How I gave hope to the poor

<em>Reflections - John Major</em>

The case for the National Lottery has always seemed so straightforward that it surprised me in government - and surprises me still - how many people have found grounds to oppose it. The Lottery is hardly an unusual institution. We'd had lotteries in the past - the British Museum was built out of the proceeds of a particularly successful one - and our national enthusiasm for the football pools, Premium Bonds and the 3.45 at Aintree was clear. Yet when I told the cabinet I favoured including a lottery in our manifesto for the 1992 election, I found a roomful of raised eyebrows and doubtful faces. At first only Chris Patten and the home secretary, Kenneth Baker, were enthusiastic.

Some of the opposition to this innovation was unexceptionable. When the bill went though the Commons, MPs from Merseyside put up a doughty defence of the pools industry and complained about the threat the Lottery posed to it - the main pools company, of course, being based in Liverpool. In the Lords, bishops questioned the morality of the project and quoted biblical authority to support their case (though the Church of England has wisely used Lottery money to renovate churches around the country). Some Conservatives disliked the idea of state-sanctioned gambling full stop.

None of this bothered me. What did was the unstated sentiment that lay behind so much other hostility to the scheme: hostility from the Labour and Liberal benches as well as from Tories. Many outspoken opponents actually minded not a jot whether there was a lottery - provided people like themselves were the only people to buy tickets. What turned them against it was their fear that Lottery sales would be greatest among people most in need of hope; and their assumption that people in need of hope could not be expected to grasp what was best for them. In short, they thought the poor needed protection from themselves.

I knew from experience that this was paternalist nonsense and it made me all the keener to set up the Lottery. People don't tend to bankrupt themselves, or pin all their hopes on false promises, or act against their own interests - though policy- makers sometimes find it hard to believe. People don't have to buy Lottery tickets. But I see no good reason why they shouldn't be given the opportunity to do so.

The other reason I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Lottery was more prosaic. I knew it was the only way we could fund a rebirth of cultural and sporting life in Britain. Government has always passed scraps to the arts at the end of the spending round, but never more than scraps. The Treasury's thinking on the matter was drummed into me when I was chief secretary and later chancellor. The competing demands of health, education, pensions and defence would always come first. I knew there was no chance of funding the long-term development of sports and the arts from general government revenue. A lottery could do just that.

It's the reason I set up safeguards to protect Lottery money from Whitehall spending limits, and one reason I created a new department, with cabinet status, to oversee our national heritage. It has worked, too. In my autobiography, I claim that it is "the most successful innovation of any government for years", and I don't think that's much of an exaggeration. Billions have been raised in the past five years, most of it going not to a handful of big-name projects but to countless small schemes up and down the country. As the millennium approaches, the fruits of this work are beginning to show: new museums, theatres, sports grounds, arts projects and much, much else have opened. There has been a revolution in leisure for a country that has always undervalued its free time.

And five years is such a short time. My hopes for the Lottery were always longer term. As a cricket-lover I wanted to encourage the Peter Mays and the Ian Bothams of the future; in the arts I wanted to support new John Gielguds and Benjamin Brittens. Initially Lottery money went towards infrastructure projects. It was always my intention that some funds would begin to be used to subsidise the running costs of these new schemes. But from the start I insisted that Lottery money should be used for extra spending, on things that the taxpayer cannot be expected to cover.

Under new Labour, the Treasury is beginning to ransack the Lottery. The Millennium Fund expires at the end of the year. The government plans to replace it with a New Opportunities Fund, cutting as it does so the percentage of Lottery money going to good causes. The new fund covers spending areas - coaching in numeracy, literacy, science and technology - which, although worthy in themselves, are mainstream government expenditure and should be funded by the taxpayer and not the Lottery. After the millennium, I had hoped to find funds from the Lottery to put sports teachers into schools. I want us to win the World Cup, the Six Nations trophy, the Test matches, the Davis Cup. Rooting a love of sport and the arts in schools would have been the right thing to do. I do hope it might yet be possible. It won't be unless the Treasury is kept at bay. Will Tony Blair and Chris Smith stand up to Gordon Brown?

The writer is MP for Huntingdon. His autobiography is published by HarperCollins, £25