The deregulation of gambling by Tony Blair was as much an act of revenge on the poor as it was a gift for gambling corporations. Harriet Harman’s regrets are welcome but only reveal once more that the class the governs understands little about many of they people they govern.
There was one act of Blair’s New Labour at Westminster which struck me as particularly representative of the moral decline of the Party, and that was the deregulation of gambling. Of corse Iraq was the defining act, but there was something deeply symbolic about deregulated gambling which in some ways provided a more penetrating glimpse about what was happening.
The short version of this for me is that Iraq was Blair’s personal obsession and New Labour could have existed without quite such a craven and supplicant position to the United States, but the elements that came together in gambling deregulation are quintessentially Blair-New-Labour. First and foremost, the policy puts ahead of all other things the interests of big corporations. There is only really one winner and that is those who proliferated the high streets and the internet with easily-accessible gambling opportunities. A bit of tax revenue made it to the exchequer but mostly a small group of ‘entrepreneurs’ cleaned up by making nothing and doing nothing socially useful.
That is in itself the definition of the New Labour project – lots and lots of people becoming filthy rich by making nothing and doing nothing socially useful. The boom areas of Blairism were banking and financial services (obviously, but not socially useful banking), consultancy and service-company (all that outsourcing), construction companies and ‘property development’ (through actions to keep house prices high, mortgages artificially low and PFI artificially profitable), retail (much of it predicated on cheap credit) and ‘leisure services’ (everything from hairdressing to paintball).
This last group is particularly important to the Blair project but has been a little overlooked behind retail and banking etc. For Blair, the real needs of the population could in part be met through carefully-marketed frivolity. In fact, the idea of ‘lifestyle politics’ started in the US in the early 1990s and its philosophy is a simple one – ‘politics is not You, the real You is your lifestyle choices and politics is only a necessary inconvenience that we will handle on your behalf without any need for you to worry about it’. So go to your work and work like a dog so you can buy that snowboard, those Raybans and then you can Live the Life. Arrive at work with a Starbucks coffee in your hand because this marks you out in a way that making a coffee at work once you get there doesn’t. That was the US version – political apathy you can feel good about in an open-neck shirt and chinos (or combats or whatever GAP was marketing that month). Look at those Friends – you never hear Joey and Chandler talking about politics, did you?
Blair’s version of this was particularly British. It had a number of elements – shoe shopping for women, the infantilisation of men (the rise of the Gadget Shop selling pointless men-toys that no adult should really want), the Loaded repackaging of female exploitation, an expectation of almost unlimited ‘treat yourself’ moments (so much eating out, so many reasons to buy yourself presents and feel OK about it because, in any one of a number of phraseologies, ‘you’re worth it’). But it always seemed to me to be captured in three big elements – the rapid expansion of ‘social drinking’, the deification of the English Premier League and the deregulation of gambling. Alcohol was marketed aggressively as ‘not aggressive’, a bit of Wednesday night fun. For the generation before, Wednesday night drinking was problem drinking. Not for Blair, not as long as you’re handing over your money, believing yourself to be happy and not asking too many questions. The football went beyond bread and circuses to become an all-consuming social narcotic which identified people with corporate interests.
And gambling. Why gambling? Well, like every other aspect of the Blair revolution it contained three elements crucial to the transformation of Britain – profit, ‘fun’ and class. Gambling is enormously profitable for those who run it. In fact, it is as close to free money as you can get. Blair didn’t seem to get out of bed unless it could help make someone already wealthy much wealthier still. What justification? The same justification as so many other things from that era – ‘fun’. The objectification of women through the pornification of everything? Just a bit of ‘fun’. The never-ending expansion of the availability of alcohol? Just a bit of ‘fun’. Taking interest from people who can ill afford to pay it for loans they don’t need to buy crap they don’t really want? Just a bit of ‘fun’. Fun became what the disadvantaged got instead of justice.
And that is where the class part came in. Despite all the awkward photoshoots, all these things that New Labour gifted to the masses, all that fun, all that escapism, none of it was for New Labour itself. Blair didn’t spend hours in online casinos, Jack Straw didn’t buy Loaded magazine, Peter Mandleson didn’t have a Top Man store card (his credit was much higher-end), Harriet Harman didn’t spend her midweeks watching the endless proliferation of football, none of them were detained by the latest McDonalds promotion or the crass profusion of celebrity gossip. These things were for the grunts of society. None of this was social policy from within the society affected, it was all anthropology of the governing classes imposed on the natives.
Which is why I take Harriet Harman’s recognition today that gambling deregulation was a mistake as a welcome sign of contrition while at the same time seeing in it the ongoing separation of politics from people. Her basic defence is that ‘had we known then what we know now’ about all the gambling corporations targeting only the desperate, vulnerable, alienated and damaged segments of society, a different decision would have been made. But dear god Ms Harman, we all knew. Everyone knew. I knew it when I was ten. When we went a walk with our working class grandparents we would always pass various bookies with their dead windows and trail of smoke emerging from the door if it opened. Next door would be an off-license dominated by wire caging. When we were dropped off for a day with middle class friends we could walk hours and never see a bookies. I knew that gambling lived in working class environs before I knew what working class meant. All the Guardian articles about middle class gambling habits and white collar addiction is just another version of the same anthropology, seeing news in it only when the lives of the comparatively affluent take on the practices of the non-affluent.
I won’t even bother presenting statistics on the extent of gambling addiction, the impact it has on families or the social class correlation because we all know this deeply and instinctively. The Labour movement was founded in part on the temperance movement. This is the route through which my grandparents found their limited way into politics (neither were activists but grandpa always got the Morning Star). Drink and gambling were the scourge of the poor, a means of transferring even more wealth from the poor to the rich. Blair inverted this completely. He wanted the rich richer and the poor stupider. He called it fun.
It isn’t empty shops on our high streets that bother me most, its what’s left. I went back to where my grandparents came from for the first time in a while a few months ago. They always thought that it was a good, respectable upper working-class area. Not rich, but comfortable and alive. I was a bit taken aback. I parked in a multistory that was built above the shinny new supermarket. I remember when it was built in the 1980s. It was modern and exciting, it felt like progress. The town centre felt alive and local. That supermarket is now gone and the space it inhabited is now a ‘mall’ of retail units. Nothing points to progress and you already know what it looks like – pound shops, pay day loan companies, two pawn shops, a discount chemist. It screams ‘we lost the war here’. And its bookies with its window open and its insides designed to look like a real escape from the moribund world around it seems an appealing option. Gambling both pulled Britain apart and profited from the result.
There is a careful line between puritanism and opposition to exploitation. This is a line we don’t need to worry about just now because we are so far over the horizon into a deregulated amoral hell of desperation and escape that the risk of puritanism seems like a distant and imaginary one. I am currently reading Ewan Morrison’s excellent Tales from the Mall and in one episode a character returns to a town from his childhood to find it devastated by an out-of-town shopping mall. He had come back for personal revenge but concluded that the revenge taken on this entire town was worse than anything he could have imagined in his most Jacobean of revenge fantasies.
The revenge that Tony Blair has taken on the working class for not being his kind of ‘modern’ seems just as terrible. Had Harriet Harman known then what the rest of us did, would she have done anything differently? I doubt it. For her gambling is as theoretical as poverty. Once again, people pay the price of the actions of a social class who know little about them. Whether the damage can be repaired is to be seen. Whether anyone at Westminster will care enough to try seems doubtful. And if the utterly crass comments from Fergus Ewing relating to pay-day loans is anything to go by, salvation from Holyrood may be a while to come.