The licensing of disorder
by Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail, 17 June 2004
Sometimes you really do have to rub your eyes at
a world turned upside down. Our nannyish government
which is trying so hard to stop us smoking or
stuffing our faces with cream buns or behaving in
other ways of which it disapproves is now
encouraging us to take to the gaming tables.
The gambling bill published this week will relax
the gaming laws to allow mega-casinos to spread
across our towns and resorts. Slot machines will be
able to offer £1 million jackpots, and the new
casinos will be able to provide as many fruit
machines and gambling tables as they can cram in.
The result will be to bring Las Vegas to our
towns and cities, with an almost certain increase in
ruinous gambling and in the crime that inevitably
attaches itself to gambling joints.
This is social progress put into reverse gear.
Gambling is an innately destructive and anti-social
activity. The danger that it leads people into
ruinous behaviour is so pronounced that until now
all governments felt a responsibility to keep it to
a minimum. But now the Blair government has torn up
that understanding. It is to usher in an explosion
of gambling opportunities — which will mean an
explosion of gambling.
Not surprisingly, those who deal with the
casualties of gambling have registered shocked
protests. The Methodist Church and the Salvation
Army have warned of ‘potentially dire social
consequences’, with the poor and other vulnerable
people exposed to higher risks of gambling
By any rational standards, the government’s
thinking is simply barmy. According to the Culture
Secretary Tessa Jowell, the gaming laws have to be
changed — because otherwise Britain's achievement in
having one of the lowest rates of gambling problems
in the world will be at risk.
But it’s our gaming restrictions which have kept
those problems low. How on earth will an invasion of
giant casinos across the land mean fewer [ital
‘fewer’] gambling addicts, for heaven’s sake?
In fact, the government appears to be going to
extraordinary lengths to turn Britain into a
veritable crucible of disorder. For the relaxation
of the gaming laws comes on top of the introduction
of 24-hour drinking, the liberalisation of the law
on cannabis, and the proposals for turning
prostitution into a health-and-safety conscious
By relaxing the prohibitions against all this
behaviour, thus giving a powerful signal that
society no longer disapproves of it, the government
is all but guaranteeing that it will not decrease
This is all the more staggering considering that
the great social reform movements in the Victorian
period were all directed at curbing such behaviour,
and with remarkable success.
Considering the crucial role played by the
Salvation Army and the Methodists in that heroic
project of remoralising the poor, their current
protests are particularly poignant. After all, it is
often said that the British Labour party owed more
to Methodism than to Marx.
Who would even have dreamed, therefore, that a
Labour cabinet minister would have posed beside a
roulette table as if she were placing a bet in order
to launch a casino culture in Britain — and to claim
that this was an example of social reform.
But then who would have imagined that a party
ostensibly committed to social progress and rescuing
the poor from squalor would go down the road of
liberalising drug use or encouraging sexual
promiscuity among the young, attitudes that have
wreaked such havoc among the most disadvantaged in
It is almost as if ministers sat down and looked
at the great programmes of moral and social reform
in the Victorian period, which were based on
encouraging self-control and the restraint of
appetites, and decided to put them all into reverse.
Those movements, teaching temperance and
preaching against prostitution and sexual licence,
remoralised an entire society which had become
brutish and degenerate. For the Victorian reformers,
the essence of being a progressive was to encourage
people away from sexual promiscuity and the gin
Indeed, the only reason the British public house
became a relatively civilised place was because the
Victorians introduced licensing laws which stopped
unlimited drinking, which was perceived to be a
major cause of drunkennness and disorder.
Now we are undoing that very reform. Instead of
being progressive, we are going backwards. Rather
than promoting self control and continent behaviour,
we are encouraging unlimited licence.
We are being returned to the 18th century, that
dissolute era of libertinism and lotteries. The
Victorians re-moralised a society. This government
is de-moralising it.
The tragi-comic aspect of all this is that
ministers actually want to do good. They want to
stop binge drinking, to reduce the disorderliness of
prostitution. And they are correct to identify new
forms of gambling which need to be controlled.
The problem is that they don’t grasp the crucial
importance of laws which restrain behaviour. They
don’t understand that these laws send out vital
signals about social disapproval which encourage
self–restraint. Demolishing the legal barriers gives
the opposite signal that a free-for-all is perfectly
acceptable. So anti-social behaviour is encouraged.
There is another huge pressure behind the
encouragement of gambling, drinking and drugs. Those
in charge of regenerating our towns and cities have
spotted that the best way to make somewhere a
‘happening’ kind of place is to make it a centre of
That means pressure to open all-night clubs, pubs
and now casinos. And that means a blind eye turned
to the culture of drugs, drink and addictive
gambling that fuels them. In other words, the
economic regeneration of our towns and cities is
being achieved through the marketing of vice
—suitably regulated by the government, of course,
with surreal ‘gambling-free chill-out zones’ in the
casinos and slot-machine free minicab offices. Big
In its naïve way, the government looks at Europe
where night life centres around civilised
restaurants and fondly imagines that deregulation
will turn Britain into a similarly pleasant café
society. Alas, as anyone venturing into our inner
cities late on a Saturday night can attest, the
scene is more reminiscent of the work of the artist
Hogarth, with vomiting, urinating, swearing and
generally threatening and loutish behaviour.
The reason is that Britain is a very different
culture from Europe. It needs strictly enforced
rules and social signals to curb an innate tendency
towards drunken yobbery and incivility which is a
natural part of our people’s innately
individualistic and rough and ready character.
But at the very heart of what has gone wrong is
the collapse of the idea that anti-social behaviour
is inherently wrong.
The Victorian reformers all had one thing in
common. They were absolutely certain that behaviour
such as drinking, sexual licentiousness or
prostitution were wrong in themselves. That iron
belief prompted them to try to curb what they
clearly understood as vice and depravity. But now,
anyone who even used such terms would be considered
beyond the pale.
The only thing now absolutely unacceptable is to
regard such behaviour as unacceptable. Instead we
license it, regulate it and tax it — and then wonder
why Britain is turning into a giant sleaze-pit.
Nanny appears to need treatment herself for
seriously dysfunctional behaviour.