Gamble on politics

    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
    economy.(1)

    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..

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