Top columnist putting words together in misguided manner? You can bet on it.

As anyone who is—or has been—a student in the days of the denigration of the degree knows, pecuniary problems beset one to an alarming extent. If it wasn’t for the ‘credit-card-ignorance’ factor that accompanies every student loan (that £12,000 doesn’t exist until I’m into my thirties right?), university finances would be a cause for some rather critical concern.

Luckily, most remnants of debt-centric thinking are either obliterated in a variety of satisfyingly stereotypical ways or reduced to something far more trivial. However, this sadly isn’t always possible, especially so, I imagine, in the current climate, where top-up fees have to rise in line with the proliferation of joke degrees, offered to appease the government’s ludicrously unholy addiction to sending half of all school leavers into the dizzy world of higher education, which, in terms of the knock-on effects is well-set for a prolonged period sat firmly in the all-time top 10 acts of governmental stupidity.

Yet despite the brain-numbing effects of mass education, students can possess a remarkable resourcefulness, often ironically inspired by the cumbers of coughing up their first decent year’s salary to pay for the pleasure of discount beer and the time to learn how to complete cryptic crosswords.

My own excuse for entrepreneurialism in the face of financial unsteadiness was to transform an embarrassingly acute knowledge of sport into subsidised socialising, courtesy of Mr Hill, the gentlemen from Ladbrokes and other members of their vice-sodden crew. Elsewhere in bedsit-land, depending on personal persuasions, the nation’s future leaders have previously opted for one, other, or both of the Internet’s twin demons: poker and perversity.

It was thus with some interest that I read Jackie Ashley’s column yesterday, in which she took her readers safely by the hand and led them, cautiously, into the puzzling cloak-and-dagger world of political betting. It’s a decent read: generally accurate, lucid and at least mildly entertaining. However, the conclusion is unfortunately wetter than James Blunt in a thunderstorm.

Jackie is curious about the prominent relationship politics now has with gambling, how bookies’ prices are now used as yardsticks for judging every political machination and whether all this is making politics unnecessarily crass and vicissitudinous, overreacting to the whims of a few big-name punters, who can make or break careers.


“Politics ought to be about argument, debate, complexity. Political problems, certainly, are long-term, such as how we cope with labour migration and so on. When we are judging a leader or a policy, everyone needs some time to ponder, to think twice, to get things in proportion. But the instant betting loop inhibits this; there’s something bullying about “Punters in a Menzies Frenzy”. A horse wins, and the race is over, and the next bets can be laid. In politics, a great train of consequences may follow.”

Political theory is great, and in the right circumstances, about as fascinating as mental stimulation can get. However, practical politics is nothing of the sort: the only fascination it tends to sprout is a morbid one with the immature face-pulling, name-calling crèche-like antics on view every Wednesday lunchtime. It’s a big—and often sorry—game of one-upmanship. It’s very much like betting.

To be successful in betting, as in politics (and here I speak in decidedly unpolitical terms of competence rather than power) requires long-term, unemotional thinking. Occasionally this happens. However, for the most part, things are bluffed around, run on impulse and dictated by the guys with the biggest bank accounts. It’s more fun (albeit ultimately poorer) that way. The politics about which Jackie Ashley is talking, such as a party leadership contest, is the ultimate form of this erratic, whimsical decision-making. It has little relevance to the more timeless aspects of the art.

Is Menzies Campbell really going to win the Lib Dem leadership contest on evidence of rational long-term thinking about how best to harness the power of globalisation? Is David Cameron going to out-poll New Labour (N.B. not actually win, that isn’t going to happen) in four years’ time because he has spent the longest time pondering the most proportional response to the question of immigration? Is Gordon Brown going to stop using the budget resources to bribe the most important groups of voters into putting a cross by his name?

Nope. That horse has long since bolted and been put out to pasture. In the real world, the next ones are already at the starting line: so place your bets, and if you lose, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in a minute. And another. And another.

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