Britain – a land fit for gamblers

It is time to look the miserabilists in the eye and declare that, yes, our great country has indeed changed over the past 13 years. Everywhere one looks there are new opportunities for investment and adventure. Once, at this time of the year, we used merely to experience spring. Now we can bet on it, too. Somewhere there will be a bookmaker offering odds on the date of the first cuckoo.

It is New Labour’s great and undeniable legacy. It has made Britain a land fit for gamblers. Today, no event is quite real until Corals or William Hill have opened a book on its outcome.

Last night’s debate, for example, will not simply have benefited a political party; all over the country, members of the public will have gasped or groaned as bets came home or failed to finish. Some will have taken a punt on which leader was the first to sweat visibly (Brown started favourite at 11/10). Others will have betted on the number of times Cameron uses the word “change” – you could get 6/4 on 10 mentions or more.

Ambitious election-watchers might have gone for the more ambitious Cliché Call, where punters can choose which of a list of words and phrases, from “hung parliament” to “I love this country”, will first be heard in the debate.

There can be few other countries where the government has shown such a cheerful inconsistency in its attitude towards social policy. For those passing laws on our behalf, lighting a cigarette in a public place is a shameful, anti-social activity, while gambling, which many would say is as harmful and addictive, is positively encouraged.

Not long ago, Brown suggested that Britain needed a national motto, to appear on public buildings. “In God we trust” and “Liberty, fraternity, equality” have been taken, but “It could be you” would fit the bill perfectly.

Few propaganda campaigns of recent times can have been as successful as the one promoting a fantasy of overnight wealth based on chance. The National Lottery has changed the way we behave, and its grip increases with every new rollover which is introduced. An organisation called Global and Gaming Consultants have just reported that, even as the economy plummeted last year and unemployment rose, there was a 3.9 per cent rise in money spent on the lottery. As one of the consultants put it: “Faced with the prospect and anxiety of dealing with the recession, consumers have turned to national lotteries for that big win that could set them up for life.”

Of course. What a perfect set-up it is. Good causes make money while those least able to afford a ticket are encouraged in the illusion that, with a wave of magic wand, their troubles will be over. It is a wonderful, reassuring drug, available to all on a regular basis, encouraged by government, promoted by the BBC, providing twice a week a moment of brief, blissed-out hope.

How we have advanced. There was a time when gambling was for those who had too much money, or who were bored by their lives. It was often furtive, solitary and sad. It was for losers. Now throwing your money away has been democratised. In this bright new dawn of permissiveness, it is not only acceptable but it is almost obligatory to gamble. Children are raised to believe that having a bet on a numbered ball twice a week is one of life’s great treats.

The problem with addictions is that one always needs a different, bigger hit. Here our generous government is ready to help once more. Tessa Jowell’s policy of liberating the gaming market means that every football match shown on commercial TV has a a range of bets attached. Online, the sheer life-enhancing pleasure of punting on virtually anything is proclaimed in countless ads, colourfully and jauntily designed to appeal to an ever-wider and ever-younger market.

How exciting it all is. If you were out of luck last night, you can bet on who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be or where another volcano will erupt. Remember – it could be you.

Independent, Friday, 23 April 2010