One of the enduring wonders of modern life is the inability of policymakers to understand that actions tend to have obvious consequences. Allow bars and pubs to open longer and alcoholism will increase. Encourage supermarkets to expand and local high streets will soon become dead zones. Anyone with half a brain could anticipate these consequences, yet to politicians they seem to come as a terrible shock.
Over the past few days, there has been much hand-wringing about the effect of the new gambling culture on the Olympics. London 2012 is apparently in danger of becoming not the Green Games, nor even the Austerity Games, but the Dodgy Games. The threat of match-fixing is now more serious than that of doping or terrorism, says the minister responsible, Hugh Robertson.
Can he honestly be surprised? When a globally televised event becomes a medium for gambling, it is hardly a shock that a bit of dishonesty is likely to come into play. With the sort of buck-passing that has become second nature to the current administration, Robertson has been quick to shift the responsibility to other countries. It is those ruthless syndicates in south-east Asia and gangsters on the Indian subcontinent who are to blame, it seems.
Unfortunately, no country has been more enthusiastic in its encouragement of gambling over the past 10 years than Britain. Under Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act, restrictions on advertising were eased and casinos encouraged. The Conservatives, less surprisingly, have seen gaming as one of the few money-making boom sectors in a recession.
It is a great time to be in the gambling industry. New technology brings betting into every home. Any suggestion that betting is futile and addictive is undermined by promotion of the National Lottery as a self-interested act of patriotism.
One only has to look at the feverish marketing of gambling â€“ online, in the press, on various digital channels â€“ to realise that its target audience is the poor, the hope-deprived and, above all, the young. Having a bet is promoted on TV and on the internet as a jolly, often profitable extension of the computer game. There are zany graphics, jokey commentaries, the occasional celebrity. At half-time during televised football, Ray Winstone appears in an ad , offering odds on the next to player to score, or the final result. Part of the attraction of the new gambling is that you can bet on virtually anything.
Politicians may intone that the days of the something-for-nothing society are over, and hedge fund managers gambling on the markets may be presented as the villains of the moment, but the great national gaming binge is telling another, truer story. The problem, in other words, is not one of match-fixing, but of corruption of a stealthier, nastier and more general kind.