How a nation's numbers came up

Looking back on it, it's hard to imagine why it took us so long to get around to having a national lottery. Us and Albania. Well, Albania has one now, and we have one with knobs on. Having decided to do the thing, the nation has for the past five years indulged wholeheartedly, obsessively, manically, in the Lottery Spirit.

No doubt there are still detractors: grumpy types who, like Harold Wilson or Gerald Kaufman before his conversion, hate the notion that the state might sanction - even encourage - squalid games of chance on a mass scale. And others will have maintained an aloof position of high principle, disavowing society's gambling habit, refusing the tainted lucre that is the harvest of our collective immoral indulgence.

But the majority of the most strident critics have been mollified, if not by the obvious enjoyment that millions get from the ritual of taking part in the game, then by the river of cash released for the Good Causes. This catch-all term, promoted by Virginia Bottomley and deployed with unswerving, monotonous rigour by Camelot, is wholly Victorian, lending a really antiquated overtone to the millions handed out by the various grant-awarding bodies. As such it is fortuitous cover for the government's raid on the grant pot, allowing us to forget that within two years, a third of all the Good Cause money will in fact be going to mainstream public services.

Phooey, says the new (Labour) orthodoxy. Who cares if grants for health and education come via the Lottery or the Budget? The public doesn't: as Alasdair Buchan reminds us (page x), when we are asked, we tell the pollsters we'd rather the money was spent on schools and health than on anything else anyway (and most certainly rather than Churchill's private papers).

But perhaps, as Steve Hilton suggests (page xxiii), the government is missing a trick. By ignoring the power of branding, it fails to maximise the good that the Lottery can do both in maintaining our commitment to it and encouraging us to feel good about publicly funded works. Why not have a single modern plaque with logo adorning the site of every Lottery-funded establishment, proclaiming that fact? Some of our continued ambivalence as a nation towards the EU might have been offset had we been less bashful about promoting the existence of EU-funded projects, in the Continental manner. If we are going to extend revenue-raising by Fun Tax ever deeper into the core functions of government, let's at least all be able to recognise the results and feel proud.

The fifth anniversary of the Lottery is also the starting gun for the applications process for ownership of the seven-year franchise term starting in 2001. Camelot's stewardship of the Lottery has certainly not disappointed in giving the entire country lots of opportunities to get thoroughly steamed up; but even the company's detractors grudgingly acknowledge its success in delivering.

The puzzling question about the forthcoming review, particularly in the light of Chris Smith's comments here (page iv), is why the government ducked out of its pre-election commitment to a not-for-profit operator. It had the opportunity, when it put primary legislation through parliament last year, to enshrine that particular political principle. But it chose to retain the status quo: a welcome if slightly shabby acknowledgement that not-for-profit need not guarantee either greater efficiency or greater revenues. By opting also to leave the choice of the next franchisee in the hands of the regulator, the government will enjoy the added PR benefit of being able to tut-tut from the sidelines if it gets the "wrong" result next June.

By the time of the next franchise, in 2001, the Internet will be an obvious and for some a very attractive medium for playing the Lottery. That raises tough questions for would-be operators, regulators and policy-makers about how to protect the young and most vulnerable, in the absence of a responsible and kindly newsagent able to refuse an inadvisable sale. Specifically there is no technological fix on the Internet for excluding the under-aged from gambling. This should give real cause for concern. Perhaps we'll just have to hope that the lure of fortunes to be won on the Nasdaq stock market for the teenage inventors of the next generation of killer IT applications will outshine the attraction of making piddling long-shot wagers on a quaint game of chance.

Jane Taylor