Liberal? I wouldn’t bet on it

by Stephen Tall on January 30, 2007

Today Manchester won its bid to host the sole regional super-casino, and the Lib Dems’ Culture spokesman, Don Foster, issued a predictably eeyore-ish response, arguing the Government “must get their gambling addiction under control”.

It’s a shame he’s chosen to indulge in the easy sound-bite, as Mr Foster makes some valid points.

He’s right to point out that the gambling industry should do more to tackle the ills associated with ‘problem gamblers’ – just compare the £2.5m the gambling industry gave to the main body dealing with gambling addictions with the £200m a year the drinks industry spends tackling alcohol problems. If the gambling industry isn’t picking up the tab, it will be the tax-payer.

The Lib Dems were also right, when the Gambling Bill was going through Parliament, to stick up for the right of local councils, acting on behalf of their residents, to reject casino bids. Indeed, when the proposals were first unveiled the Lib Dems were fully in favour of what were then termed ‘destination casinos’, especially if located in seaside resorts.

And, as The Observer reported on Sunday, Blackpool was pinning its hopes on winning the bid:

The majority [of residents] are so desperate to have the casino that council leaders are willing to knock down the police station and the law courts to accommodate it. At the end of last year, the local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, asked its readers a simple question: ‘Do you want a super-casino?’ An overwhelming 91 per cent of respondents said they did.

Read today’s Blackpool Gazette, and you get a flavour of the disappointment at Manchester’s victory.

In the circumstances, you might have thought the Lib Dems would be sympathetic to allowing a town like Blackpool to host a super-casino. After all, Mr Foster did suggest in the House of Commons debate of 1st November, 2004, that “we still need measures that will control the proliferation of super-casinos, perhaps by allowing one or two per region to start with” [my emphasis].

However, that suggestion of “one or two per region” appears to have bitten the dust, with Mr Foster today arguing that: “Any further increase in the number of super-casinos, without a full study of the impact on Manchester, would be against the wishes of Parliament and the concerns of many local communities.”

Liberals are rarely full-blown libertarians: we accept the individual’s freedom has, of necessity, occasionally to be curbed by government for the greater good of society. But our pre-disposition must always be to allow individuals freedom of choice over their own lives; including, crucially, the freedom to make mistakes.

Yet, too often, the Lib Dems appear to be the party of party-poopers, reluctant to relinquish state power to the individual for fear they will mis-use it. Last year, we (take another bow, Don) carped about liberalising the alcohol licensing laws. Now, apparently, we are against super-casinos even when they are wanted by local communities.

The Lib Dems often invoke the two Fs as a slogan: freedom and fairness. Perhaps we should toss another F into the mix: fun. (Steady now, Lembit.) Because, on the basis of today’s statement, there’s no F in liberalism.