satisfying narrative, with, if possible, a moral. And a Home Secretary should have nothing whatever to do with that. He has to accept that life is random, and often unfair in many respects, and if you're already punishing someone as they deserve, you can't start punishing them some more once they become the object of envy.

But then, does it not seem as if the Home Secretary's initiatives are, all too often, driven by a sort of desire for narrative which life rarely supplies? The latest one was described by Ms Hazel Blears and the Home Office as a "modernising" and a "tidying-up exercise" -and when I hear this government use the words "tidying-up exercise", I reach for my biography of Goering. These monstrous proposals permit the police to arrest suspects for any offence, rather than simply those which carry a custodial sentence - watch out, next time you drop a cigarette butt.

If you are suspected of swallowing a packet of drugs, you can be held in custody for up to 12 days, which sounds all right, until you reflect that in some parts of the country, this probably means that if a bored policeman searches a black person and finds nothing, his victim had probably better cancel his social engagements for the next fortnight. We are assured by the Government that these powers would not actually be used - you don't actually face arrest if you drop litter. But let us consider the fact that the stopping and searching of Asian people has risen by a factor of 300 per cent recently, to take a single example, and then wonder what trust we place in this government to give the police outrageous new powers which are not in practice to be used.

"If you have done nothing wrong," the mantra runs, "you have nothing to fear." What the mantra doesn't acknowledge is that the notion of "something wrong" is shifting all the time, until it includes dropping litter and looking foreign. This week, the Home Office admitted that its immigration officials were in the habit of stopping people on the Tube who were speaking non-European languages and demanding to see proof of their right of residency in this country. In these circumstances, I don't think any of us can welcome an initiative which gives the police the power to arrest you for dropping a crisp packet, or to detain you for 12 days in custody if an officer decides to claim that he thought you might have swallowed a packet of drugs, or, as far as I know, if you start talking Arabic on Queensway. It doesn't sound very much like "modernising" at all.

What it sounds like, yoking together the very disparate cases of the rapist lottery winner and the new powers of arrest, is a Home Office driven not by fairness but by the idle fantasies of narrative fiction - the same stories which the Home Secretary's favourite newspaper so enjoys.

The story goes like this: one day, a junior policeman stops a swarthy fellow dropping some rubbish on the streets of Cirencester. "You can't do that 'ere," he says, and before he knows it, the man is cursing at him in some sinister middle-Eastern language. The copper's well-honed instincts are roused, and with the new powers kindly Mr Blunkett has given him, he can arrest the blighter, where it's discovered that beneath the billowing robes there is not only four pounds of smuggled heroin, but an entire concealed paedophile ring and enough Semtex to blow the Royal Agricultural College sky-high. A job well done, thanks to Blunkett, and now we can all rest easy in our beds.

But there are other narratives, which aren't quite so likely to be made into two-part mini-series by the BBC; tales of harrassment, persecution, racism and sheer bloody-minded inconvenience. Do we honestly want a Home Secretary who principally wants to provide us with satisfying bedside stories, at whatever cost to civil liberties and ordinary, deplorable freedoms?

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