Leading Article : Morality? It's a lottery Taking a moral gamble

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The Independent Online
It did not take long for the real world to reassert itself. After all the fine words last week about Frances Lawrence's campaign for a new civic decency, and after all the high-minded talk of repairing the nation's moral code, what was the first practical change in policy that the Government announced? The National Lottery is to be doubled in frequency. From early next year there will be a draw midweek as well as one on Saturday night. So, all of a sudden there we were, right back at square one, with the familiar talk of harmless flutters, more money for "good causes" and bids from the owners of crumbling stately homes for a cut of the new treasure chest. It is difficult to think of a more inappropriate signal to send out from beneath all those clouds of moral rhetoric about decency and responsibility. In launching her manifesto to make Britain a better place, the widow of the murdered London headteacher had called, notably, for the introduction of classroom lessons in good citizenship. These, she suggested, should emphasise the three Es - Effort, Earnestness and Excellence. What could be more certain to undermine all three of these than an extension of the easy-money culture embodied by the National Lottery? A second draw each week is expected to attract an extra 6 million gamblers. This is necessary, argue the promoters, Camelot, because without it there is likely to be a fall in lottery takings from pounds 5.2bn in the first year to pounds 4.6bn in the current one. The heart bleeds.

It is not just the crass greed of this that is so objectionable. It is not even the correlative avarice it provokes in ordinary members of the public. The real objection goes right to the heart of contemporary culture - to the urge for the instant high, to the quick fix, to the short-termism, to the personal triumph over our fellows that so often passes for satisfaction. We deprecate this, and politicians reflect our concern when they talk of our society as fractured or atomised. Yet the retreat into individual selfishness which finds its apotheosis in the lottery has a purpose: it offers us consolation, comfort and hope of escape from a world where otherwise we feel insecure and alienated. The Roman Catholic bishops drew attention to this paradox in their impressive document, The Common Good, at the beginning of last week. This was a comprehensive critique of the failings of the past two decades and the legacy that Thatcherism has left us. But Mrs Lawrence's campaign spared the Government the need to respond. Ministers seized gratefully on her plea, with its noncontentious generalities and its small shopping list of practical requests, and thus they avoided engaging with the bishops in the difficult debate on how a civilised society balances self-interest and the common good.

There was one thing that Margaret Thatcher was right about. She consistently refused to introduce a lottery, despite all the blandishments of the vested interests. Lotteries, she said, sap initiative, undermine a sense of enterprise and encourage a "something for nothing" attitude. In the end, of course, the lottery is only a symbol, but it is a useful one: it points to the dichotomy at the heart of an economy and polity that creates wealth through promoting selfishness and yet which assumes a social cohesion based on values of probity, respect, trust, honesty and integrity, which selfishness undermines. The lottery regulator, Peter Davis, claims that his main motive in sanctioning the introduction of a second weekly draw is to discharge his chief responsibility, "to maximise fund-raising for good causes". Try telling that to Oxfam and the other charities who have seen a steady drain on their incomes since the lottery was introduced, and who fear the even greater amounts they stand to lose when it is extended. True, their work is often sustained by lottery grants - which merely means that the decisions about who gets what have passed from individual donors into the hands of a metropolitan elite. That, however, is not the main objection to Mr Davis's claim. The main objection is that his chief objective ought to have nothing to do with good causes, it should be something much more important and fundamental. But you can't put morality in the bank. No doubt Mr Davis thinks, as the Government does, that that is something best left to the bishops. And, for all the high-flown rhetoric, in the end all this Government cares about is making a quick buck.

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