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A tax on desperation: dear at half the price

WHAT would you do if you won the Lottery?

If it was me, I'd probably buy myself a political party big enough to outlaw forever games of chance designed to toy ruthlessly, endlessly, with the dreams, hopes and fears of the poor. But I'm weird, of course.

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Most people are decently human, from what I hear. Their dreams of avarice are modest. It is fascinating to hear sometimes of how very little they want from a slice of a morsel of ridiculous luck. They want their bills paid. Then they want to pay bills for their kids, their family, their friends. They want nice things for everyone. And they want to make fear go away.

What is the fear, exactly, and what are the odds? I can remember being in an upholstered room in London once when John Major (the then prime minister) swore in his sibilant way that Lottery money would "never" – quotation marks must stick – replace "core funding" for charities, the arts, or the essential responsibilities of a decent society. I'll give him this: I think Major meant every word.

But nothing stuck, and nothing then happened. The money was too easy to get, and too hard for governments to refuse. Our gambling paid for hospital wards, Olympic heroism, art, justice, novels, aid to the oppressed world, football fields, and for those magical prosthetics used to replace the limbs of the child victims of the hedge funds that sometimes – try me on chapter and verse – invest in lottery firms and arms dealers.

We still take a punt, though the odds are beyond unspeakable. We still get annoyed, too, because the price of being ripped off is going up again. A rational, middle-class sort – I meet them, now and then – would probably say one of those rational, middle-class things on the topic of prudence. If you only have a tenner a week to spare, they'd probably say, 14 million-to-one is a lousy bet. There is another answer: try living where many people live.

There is a further way to talk about this stuff. Once upon a time, decent people in these islands would have been appalled by the very idea that any part of a country could be run on gambling. One phrase, employed as an insult, was "casino culture". The idea that poets, or the harmed in body, or the merely useful, could be exploited as an excuse for Camelot would not have been tolerated. But to repeat: I'm old-fashioned.

Were I picking a fight – do not look up "forfend", or "Heaven" – you might have heard me asking, specifically, about who turned this island over to the casinos and to those who run casinos. The straight answer is that Blair, Tony, did it. Again, if his lawyers are on stand-by, I shall sit by the phone. But history speaks its story, chapters and verses.

Why did the rest of us go along with it? I like a bet as much the next man. I think of myself, most days, as a better judge than the next dope of how to count raindrops on a window. Then the pause. Then the thought: this game is so obviously stupid, so clearly ridiculous, the people offering the bet must regard me as an idiot. Or as a person who needs a personal injury lawyer, reward points, air miles, and another brand-new deal on insurance for things I forgot I owned.

How much is ever enough? One neat, symbolic function of the National Lottery is to remind us all, week upon week, just how desperate some of us are; how fragile our social protections have become; how much need goes unmet, and of how our fear has been turned into a cash crop. Old words still work: we are thought of as peasants.

Camelot has just said it intends to double its prices. For a gambling game, that's steep. I'm still waiting, in fact, for Her Majesty's Government to say that the outrage will not be tolerated, that having its people depend on a numbers racket is an offence to national dignity, that a poll tax done with magical balls is still, in essence, balls. But it won't happen. Rooking the dispossessed remains the best game invented.

Ho hum. To escape from this nightmare, you need their money. How perfect is that? In order to hate Camelot properly, you need Camelot's funding to get your radical newsletter/community group/theatre troupe off the ground. Give them credit: it's clever. It means, fundamentally, that there can never be anything wrong with dreaming of the golden ticket. It means that their world is, always and forever, your world.

But then, what would you do if they chucked you a million or two and offered the chance to run beyond that world, to be where sands turn into gold? The problem is less what to do with what you hate than what you care – and truly care – about. It has less to do with what you stand before than what you stand behind. When Christ was taken to the summit, and shown what could be His, a voice probably mentioned a double rollover.

There is another way to think of these squalid things. Camelot and its games could be what Major claimed. The Lottery could still be a national utility conducted in the national interest. If we must gamble – let's not bet against it – perhaps we could stop being hoodwinked by "good causes" and begin to remind ourselves of the public good. Put sin and hope, those old bedfellows, to useful work.

What would you do if you won the Lottery? It has become a fantasy politics for the 21st century. It has become a version of dreaming aloud, whistling in the dark, and hoping against hope. No-one I meet ever evinces a tawdry ambition should the unfeasible odds give them a break. They want well. Here's an odd fact: most people want to do good, and want what little luck they come across to be universal.

Camelot regards that instinct as a commercial proposition. The firm believes that if common folk will pay a quid for hopes and dreams then two quid, once or twice a week, isn't much to ask. There is contempt in the calculation. For those who most need a Lottery win, the charge is huge. When you have nothing, doubling up is worse than risky. But the people who run lotteries think, smart folk, that you have no choice in the matter.

They might be right. Once upon a time, their entire "business plan" would have got them arrested. Now they do things for good causes, and sponsor arts or athletes, and have weekly TV shows to cause people to forget that gambling is not, in point of fact, the way you build a society. Amnesia is an important part of the business-like plan for bookies.

Twice a week, week upon week, you sell people a ticket to a better world. That's not such a bad idea, everyone is entitled to a dream. But the Lottery functions because a lot of people are afraid, and because they want fear to go away. It might be better, in that case, to make for those folk a better world.

Two quid a ticket would be the least of it.

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