How extraordinary that a government which makes so much of personal responsibility - enjoining us to save for our old age, for example - should now be anxious to encourage us all to hazard our money at super-casinos. How extraordinary that the leader of a party which owes much to Methodism, and who says he wants to revive the ethical strands in Labour's tradition, should want to liberalise gambling. How extraordinary that the guiding hand behind the proposed legislation should be the Department for Culture.
It makes sense only if you grasp that Labour has become as much the party of big business as it is of the working class. New Labour follows the principle of the "market state" as outlined by the American guru Philip Bobbitt. Put far more crudely than Mr Bobbitt's rather convoluted writing style would allow, the principle is that, if money is sloshing around out there - money that will create jobs and yield tax revenues - we'll have some of it here, thank you very much. There is no public demand for more casinos - 53 per cent are against the proposed bill, according to ICM. Why should there be demand? Those who wish to gamble have ample opportunities, not only on the National Lottery, the Pools, the horses, the dogs, the internet and the church raffle, but also in the 140 casinos that Britain already has. So much for the argument that snobs wish to deny pleasure to simple folk.
But what the British people want is irrelevant. There is a demand from big US companies, such as MGM Mirage, which was fined $5m in Nevada last year for flouting anti-money laundering laws. This demand, made through ferocious lobbying, must be met. As Tony Blair knows, the bill, while not popular, will not be a significant vote-loser either. On the contrary, by the election after next, super-casinos should be up and running, contributing handsomely to GDP.
They will provide yet more low-skill, mind-numbing jobs for poor wages and unsocial hours. They will turn parts of our city centres into neon-lit replicas of Las Vegas - the gambling industry is not known for its aesthetic taste - and blight other businesses, just as supermarkets have done. (Restaurants, pubs and coffee bars are among the few retail outlets left largely untouched by the latter; super-casinos, by offering food and drink, initially at low prices, will mop them up smartly.) They will make cash-starved local councils further dependent on big business, so that non-accountable commercial interests, not elected representatives, will increasingly make the planning decisions. They will attract criminal gangs, as casinos always do because of the amounts of cash washing around and the opportunities for rigging. But none of that will matter if people in general feel better off and if new Labour can provide decent public services without raising taxation. Tony Blair is often accused of lacking vision. But he has vision all right and the Gambling Bill shows what it is.
The dangers to the feckless poor are probably exaggerated; that perhaps is why Mr Blair can live with the proposed legislation. Poor people get addicted to the high-street betting shop, the pub fruit machine or the dog track - and the National Lottery has done an efficient job of getting them to cough up for the pleasures of the bourgeoisie. As well as wooing foreign tourists (what will they think of us?), big casinos will try to suck in the moderately affluent, the masses of Middle Englanders who have hitherto regarded sustained gambling, beyond the odd flutter, as seedy and low-class. No wonder the Daily Mail, normally a critic of "the nanny state", is opposed to the liberalisation of gambling: it sees its natural constituency being corrupted.
This is not to deny that gambling will have a damaging effect on many families: addiction can ruin the middle classes, too. But more important is what the bill will say about the kind of country we want to be. Gambling has almost no merit in itself. Linked to money for good causes, a day at the races, the national ritual of Saturday-afternoon football results or the skills of some card games, it may be redeemed. But roulette wheels and fruit machines simply raise spurious hopes of winning large fortunes, when the odds are hugely stacked against the customer.
To confine gambling to a particular location, a Las Vegas or an Atlantic City, and to allow casinos to trade quietly as a sort of specialist interest elsewhere, is one thing. To encourage big casinos in every city, freely advertising their attractions, staying open 24 hours a day, plying alcohol and snaring passing trade, is another. It is to weave gambling palaces into the fabric of life. It would suggest that we are tasteless, greedy and - let's say it - philistine.
The (only) case for Bush
Go on, admit it. You are secretly hoping for a Bush win. If he loses, you will miss his memorable insights: about how human beings and fish can coexist peacefully; how more and more imports come from overseas; how wings can take dream; how you need to keep good relations with the Grecians. Do not, in his word, misunderestimate the entertainment he has provided. Not since Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol who once told an errant undergraduate to "leave by the town drain", has a man in high office had such hilarious trouble with the English language. This paper sticks to last week's support for John Kerry, but recognises that, at least in the short term, he is likely to be as aggressive and dangerous as President Bush if not more so - a view elaborated this week by John Pilger (page 19). We are all doomed, as Private Frazer said. Under Dubbya, at least we can laugh ourselves to death. It's better than a cyanide pill.