What a blooming lottery

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Ever since the possibly apocryphal story of the man who stomped out of the first live televised draw complaining indignantly, "It's a blooming lottery", the British have had an ambivalent relationship with the national flutter. Perhaps that is because it is one of the few lasting monuments to John Major, the forgotten man of Downing Street.

Ever since the possibly apocryphal story of the man who stomped out of the first live televised draw complaining indignantly, "It's a blooming lottery", the British have had an ambivalent relationship with the national flutter. Perhaps that is because it is one of the few lasting monuments to John Major, the forgotten man of Downing Street.

As the rebranded Lotto celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend, we seem to have grudgingly decided that, on balance, it is a good thing. Let us use this occasion to cast off this carping mien. Let us celebrate an institution that allows so many millions to dream and at the same time provides a source of funding for thousands of marginal projects that have noticeably improved so many people's quality of life.

Let us not dwell on the failures, from the Millennium Dome to the Doncaster Earth Centre, the first lottery-funded scheme that, as we report today, now faces permanent closure. Let us celebrate instead the myriad tiny grants that have lifted up people whose horizons would otherwise be confined. Let us not agonise too much over the distinction between "good causes" funded by the lottery and those funded out of taxation. We should adopt the New Labour motto: What matters is what works. Whatever the oligopolistic tendencies of the committees that hand out money raised by the lottery, they seem to do more of a good job than a bad one. They have even managed - on occasion - to devote some of our resources to such truly deserving causes as providing support for asylum-seekers, much to the disgust of the usual suspects. It just goes to show that pluralism is a valuable thing, and that it is worth having a system for funding grass-roots initiatives that is relatively insulated from government.

Above all, let us use the lottery's 10th birthday as a chance for creative thinking. Both the design of the game and the application of the funds raised could always be improved. Some bright ideas might be less practicable than others, such as that of a special prize for not getting any numbers at all. But from its foundation there has been public support for a rebalancing of prize money, with less for jackpots and more for the four- and five-number wins. And the lesson of the past decade is that the funds raised should be spread thinly at the grass roots rather than concentrated on prestige projects. More grants for park wardens and fewer public sculptures. Let Camelot use the technology of its network to carry out referendums of ticket buyers on these questions - steal that "people's lottery" slogan from Sir Richard Branson and make a reality of it.

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