The Queen's Own Lottery Lancers

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The Independent Online
The phone on my desk rang. I answered it. "Hello," said a voice. "It's Desmond here."

I have no idea if that is his real name. I have never met him. He works in a government department in Whitehall, and sees himself as a source of top secret stories. When he is particularly incensed about something, he rings me up with the story. It always sounds far-fetched to me. But I always print it.

"Hello, Desmond," I said, drawing a pen and pad towards me.

"Can we speak?"

"We certainly can, thanks to the invention of the telephone, which enables you, sitting in Whitehall, to address me, sitting here in the West Country, without raising your voice."

He sighed. Frivolity is not his strong point.

"So, Desmond, what's worrying the Government this week?"

"Bosnia, of course, and Barings. And charity."

"Charity? Where does charity come into it?"

"It's the National Lottery thing again. There's been so much criticism of it that ministers are getting quite rattled, especially by the charge that the lottery has taken much-needed funds away from charities, and that people aren't giving to charity like they used to."

"I'm with you so far."

"They are also rattled by accusations that the rapid reaction force has totally failed to perform any function in Bosnia, now that some rapid reaction is needed."

"Yes, but surely there's nothing wrong with the force - it's just rapid reaction leaders we are lacking. All that's needed is a bit of dynamic leadership, that's all."

"Well, you may be right, but it's a bit early for Major to resign again. Anyway, they've come up with a new idea that should solve everyone's problems to do with Bosnia and charities."

"Someone's thought of a solution to Bosnia and the charity problem?"

"Listen," said Desmond. "They are allowing the National Lottery to set up its own rapid reaction force."

"I'm sorry," I said, "but for a moment I thought you said that they are allowing the National Lottery to set up its own rapid reaction force."

"The idea being," he said, as if I had not spoken, "that market forces should be allowed to hold sway in Bosnia as anywhere else. So if the Bosnians feel they have a desperate situation at home, they can apply to our National Lottery for armed intervention, and if the National Lottery thinks it is justified it will send in the much-feared Lottery Army."

"Is it much-feared?"

"It will be, as soon as it's got a few quick victories under its belt. But the basic concept will satisfy everyone. It will satisfy those who believe in market forces. It will satisfy Group 4 ..."

"Why will it satisfy Group 4?"

"Because Group 4 has been given the franchise to run the Lottery Army."

"Not Camelot?"

"No. They asked Camelot to tender, but the bid they made, for a new company called Knights of the Round Table, didn't quite have the modern image they wanted."

I thought about it for a moment. Actually, I wasn't sure quite what to think. On the one hand, the idea of the lottery having its own private army was totally ludicrous. On the other hand, it was fair and square in line with Tory thinking. Already the Tories had started privatising the prison service, and the railways and other uniformed branches, so why shouldn't they privatise the armed services as well? After all, a lot of people in government were well in with the arms trade, and knew the right people, so presumably it could all be sewn up without bothering to consult the electorate for its views ...

"You there?" asked Desmond.

"Just thinking," I said. "What happens if the Bosnians ask for help from the Lottery Army and the Serbs do as well?"

"I would think the thing to do would be to help both sides," said Desmond. "That way, you are bound to have sided with the eventual winner."

"And this service would be provided absolutely free?"

"Oh, yes. To begin with, anyway. As soon as they got a reputation, they'd start charging."

"And where does Barings Bank come into all this?"

"I'm not entirely sure," said Desmond, "but you know that in the old days banks were very closely concerned with warfare?"

"I've never heard of banks actually fighting other banks. I thought they got together to stuff the customer."

Desmond sighed. He doesn't suffer fools gladly.

"I am talking of the days when a king went to the bankers to help him to payroll the next war."

"I'm with you."

"Well, apparently the reason that Barings went bust was nothing to do with Nick Leeson, which was always a wild story, but all to do with Barings refusing to finance the setting up of the Lottery Army ... Oh, hello, sir."

The phone went dead. Desmond hasn't rung back. I hope I haven't heard the last from him.