Why Tessa Jowell is hooked on gambling

At the 1996 Davos meeting of financiers and politicians, the wacky figure of John Perry Barlow launched his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’. Capitalism was groovy in the mid-Nineties and the bankers didn’t find anything incongruous in the sight of Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, opining in one of Switzerland’s most expensive resorts. Nor did the Deadhead give them the smallest grounds for complaint when he denounced attempts by Christians in the US Congress to interfere with the mighty market by controlling pornography on the internet.

‘Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel,’ he thundered. ‘I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.’
How long ago the last decade of the 20th century seems. Most readers under 30 won’t know who the Grateful Dead were and for that ignorance they should be dead grateful. The age of Britpop, Young British Artists and the Millennium Dome feels a remote time whose shallow optimism was waiting to be punctured by the dotcom bust and 9/11 atrocities. Yet as far as the British government is concerned, Barlow remains right. It claims no moral authority to decide what can and cannot be broadcast on the net and dismisses demands for the enforcement of controls as impossible dreams from the lost world of the nation state.

Of the two vices best suited to anonymous consumption online, ministers have said nothing about the explosion in access to hard-core pornography while doing their utmost to make Britain the gambling conglomerates’ best friend in Europe. The ‘weary giant of flesh and steel’ that is the government of the United States of America is trying to prove John Perry Barlow wrong by outlawing internet betting, but Britain is welcoming it. Ministers will license poker, blackjack and roulette sites this year in the hope that gambling companies will relocate from the offshore centres of the Caribbean and Gibraltar.

I can see how Tessa Jowell and Gordon Brown managed to convince themselves that a Labour government should promote an industry where the odds are always stacked in the management’s favour. The spread of gambling is a profound change in British culture. You can blame the Major administration and the BBC for making it respectable, if you wish – the National Lottery turned betting from a harmless flutter or devastating obsession into a civic duty for upright citizens who wanted to give money to ‘good causes’ – but the growth in serious gambling has come regardless of the actions of ministers of whatever party.

Look at it from their point of view. Jowell’s first super-casino has yet to open. The plans to make Britain an online gambling centre have yet to be implemented. But already one million are gambling online, according to the findings of a survey for the Culture Department, which many dismiss as an underestimate. (The Nielsen/Net ratings agency puts the figure at six million visiting a casino site every month.)

If they were honest, ministers would accept that gambling must be contributing to the debt which is sinking so many households. The last Gambling Prevalence Survey was conducted in 1999 and a follow-up won’t be published until later this year. But even at the turn of the millennium, as many people were addicted to gambling as drugs and all observers think the numbers must have rocketed since the net brought 24/7 instant gratification to every gambler’s living room.

Study the home news pages and you get a feel for the way the country is going: the Premiership players being treated for their incessant use of internet pornography and gambling sites; the cashiers at the Co-op Bank in Manchester who stole £350,000 to pay off their gambling debts; the Cheshire financial adviser who took £2.3 million from clients, who included his own brother, and spent it on online sites… such tales of theft and ruin are becoming commonplace.

As we report today, the police are warning that casinos will allow gangsterism to flourish. As the British Medical Association will report later this week, chronic gambling is already a ‘Cinderella’ among addictions that now needs to be treated as seriously as drug abuse and alcoholism. A defender of the government could reply that yes, that’s all true, but much of the crime and destitution gambling brings would have happened anyway. The net means that players can lose their money anywhere in the world. Why shouldn’t ministers encourage them to lose it in Britain, where at least the behaviour of gambling tycoons can be monitored and the Inland Revenue can tax a portion of their earnings?

There is, after all, a hard-headed if rarely voiced argument for the burden of taxation to fall heavily on people who are likely to throw their money away whether they are taxed or not, rather than, say, responsible parents who would otherwise spend it on their children.

Australia provides a warning of the danger of such pseudo-realism. It pioneered the deregulation of gambling in the Nineties. Among the population as a whole, Australians spend more on ‘pokies’ – glorified fruit machines with large jackpots for the exceptionally fortunate – than they do on food. The 330,000 ‘problem gamblers’ are invariably poor or desperate and waste £4,800 a year on average.

Politicians from greens to conservatives rage against the debasement of Australian culture, but every time they propose reform, they run up against the inconvenient fact that 10 per cent of tax revenues now come from gambling. For Australia, the attempt by the Americans to defy those who assert that the internet has placed gambling and pornography beyond the control of elected parliaments is next to impossible to imitate. It is too expensive.

Of all the addictions gambling fuels, the one we should fear most is the dependency of governments. Once they are hooked, it takes a tremendous effort to wrench them free.