Saturday, March 31, 2007

Money for nothing and your chips for free

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, normally close critical friend of New Labour and self-appointed sentinel in charge of directing positive feedback, has gone strangely off message and incurred the wrath of super-sensitive Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa ‘The Scowl’ Jowell (pictured). Remarkable, as the impeccably credentialed bastion of soft socialism, dedicated to providing guidance notes for elected members not blessed with such a fine a pedigree in social awareness, has always been so careful to temper her watching brief in order to maintain what she considers to be our only hope for decent government. Unfortunately she’s mistaken by a factor of one, but maybe she’s working that one out for herself.

As lovers often do, the heavenly match has fallen out over money. It’s fair to say that The Toynbee has always been vigilant when it comes to the wasting of public money and it has been pretty much a full time job for her over the last ten years attempting to keep up with the volume of it that this government has wasted on fool ideas that did everything but bring benefits to the disadvantaged for which it was intended. Removing her ‘critical friend’ beret and replacing it with a sturdy tin hat, The Toynbee poised herself to kill some bill,

Some terrible errors - the Iraq war - can't be undone. But others can be remedied. Tomorrow Labour MPs and peers have a chance to reject one of the oddest policies to emerge from No 10. The gambling bill seeks to put a super casino in poverty-stricken east Manchester, with 16 more casinos elsewhere. It is part of the same misguided vision that announced: "Britain should become a world leader in the field of online gambling" - attempting to turn the UK into Europe's offshore gambling den.(The Guardian, 27th March).

No shit Sherlock you could say – but clearly someone did need to. Just to make sure no one was in any doubt, she added,

UK gambling turnover is soaring, up from £2bn to £50bn in just four years from 2001-2005, much of it online. Why? There is money to burn in the high-rolling City bonus world, but plenty of low-income punters are losing heavily too. Research suggested some 370,000 addicts in 2004, probably many more. The suffering of addicts' families in all social classes stays hidden: those children are often the very poorest, whatever their apparent household income. The more gambling there is, the more addicts are created. Why would a Labour government committed to abolishing child poverty encourage yet more?

I don’t mean to be rude but you would have thought that anyone who had been this close to this Government for this long, would have worked out by now that they would do anything to bolster the GDP which they are firmly convinced is the only attribute of nationhood worth a bean. It doesn’t matter how money circulates, it just matters that it does. Who in their right mind would be able to convince themselves that a gambling den could ever be the wellspring of social regeneration in an area with complex deprivation issues going back thirty or more years? Can you see people living in substandard housing for which they pay rent as high as some people’s mortgages, receiving the crappiest education possible, enduring some of the most violent and persistent crime in the country and suffering from the poorest standards of mental and physical well-being going ‘hurrah I can now get a job at Hurrah’s, let the good dimes roll’. I don’t think so somehow. When our local Poundstretcher was replaced by a Ladbrokes, the neighbourhood nosedived I can tell you!

The gloom that envelopes people who’ve just lost all their money is bad enough when it’s perched on your high street and you occasionally get shoved out of the way by a disgruntled punter at the end of a losing streak making his way home to face the music, but imagine it plummeting down in the centre of a community struggling under the weight of multiple deprivation, like a giant casino-shaped meteor.

The Scowl, however was never one to be dissuaded by common sense, logic, hard evidence or silly old morals. Spinning off a quick missive to the editor of The Guardian the day after The Toynbee attack, The Scowl retaliated,

‘It is astonishing that Toynbee still believes that I would introduce these casinos if I thought they would increase child poverty.’

Well that’s all right then. The Scowl simply doesn’t believe that gambling increases child poverty. As a marvellously cutting denouement, The Guardian’s letters editor printed a poignant testimony from someone whose childhood was seriously blighted by gambling immediately beneath The Scowl’s arrogant riposte to The Toynbee. The letter was from Dominic Carman, the son of one of Britain’s most famous and flamboyant QCs. I hasten to assure you that I attribute no more importance to the horror of this man’s experience than I would to that of someone whose family had no public profile, however, George Carman QC, was someone who was at the centre of British high society and whose behaviour must have been both apparent and excused in all its corridors of power. Dominic Carman writes,

‘ … it was in the casinos of Manchester that my father, George Carman QC, an educated and highly successful man… lost millions at the Black Jack table. Pouring his hard-earned money into the casinos over 30 years, he gambled our house away – twice.’

Dominic Carman goes on to clarify that although his family was never poor, they were most assuredly at the mercy of his father’s out of control behaviour and concludes,

There were other factors at play : his heavy drinking and domestic violence. Ultimately these three elements became inextricably linked.

I know, I know. Freedom of choice. The Scowl is all too keen to stress that the proposed Gambling Bill is going to be heavily regulated and require casinos to promote ‘socially responsible gambling’ – that should be interesting. I wonder if it will be as successful as the campaign to label cigarette packets with the calm message ‘Smoking Kills!’ - which not surprisingly had no impact at all on people for whom smoking is one of the few pleasures in life. Here is the crux. As you may know, I play the lottery to the tune of a princely £2 per week. I am aware that the odds of winning it are about 76 million to one. I also know that twice a week about half a dozen people win enough money to retire on. I enjoy it, and believe me, my family has nothing to lose and everything to gain. I also smoke about half a dozen cigarettes a year and it’s always possible I suppose that one of them will kill me. I’m lucky, I have options. Just imagine that you live in a place where the super casino provides your employment and your social life and there’s nothing else to do but swaps sides of the table once your shift is over.

Happily the proposed Gambling Bill was defeated in the Lords on Wednesday but I’d put real money down on it not being over, not by a long chalk…

Photo from


Janejill said...

I come from a family weighed down by addictive behaviour - drinking, drugs, gambling , sex, well, you name it , there is someone there who has done it.... I just cannot decide whether removing the causes of present addictions will resolve addictive behaviour, or even reduce it. My father loved gambling and on a few occasions,when he was unwell, he would send me, aged 14, in to the Bookies to place his bets. (My mother didn't find out till years later, and I was quite successful in my own little flutters ...)God knows how he would have ended up with Internet gambling, as I think half his disposable income, and most of his attention was lost to us, as it was.. I watch myself closely...

That's so pants said...

Hi Jane Jill. I agree with a lot of this. With freedom of expression comes the freedom to self-harm and I wouldn't have it any other way. On balance, human nature tends towards self-preservation for the most part. Polly Toynbee comes from a long line of social engineers and would, I think, prefer a much higher degree of government intervention in maintaining social order than I would.

My argument is that a super casino in the centre of a socially deprived area like East Manchester is not going to be a catalyst for 'regeneration' anymore than having a giant prison would. Yes, there would be job creation and a high turnover of money but precious little in the way of emotional wellbeing generated. If anything, exactly the opposite is likely to happen.

I am no expert on 'addictive behaviour'. In fact, I'm a doubter that it exists to the extent that many believe it does. However, I have worked in economically deprived communities and I know that people can only choose from such activity as is available to them. If you only have a betting shop, a pub and a fish and chip shop in your neighbourhood, then you have a bet, splash out your winnings or drown your sorrows at the boozer and, if there's any left over, you finish the day with a fish supper.

There is a famous phenomenon that is often cited in debates about how much opportunity contributes to negative behaviours - the switch to natural gas in domestic supplies in the 1960s. People (mostly women) sticking their heads in the oven was the most common form of suicide up until then. Once the gas was switched to a kind that wasn't lethal, the number of suicides dropped dramatically. It was easy, clean, devastatingly effective and right there if you were having a bad day. When it became more of an effort to find a reliable method, fewer people found they couldn't cope with life any more.

Janejill said...

I have just now read a review of a book by Philip Zimbardo, where he posits that "evil is not just about those who inflict it, but the situations and systems that promote it." ( He carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the roles were decided totally at random )It would make interesting reading ; why not apply this to self-destructive behaviour too.. In fact the theory could be applied to behaviour in England in general - "A bad system produces bad situations in which people act badly without even knowing why" makes total sense really.
For me, I am just aware that my internal little policeperson is not on the ball and often needs a big shake.

That's so pants said...

People often have to live in whatever system they are born into without any opportunity to escape or alter their circumstances. Children who've been abused often go on to become abusers themselves. Although a horrible experience for them, they are compelled to repeat it, either because they know no other way to live or they have earned the right to be the abuser rather than the abused.

swimmer6foot4 said...

"Children who've been abused often go on to become abusers themselves. Although a horrible experience for them, they are compelled to repeat it, either because they know no other way to live or they have earned the right to be the abuser rather than the abused."

I hope the above statement is not, in anyway, a justification for why our political "masters" are abusing us in the way they are.

Seriously though, your blog puts forward some serious points. I can't help thinking that there is something really sinister behind this need of NuLabour to support gambling to the degree it does. Talking of which ... have you seen our council's plans for Hackney's Old Town Hall?

That's so pants said...

'I hope the above statement is not, in anyway, a justification for why our political "masters" are abusing us in the way they are.'

Hi Swimmer - no justification intended but a useful analogy because the motivations are similar to those of abusers - righteous license, hysterical response to dissent and a baffling inability to deal with people any other way than subjugating them. Unfortunately this reason d'etre has infiltrated the entire of the public sector and it's now impossible to successfully challenge illogic or unfairness.

As you know I am a conspiracy theorist at heart but I don't think the intent is sinister - largely because the opium for the masses scenario doesn't square with their general hysteria about our behaviour (drugs, alcohol, smoking, domestic abuse). I really believe they only see the economic benefits and none of the side effects and that is what is driving this. It reminds me of the arguments we were having five years ago when the government was trying (with the collusion of ambitious architects) to rehabilitate the reputation of the tower block and put up thirty storey residential buildings in the poorest urban areas on the grounds that they worked in places like Sydney, New York and Toronto. There was a singular refusal to look at why the high rise living that was attractive to finance workers who had country houses and fabulous harbour views would not have the same positive impact on the well-being of a single parent stuck thirty floors up in smog-choked gloom with three children under five.

I think it doesn't matter what shape the peg and the hole for this government. One has to be fitted into the other and if there's bashing involved, so be it.

Hackney Council - well, yes. It is a mirror of central government in its rose-tinted view of what ought to be. How anyone could believe that a continuous parade of people losing money through your neighbourhood could bring anything but misery is beyond me.