You have to wonder where New Labour gets its policy ideas from. It constantly comes up with unpopular plans for things there wasn't any public demand for in the first place. Things like 24-hour Yahtzee parlours.
And many a true word is spoken in jest. Take gambling. This week Tony Blair defended the idea of 'liberalising' gambling laws and allowing the creation of 'super casinos', with the aim of generating investment and turning Doncaster into Las Vegas, or something.
But why? Either New Labour is hopelessly in cahoots with various business interests (something it has strenuously denied over gambling) or there's a distinctly random aspect to the policy-making process. Subsidised cheese for mice? Why not?
The most curious thing is why Labour, which many voters voted for to protect public services from the Tories, should choose to push forward deregulation of gambling. If we currently had a hardcore laissez-faire neo-con government it might make sense. But Labour? Why?
And it's hardly surprising that there's been so much flak. Basically, gambling is a con that relies on the willingness of the gambler to accept terrible odds in the hope of making money without working. Along with going out with someone who doesn't love you AND won't have sex with you, it's one of the few life experiences where you spend money and get absolutely no return. At least chronic alcoholism gives you a short-term chemical buzz while your life disintegrates around you. All the compulsive gambler really gets is a succession of sickening losses punctuated by the occasional win of £89.55, which soon goes the same way as the rest of their cash.
Of course, gambling can be fun and harmless, but the gambling debate isn't really about the pros and cons of having a flutter, it's about whether the state should curtail individual freedom in the hope of protecting people from themselves.
And boy, have we been before with New Labour! It's eerily similar to the idea of 24-hour drinking. There wasn't any massive public demand for this, and there's a strong chance it will actually make town-centre yobbery worse, but New Labour seems to be pushing ahead with liberalisation regardless. Another good example is cannabis, where the law has effectively been relaxed, despite the fact that noone under the age of 60 knows anyone whose life has been ruined by being done for possession. Except for black people, but that's more to do with racism than drugs.
Actually, we take that back. Cannabis isn't a good example of pointless liberalisation. Cannabis cafes are a long way off, whereas 24-hour drinking and slottie'n'craps gambling superstores could be in place before we know it. And, unlike smoking dope, gambling and drinking have more obvious adverse effects.
While the majority of people can gamble in a social setting (day at the races, night at the dogs, flutter on the Grand National) or as a hobby (placing modest bets for the sport of it, like the Queen) there will always be a significant minority who can't do this. It's exactly the same with drinking. One group of lads can drink for 15 hours and wake up with hangovers and a bit of banter about who they snogged, another group can end up kicking someone to death.
If you make something easier to do, then more people will do it. This is especially true of gambling. Any of us can gamble any time we want: in the pub, on the internet, in the local takeaway, in Ladbroke's, on the AVAGO channel, by buying scratchcards, in those tiny visions of chav Heaven which are amusement arcades, etc. But casinos as they exist in the UK are relatively highly regulated and most require some sort of membership. This is a lot different to Vegas-style gambling funparks. It's also worth noting that the gambling deregulation as it stands includes licensed (ie. booze-fuelled) gambling, which is desirable for casino owners for obvious reasons, and which in the US has included 'free' drinks for gamblers.
Fuck it, we're going to stop writing RIGHT NOW and set up a casino. We'll stick a licensed sub-Post Office in there so people can get a free plastic cup of Latvian champagne when they cash their giros.
And it's here that the individual freedom argument falls apart. Like hard drugs, gambling hits a certain minority of the population really, REALLY hard. Sometimes we've got to realise that we can't just have what we want all the time because the effects on some people will be truly awful. There's nothing wrong with being a bit irresponsible, but that doesn't mean we want to be socially irresponsible.
And if you're still not convinced, just remember what an untrammelled thrill buying your last lottery ticket and not winning £10 million was.