There’s nothing new in the idea of pleasures playing their part
in quashing public restlessness. That’s what the Romans meant by
bread and circuses after all. As the pundits continue to predict
the lowest ever turn out in the next general election, the list of
the ways people enjoy or numb themselves becomes ever longer.
Gambling is growing by 3.5 per cent in this country; 70 per cent
of us have apparently placed a bet at some time or another. Binge
drinking is on the rise. Prescriptions for antidepressants have
risen by more than 700 per cent in the UK in the past decade.
Some might argue that personal addictions have nothing to do
with a sense of public powerlessness. But let us presume there is a
connection. Within my own lifetime, for instance, there has been a
big shift in our perception about the power of popular politics.
Those of us born in the 1950 and 1960s, maybe even the early 1970s,
were essentially part of that post-war baby boom, the generation
that enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom.
With that came a sense of optimism about human change and
progressive politics whether through socialism, social democracy,
feminism, trade unionism or more personal liberation politics.
Something fundamental has shifted in politics. World problems
now feel as if they are beyond the reach of national governments
let alone groups of citizens or individuals. Most of us are reduced
to spectator status. Yes, television allows the terrors of the
tsunami to enter our homes, so we give generously. But there’s
something numbing, too, about a culture in which the horrors of
natural disaster jostle for space on the paper’s front pages with
Germaine Greer’s entry – and exit – from Big Brother.
Call me cynical, but government policy seems more interested in
keeping us happy in the short term than getting us politically
involved. If Blairism is about anything it is about tight control
from the top with decisions flowing from the centre. After seven
years of government, there’s a distinct air of “we know best, leave
it to us!”
For a puritanical party, New Labour has done a lot to promote what
the Victorians called “vice”. Or as The Guardian’s Martin Kettle
put it bluntly last year: “Government ministers are happier doing
the bidding of the richest players in the relevant industry than
they are of defying them.”
Tessa Jowell’s gambling bill gives the nod to the creation of a
large batch of super-casinos. Much has been made of offers to
provide on-site professional help to potential addicts and the
promise of social housing and other leisure facilities as an “add
on” to the casinos. Socially responsible gambling? Sounds a bit odd
to me. The government also seems determined to press on with laws
to introduce 24-hour drinking, despite opposition from the police
and the devastation that binge drinking brings to most town centres
up and down the country on a weekly basis.
Putting reasonable brakes on drinking and gambling and the
corporate profits associated with them would be one move in the
right direction. But what of the deeper problems, of apathy,
disillusionment, lack of political involvement?
A recent survey of those who voted in 1997 finds that they feel
betrayed by the so-called new politics. In a forthcoming pamphlet,
Compass, a Labour pressure group, declares that these voters now
believe that this government has led to “the establishment of a
marketised monoculture where freedom is defined only as the ability
to shop, not to change the world in which you liveÉ”
Government merely helps people become employable in a ruthless
The Compass pamphlet puts its finger on a crucial link between
apathy and economic insecurity. And the answer? “A new politics and
sense of collectivism. The objective is neither to retreat from
globalisation nor to accommodate to it, but to find ways of
offering democratic security and freedom: the ‘new politics’ New
Labour promised but has not delivered.”
Obviously, it’s not all down to government. It is also down to
individuals and pressure groups and communities. History teaches us
that most progressive change comes from public pressure and
collective struggle. As the election nears turn off Big Brother,
put down the bottle, walk past the betting shop and start making
changes to the world we live in. Here. And Now.
(1) Compass, Dare More Democracy, is published this month.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist..