June 17, 2004

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 addiction.

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 legitimate business.

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 but increase.

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 our society?

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 palaces.

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 24-hour entertainment.

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 deal!

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.