LEADING ARTICLE : A nation sings: Luck be a lady tonight

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The Independent Online
Having a ticket for tonight's National Lottery has become almost irresistible. To miss out is to be worthy but boring -the only wallflower at a party. Deep down, everyone knows that afterwards they will feel deflated, let down, perhaps even disappointed with themselves. Yet that has not prevented mass seduction.

This week, those who fulminate against the lottery have been vanquished, at least temporarily, by a wave of fascination with tonight's draw. A few even admit their own hypocrisy. Many disagree with huge pay-outs, hate the fat cats at Camelot and worry about gambling addiction. But with a pounds 40m jackpot at stake, they, too, have been down at the newsagents picking their numbers.

What has happened? In part we all seem to have been swept up by the hysteria of today's event. The lottery is the main topic of conversation. Once television was the great cultural unifier: on any evening you could watch a programme and next day everyone would be discussing it. But the multiplication of channels has changed all that just at a time when the fragmentation of society makes more important the creation of common culture. Today, the one activity almost everyone seems to engage in - and we are all able to talk about - is the lottery. No one wants to be left out. A pounds 1 bet secures a chance to discuss the national obsession: getting very, very rich without doing a tap of work.

But there is more to the phenomenon than this. The lottery dream always had widespread appeal across all classes. Most working-class people have never had much of a problem with hoping for and speculating about a vast windfall that would transform their lives. And the upper classes are not troubled by the notion of living on huge sums of unearned income.

The real nut that the lottery had not cracked until this weekend was a prudish section of the middle classes publicly, at least, appalled at the thought of people suddenly, without merit or hard work, getting their hands on massive sums of money. Acquiring riches purely by luck goes against all their principles. It disturbs the work ethic and a well-defined pecking order. To this retentive, uptight, stuffy mentality, the wild card of the lottery spells social chaos.

The sanctimonious voice of this group has been heard repeatedly this week predicting misery for those who might win a huge sum. A senior Anglican churchman warned that winning had "created an enormous lot of problems" for some people. The message seemed to be that hoi polloi should leave being millionaires to those already expert in that field. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.

Yet, despite all this hectoring, the will to resist the lottery has weakened, even among the most puritanical. In the spruce, enamelled baths of London's Georgian and Victorian terraced houses, the occupants have started dreaming, amid the carbolic soap, of what they would do if luck happened to burden them with great riches. Imagine, they could buy that house in Italy, say goodbye to that awful boss and move to a less Pooterish residence in the capital. Everyone has their price. And pounds 40m seems to be the figure at which few can resist a flutter.

This "descent" of the well-off into popular culture recalls an occasion when Elizabeth Taylor attended a dinner with Princess Margaret. The bejewelled actress duly flaunted her huge Krupp diamond ring, a gift from Richard Burton. "That is the most vulgar thing I have ever seen," sneered Her Royal Highness. "Would you like to try it on?" came Ms Taylor's reply. And moments later, with the Princess entranced, "Mmm ... it's not so vulgar now, is it?"

So, we are all becoming dreamers, fantasists, hoping for wealth that the vast majority will never acquire. Is that so bad? The moralists would have us believe that this is a symptom of an unethical society, of greed and lust for money. But many people who hope to win a fortune have the most altruistic plans for its disposal. They would share it with their families, perhaps a few friends, and certainly use it to help the needy. Most people would love to make the world a better place, if only they had the money to do so.

There are, of course, deeply depressing aspects of the lottery culture. The television soap opera Brookside has chronicled the dangers of addiction in the character of Rosie Banks, who wins a lottery prize, only to gamble it away again. A woman who was once bubbling with fun turns to stealing and lies to her husband to hide her losses. There are plenty of people who have been dragged into similarly obsessive behaviour.

Participation in the lottery is often not a pleasant experience. People may approach it with cynicism, knowing the dreadful odds. But once that ticket is clutched in that sweaty hand, they feel sure they will win. Losing is a great disappointment, however irrationally so. The child that believed in Santa Claus begets the lottery optimist.

And even if dreaming of unworked-for riches is no longer sinful, it is a disturbing comment on the level of general disillusionment with other means of advancement. The belief that merit will be rewarded, that society is mobile, is regarded more as myth today than, say, a decade ago. Politicians offer their recipes for success, freeing up markets and training revolutions. But one suspects that few people have much faith in them.

The lottery is the only dream in town. It has, for some people, replaced politics as the most hopeful source of change. In the absence of a general feelgood factor, it offers a short-lived hope, one that lasts perhaps only a few days, only to be cruelly dashed on a Saturday night. Parodoxically, at a time when economic uncertainty is rife, many people are placing their hope in luck to improve their lives.

In short, it is good to dream and no bad thing that more people have this weekend shared in a little fantasy. But the lottery culture remains a sobering reflection upon the realities of 1996.