A cynical bet on an impossible fantasy

What was once a seedy occupation for losers is now another harmless, jolly leisure pursuit
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The Independent Online

Certain reliable indicators become evident when a mighty conglomerate is preparing to transform an area with some great money-making enterprise - a giant supermarket, say, or a new runway for an airport, or a big housing development. There will, first, be happy, eager talk of jobs, thousands of them, for the community as if, even at a time of high employment, the spectre of the dole queue still hangs over us.

Certain reliable indicators become evident when a mighty conglomerate is preparing to transform an area with some great money-making enterprise - a giant supermarket, say, or a new runway for an airport, or a big housing development. There will, first, be happy, eager talk of jobs, thousands of them, for the community as if, even at a time of high employment, the spectre of the dole queue still hangs over us.

Then, if objections are still heard, the great investor will agree to contribute a "leisure facility" - a swimming-pool, a skateboard ramp, a sculpture park, a playground for the kiddies - so the community appreciates that its welfare is a matter of profound concern to the developer. At some point, the phrases "consumer choice" and "much-needed regeneration" may be deployed. Finally - a sure sign that something dodgy is afoot - trees will be planted.

All these indicators, with the exception as yet of a sapling initiative, have been firmly in place this week as the Government prepares formally to roll out the red carpet and invite the multinational gambling industry to start making some serious cash out of the British people. In her response to a parliamentary committee scrutinising the new Gambling Bill, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, claimed that this country has one of the lowest levels of problem gambling in the world. Her new proposals for huge casinos of the type found in America and Australia seem certain to make us considerably more competitive in this area.

Who would have thought that it would be the government of a party which, historically, has protected the vulnerable and assumed the moral values of non-conformist Christianity, that opens the door so gladly to an industry that battens on greed, weakness and addiction? If one of those now-forgotten Tory ministers - a Sproat or a Moynihan - had, in the Eighties or Nineties, made the announcement we have heard this week, it would have been depressing but unsurprising. Vast gambling emporia, fruit machines offering a £1m jackpot, large football clubs wringing more money out of fans by setting up "entertainment complexes": such things are the very stuff of contemporary capitalism.

It is perhaps for that reason that the Labour government have rather played down the cash element; from the noises that they have been making, one might almost think that here was another exercise in gentle, caring government, a public service. The huge cultural sea-change, which will see gambling presented as a benign leisure activity at the centre of national life, is a matter of "modernising".

Casino operators will be obliged to "contribute leisure and cultural facilities" in areas where they set up shop. The casinos will offer thousands of people in areas of high unemployment the chance to earn a salary (and, presumably, to spend it). Customers will be able to escape the money-extracting machines in "chill rooms". That all-important consumer choice will be provided by fruit machines in service stations, arcades and bowling alleys.

Those great-hearted benefactors the gambling multinationals have managed to resist rubbing their hands too openly. It would "bring significant regeneration benefits to the UK" was the sober view of a spokesman from a firm called Las Vegas Sands.

Such firms are about to enter a well primed market. The national lottery, and its various ghastly offshoots, has established the idea that it is acceptable, even public-spirited, to blow your hard-earned cash on an impossible fantasy of untold riches. The money-for-nothing culture receives marketing support from peak-hour TV game shows, reality programmes with huge prizes, and the encouragement of property speculation.

The internet has opened new avenues for addiction: poker sites alone attract £40m every day. The best news of all for the gambling business and its pals in government is that it is through the web that the lucrative female audience can be reached. According to the Nielsen internet tracking agency, 64 per cent of on-line gamblers are women - usually middle-aged, married and bored.

So now, largely thanks to our business-loving government, gambling is cool. What was once a seedy occupation for losers is just another harmless, jolly leisure pursuit. Only someone who has seen the subtle way that Australian casinos deploy bright lights, a tawdry glamour, the seductive sound of tinkling money to seduce their customers, who sit dead-eyed, pouring their wages into row upon row of fruit machines known as "pokies", will appreciate how profoundly cynical and dishonest is this glamorisation of gambling.

It seems extraordinary that the very government which likes to take a high moral tone when it suits its case, is encouraging an activity which has been proved all over the world to destroy families, marriages and lives. Perhaps the lure of the tax revenue was simply too much for Blair, Brown, Jowell and the rest to resist.

Maybe there was something else. What citizen could be less troublesome, more politically pliable, than one who is hooked on the lottery, on fruit machines, on the various money-making promises offered in the neighbourhood entertainment complex? Those gulled into an obsession with easy future riches tend to worry less about what is happening in the real world today.

terblacker@aol.com

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