Believe it or not, the Government — led by a sincere and devout Christian — wants this country to become the gambling capital of Europe. The proposals to relax the gaming laws are supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer — an unbending son of the manse who epitomises the respectable virtues of thrift and reticence — because of the revenue he will levy from the ill-gotten extra gains of the casino operators. The cash is more important than the consequences.
Ministerial enthusiasm for roulette and backgammon owes as much to political philosophy as to public finance. New Labour — still searching for an idea to live by — has decided that the time has come to demonstrate its libertarian credentials. Freedom for gambling addicts to destroy themselves and damage their families will be proclaimed as proof that we live in a mature democracy. And not only addicts. The Government intends to make gambling more attractive to everyone.
For the first time in history, UFABet casinos will be allowed to serve alcohol and provide live entertainment on the gaming floors. The casino owners’ obligation to demonstrate a demand before they open new premises is to be abolished. There is absolutely no reason why there cannot be a little Las Vegas in every town and village.
The old regulations, which once made prospective gamblers pause and think, are to be swept away. The inconvenience of taking out membership of a casino, 24 hours before placing the first bet, is regarded by the Government as an intolerable inhibition on impatient punters. So men and women who are overcome by a sudden impulse to bet will be able to ruin themselves without delay. Credit card bets will be legal as well as welcome — combining their well-established encouragement to run up debts which the card-holder cannot afford with the losers’ fatal inclination to go on gambling until their luck changes. There will be no limit on the sum which can be gambled — and lost.
And that is only the beginning. Britain is about to experience a slot-machine revolution. Casinos will be able to install “one armed bandits” which, at least in theory, offer the prospect of unlimited jackpots. The government inquiry into “modernising the gaming industry” provided ministers with a chance to prove that the law would be relaxed responsibly. Small-stake slot-machines should, it suggested, be removed from chip shops and amusement arcades to protect children from initial temptation and eventual addiction. The notion was rejected out of hand although Britain is the only European country in which children can bet legally in that way.
It seems that Tessa Jowell — the Culture Secretary who is nominally responsible for the “reforms” — has become a convert to John Stuart Mill. Freedom is to be unlimited. “All errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice or warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to restrain him for what they deem to be his own good.” A pity she did not read on. A community should not be sacrificed in the interests of an individual who “cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgence . . . The distinction is between the part of a person’s life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others”.
An explosive increase in gambling — estimated to increase the number of gamblers by 50 per cent and the industry’s revenue from £7 billion to £10 billion — concerns us all. At worst, it will bring back to Britain the dark forces of violence and corruption which the gaming laws of 30 years ago were designed to deter. At best, it will add to the 100,000 teenagers who are hooked on gambling before they can vote. And it will increase the number of families whose lives are ruined by the weak-minded belief that the soon-to-be-allowed advertisements — promising a good clean night’s entertainment and the hope of taking home a fortune — offer an honest prospectus of what casinos provide. And it is all being done by a government that is formed by a party which once believed it existed to protect the vulnerable and weak.