Tuesday, 9 January 2007

The Chances of Success

Tim Adams, writing in last Sunday's Observer, made a fascinating argument about the rise in gambling in Britain under New Labour. Last year, as a nation, we put £50 billion into slot machines, on horses and lucky numbers and the rest - a sevenfold increase over the past five years. While charting the government decisions which have fed this and the naive liberalism and weakness before corporate lobbyists underlying them, Adams suggests a deeper, parallel trend is at work.

Since the end of the Thatcher era, he argues, financial success in all areas of life has come to appear increasingly arbitrary, a matter of extreme fortune rather than reward for hard work:

During the extraordinary 1992 election campaign, Major made a speech from his soapbox entitled 'My Vision for the Future' in which he burbled about how he wanted to see a Britain in which 'wealth cascaded down the generations'. At the time the choice of the word 'cascade' seemed vaguely absurd; wealth had rarely cascaded, Las Vegas-style, in Britain, it had mostly dripped or slowly puddled. In retrospect, though, Major was correct in his choice of language.

In the years that followed, cash did appear to flow in sudden flash floods or not at all. If there was one dominant theme of the Nineties, it was that money could arrive with no warning, apparently at random, in the form of share windfalls, or to fat cats, or property speculators, or footballers, or employees of Goldman Sachs. This combined with plummeting faith in politicians and institutions helped to create a sense that wealth and power were distributed almost by chance. In the month that Camelot won their franchise to run the National Lottery, the news was dominated by the financial collapse of Lloyd's of London; the lottery, with its sudden cascade of outrageous fortune, seemed to typify the national mood; it also served to bring gambling into the mainstream of culture.

It's easy to pile up examples and sound like you've proved something. But there is certainly a perception that ability combined with steady, hard work - never a guarantee of success - is a less reliable route than used to be the case.

What interests me is the way this trend - if it is a trend - goes hand in hand with an intensification of the rhetoric of meritocracy. As ordinary social mobility (rather than extraordinary overnight success) has fallen, politicians on all sides have claimed to be bringing about 'equality of opportunity' (with its implication that you've no one to blame for your failure but yourself) and 'standing up for hard working families'.

Finally, after years of reporting on the regeneration of Sheffield, what resonated most powerfully with me in Adams' article was the digression about 'the oxymoronic leisure industry':

Whenever I hear that phrase I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with the city fathers of Liverpool, who were talking excitedly about their plans for the 2008 city of culture. They spoke a good deal of the booming 'leisure sector' in the city; eventually I came to realise that what they meant by this was drinking. I remember sitting in one of those packed drinking dens late one night with a notebook thinking blearily I had cracked the mystery of Labour's economic policy: create as many students as possible, encourage them to live in blighted city centres, surround them with cheap drink and all-night licensing hours, allow them heavy debt, and let the consequently rampant 'leisure industry', in league with property developers, rebuild your cities.

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