Brown’s One Piece of Luck

ON THE A1, a couple of hundred yards or from the Arsenal Stadium, is the new Leisure World amusement arcade. The local reaction to its banks of gaming machines gives you a taste of how the public will receive New Labour’s planned casinos. It’s fair to say that everyone apart from owners and their dead-eyed customers hates it. The heads of five nearby schools worried about their children being lured in. They protested, the police protested, shopkeepers protested. But although the council refused planning permission, a judge decided to overrule them all.
So angry is respectable opinion in Holloway that the arcade is being attacked from the highground by a moral arbiter I’ve never come across before: a pawnbroker. Andy Charalambous, who runs the Gold Shop a couple of door away, said that desperate punters come in to pawn jewellery. Despite their business, he wants the arcade closed because “it brings the area down”.
You might have thought that the row about Labour’s gaming plans stopped when Gordon Brown scrapped the proposal to build a super-casino in Manchester. But, for once, our hapless Prime Minister has been lucky with his PR. The death of super-casinos generated favourable headlines in papers as diverse as the Guardian and Daily Mail, but plans for 16 regional casinos will still be debated in the Commons this week.
The newspapers usually call them “smaller” casinos, but there is nothing tiny about the scale of gambling they will allow. People around the Arsenal are furious about 40 fruit machines in an arcade. The regional casinos will have 150 with jackpots of up to £4000. The restraints that the Labour governments of the Sixties imposed on Britain’s casinos will go. There will be drinks on the gaming floor, no cooling off period before a new gambler is allowed to play and on-site sport betting. Beyond the regional casinos, New Labour has allowed tens of thousands of roulette machines in bookies, and poker and blackjack machines will follow soon.
Although it’s not my vice, I’ve nothing against gambling as long as there are sensible controls. But when it is exploding because of the Internet, those controls need to be tightened, not loosened.
The Net explains why Brown has chosen to quietly sneak down the permissive path: he is terrified that tax revenues will vanish into cyberspace. The result of his anxiety is an unsavory double game. On the one hand, the press praises him for stopping super-casinos. On the other, Brown hopes no one will notice the thousands of new fruit machines and blackjack tables arriving soon in a casino near you.

IN 2004, Baroness Helena Kennedy, lawyer, unelected peer and chairwoman of the central committee of the Great and the Good, established the Power Inquiry into disillusionment with politics. “The public wants a voice,” she thundered on its completion. “They are tired of spin and sleaze. They want honesty.”
This week the Baroness signed a round-robin letter which hailed Ken Livingston as “a standard bearer for real progressive politics”. Eh? If the public is tired of spin, Livingstone who spends twice as much on PR as the entire Scottish executive isn’t going to shake them out of their apathy. Sleaze? At least £3 million of public money has gone walkabout from City Hall. As for honesty, she won’t get it from a seedy hysteric who screams that anyone who criticises him is a racist.
“We want a new way of doing politics,” declared the Baroness in 2004. On that she was right. We do.

FOR WHAT it’s worth, I found the violence in No Country for Old Men repellent. Great films can contain a great deal of violence, but they use it to explore ambition, power and corruption, this was sadism dressed up as art. Then again, I thought There Will be Blood was grim and slow but memorable. I’m certain that Hollywood doesn’t care about my opinions. But it should worry that both the big winners on Oscar night were art house movies that did modestly at the box office. As a result, the Oscar ceremony got its lowest viewing figure ever. Hollywood dominated 20th century culture because it knew its audience. Now there’s a gap between the films the industry celebrates and the films the public enjoys. If Hollywood wants to know what happens when the gap becomes a chasm, it should look at pitiful remnants of the British film industry and be very afraid.

A Cabinet minister is wandering around telling journalists that when people realise how much money the government has wasted on health and education, Labour will be out of power. I think it has woken up already. Since becoming a father rather late in life, I’ve found the frankness with which fellow parents talk about getting their children into a decent school astonishing. English restraint vanishes as they explain the tricks needed to beat the system without a shred of embarrassment.
This week the Tories made the plausible claim that one in five children won’t get into their first choice school rising to one in two in London. If their second choices were good schools, rejection wouldn’t matter. But after 10-years of Labour and billions of public money, second choices are invariably third-rate.

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