Betraying the values my party stood for

By ROY HATTERSLEY 13:28pm

15th October 2004

Harold Wilson once told the House of Commons: "The Labour Party owes far more to Methodism than to Karl Marx."

What he meant was that the pioneers who founded the party were men of high moral standing who believed that they could build a New Jerusalem of upright citizens; of communities that looked after one another and helped to resist the temptations of modern society.

Yet the party they created has today formed a government which, at least in one particular, seems to have abandoned that ambition. It intends to encourage virtually unregulated gambling in every town.

The founding fathers would describe that plan in the plain language they always employed - as a betrayal of all that their party once stood for.

I was brought up on stories of my grandfather's obsessive gambling. He was a man of huge talent and immense charm, but the horses destroyed him. He began his working life as a racing farrier - the height of any blacksmith's ambition. But because he wanted to back, as well as shoe, the thoroughbreds, he destroyed his prospects and brought misery to his family.

His story could be repeated time after time in homes across the land.

Destructive passions

Gambling too often becomes an all-consuming passion. Families are ignored and rejected. Money is squandered. Mortgages are forfeited. Children are neglected. It starts off as fun and ends with tragedy.

Yet the relaxations in the law - "reforms" in Blairite newspeak - seem likely to come about. They will be supported by all the major parties with the feeble justification that adults must be allowed to live as they choose - even if the result is thousands of ruined lives.

No sane person could possibly advocate banning a bet on a horse or a long shot at winning a fortune on the pools. Nobody should complain about ministers accepting that gambling - like drinking - is an inevitable feature of a modern society. Indeed, in moderation, they probably add to the sum of human happiness.

Damage to society

The complaint against the change in gambling laws has nothing to do with individual liberty but with the effect on society. Because believe it or not, ministers are actively encouraging - indeed promoting - an increase in an activity that can have a deeply corrosive effect on our communities, just as they are encouraging round-the-clock drinking by the proposed change in licensing laws.

Morality aside, the way they intend to revise the gambling laws is utterly illogical. We are to have more and more casinos and they are to be given virtually a free hand to run their dubious business in whatever way they choose.

Not only puritans will be fearful about the prospect. In the 1960s, when it was feared with good reason that the mafia might move in on British gambling, tight regulation kept the British casinos clean. Today, the few that exist provide innocent fun for honest punters. That is because of the way in which they are run and regulated.

Membership must be registered 24 hours before gambling begins. Slot machines, which in America surround the gambling tables, are strictly limited. Inducements to stay on and lose more - such as a lavish supply of drinks - are prohibited. But it now seems that all those limitations are to be swept away in the hope that a free-for-all will encourage the big American investors.

The plan is to create what is known in the trade as two-part casinos. In one half, anyone who can prove his or her identity will be able to play the traditional "green baize" games - blackjack, roulette, Punto Banco and casino stud poker.

In the other, anyone will be able to walk in off the streets and play the slot machines. And the "slot palaces" may offer the temptation of as many as 1,250 machines.

Temptation for the young

Slot machines are the most addictive form of gambling and the greatest temptation to the very young. Yet if the Government's plans are confirmed, they will exploit vulnerable teenagers all over the country.

Already, planning applications for a hundred new casinos have been submitted to local authorities - mostly by the gambling giants who dominate Las Vegas.

But the explosion of numbers is only part of the problem that will follow the new gambling laws. It is likely that at least twice as many casinos will come into operation during the next five years. Britain is to become the gambling capital of Europe.

It is not a reputation which I, for one, welcome. What is more, it is in absolute denial of all that is best in what the Labour Party stands for. And there are a host of associated dangers.

A disease

Gambling is a disease that spreads like the plague. The bingo businesses - which have noticed that their competitors are being encouraged to expand - now demand the right to increase their maximum prize to 1 million and repeat their complaint that, unlike the National Lottery (another form of gambling), they are not allowed to advertise on television.

What used to be an innocent pastime at church fetes and in village halls is likely to see vast sums of money change hands - with all the attendant dangers that guarantees. Dave Allen, a casino owner who has fought all his life to keep the business clean, is frank about his fears. He does not want the day to come when foolish men and women, who have lost more than they can afford, find that menacing debt collectors call round at their houses.

Yet we all know that American gambling is riddled with violence and associated with every form of vice. It still seems beyond belief that the deregulation the Government proposes is intended to attract the Americans here. Indeed, we know that relaxing the rules is the price they say the Government has to pay for the dubious benefits of creating a little Las Vegas in Blackpool and casinos in every other town.

In a sense, the battle against the casinos is not a party issue. Conservatives and Liberals, no less than Labour, will be afraid to oppose what fashionable opinion describes as the right to enjoy ourselves in whatever way we choose. Ministers and their shadows fear to be called killjoys and are terrified of being told that they should leave preaching to the clergy.

But at least the Labour Party should have the courage of its origins and beliefs. And it should represent the true view of a majority of the British people.

Most of us do not want an unregulated casino in our town. We should write to ministers and say so, before it's too late.

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