British Prime Minister Gambling’s Latest Antichrist? Oh Please

As a journalist with respected website Poker Pages and co-presenter of a show on Holdem Radio, Amy Calistri is clearly no mug but her recent assessment of Gordon Brown’s U-turn on supercasinos suggests that she knows Vegas rather better than she does the shires of Britain.

One of Prime Minister Brown’s first acts upon succeeding Tony Blair last month was to effectively consign to the scrapheap the Labour government’s proposals for a wave of British supercasinos. In Ms Calistri’s eyes, this places the Scotsman firmly alongside US Senator Bill Frist in the gambling hall of shame. Frist it was who drove the controversial Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act into existence in 2006, effectively imposing a ban upon on-line poker.

“The UK has its own gambling Dark Ages’ poster boy…” Calistri rages in a Poker News article on July 24th. “The UK’s gaming reform experiment was seven years in the making and was poised to be an interesting counterpoint to current US policy. But what took seven years to plan took one man only four months to unravel. And in that context, the UK’s gaming policy experience is starting to mirror our own; the exercise of one man’s will.”

At least Calistri sets out her own agenda early in the report, stating that, pre-Brown, “The global envy of US gambling minded citizens and free market philosophers was heightened by the UK’s apparent rational response to online gaming; seeking to legislate and regulate the terrain.”

Okay, so if you’re a laissez-faire capitalist, Brown’s intervention is heavy-handed and regrettable. People far more qualified than me in economics, however, could debate both sides of the free market hot potato all night.

Where Calistri really wanders from reality, however, is in lumping Brown together with Frist as the villains of the piece and painting a picture of the British Premier as a dinosaur out of step with the Society around him.

Amy, you need to visit Britain for a while. If I tell you that defending my country’s current Government comes as easily to me as advocating the abolition of Christmas, you’ll get an idea of how wide of the mark I think you have strayed.

Far from Gordon Brown isolating himself with his decision to sideline the supercasinos, I doubt that there was any better way he could have ingratiated himself with his electorate. The only people passionate about the casino boom in the UK were those who stood to pocket most of the profits. Even as online gambling booms this side of the Atlantic, the impetus for supercasinos here has been generated solely by Labour politicians, anxious to ingratiate their party with anyone with money to spend, regardless of how it may be generated.

We already have modest but successful casinos in the UK, you see, along with legal sportsbooks (‘bookmakers’, we prefer to call them in Britain) and legal online gaming. So nicely catered for are we, indeed, that the only thing that comes close to irking your typical Brit gambler right now is the legal minefield he enters by playing poker in his local bar. Even there, compromise is being reached and progress made.

So with their gambling urges already taken care of, there has never been any great clamour for supercasinos among Britons. On the contrary, in fact. At heart, most people this side of the Pond, I suspect, feel more comfortable with gambling as a sideline activity in our cities than as one of the cornerstones of that buzz phrase ‘urban regeneration’.

Forgive us if we are cynical towards the notion of towns being revitalised by gambling. It’s just that we read about protest marches in Macau, whose own casino boom has meant hardship for the poorer sections of the population, who find rents and property prices spiralling beyond their means. Or isn’t ‘regeneration’ supposed to apply to them?

Then we read the censure of Louisiana’s civic leaders in the leader column of a local newspaper, after they too sought the ‘regeneration’ dollar:

“Louisiana officials frittered away the 1990s by focusing on expansion of various forms of gambling as a cure for Louisiana’s economic woes. Alas, gambling has not delivered the promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and Louisiana continues to lag much of the country in economic development.

“Louisiana would be much better off today if we had spent the past decade paying attention to more fundamental reforms to grow business, such as investing in education, reforming our tax laws, streamlining state government and dramatically tightening our ethics code.”

We read, we ponder and we think “no thanks”. In our Old Country gamblers’ hearts, we know that while Las Vegas might call us like Mecca, it is not dubbed ‘Sin City’ for nothing – “the flashiest, blackest hole in the universe,” poker blogger Pauly calls it. When its promoters tell us that there is only one Vegas, we utter a subconscious ‘Amen’.

All Gordon Brown has done is catch this mood and give it voice; something of which his wretched predecessor (yes, America: you’ve got him totally wrong, too) was singularly incapable.

He has not piggy-backed ill-conceived legislation on the shoulders of port security measures he knew were guaranteed safe passage. He has not ushered in his whims under the nose of a sleeping nation in the dead of night. He would not have us believe that while some forms of online gambling are the work of Satan, others – which just happen to be accompanied by lobbying muscle or the whiff of vested interests – are as pure as the driven snow.

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