Poor odds on any real benefit to society

Some years ago the Electoral Reform Society was asked to advise democratic organisations in Hong Kong on the most appropriate electoral system for the territory's forthcoming ballot. Patrick Bradley, the then Chief Election Officer for Northern Ireland, and I were duly despatched and were well briefed. During one short interlude we were taken to lunch at the famous Hong Kong racecourse and it was impressed upon us that all the Hong Kong people were inveterate and compulsive gamblers. The mathematical complications of each way bets and accumulators were carefully explained to us.

At the close of our mission Pat Bradley and I recommended that the Single Transferable Vote method should be adopted for Hong Kong?s elections. This system combines proportionality with the expression of preferences between individual candidates. Our hosts demurred and suggested that it was too complicated for the Hong Kong electorate. We reminded them of the ease with which the selfsame people coped with the infinitely greater complications of their gambling addiction. They laughed and agreed that STV was indeed simpler and therefore eminently possible.

I can just about cope with the arithmetic of preferential voting but the mental effort of calculating betting odds has never
seemed worthwhile. Although I find most temptations very seductive, I have never felt any inclination to gamble. Indeed, gambling is contrary to logic, with the odds always stacked in favour of the 'bank', and it also runs counter to a golden rule of politics, and of life, that in this world there is never something for nothing. For one to gain, another must lose. Materialism - the primacy of money above other values of community, culture, conservation and conviviality - is perhaps the besetting sin of modern times. And the government is now actively encouraging its expansion by removing restrictions on the establishment of casinos across the country.

Governments always have a problem in taking moral stances. It was Harold Macmillan who remarked that if the public wanted moral exhortation they should go to their bishops. But governments have a responsibility to hold the ring between those who would ensnare the public in socially destructive pursuits, whether drugs, alcohol, prostitution or gambling, and the freedom of members of the public to exercise their free will. Increasingly governments have opted out of this role in relation to gambling and have grabbed the proceeds of the lottery for their own purposes. This goes way beyond the gains from taxation of anti-social pursuits, which arguably, particularly with cigarettes and alcohol, is imposed to hike the price up and thus deter their use.

State sponsorship of gambling began with premium bonds in 1956. Harold Wilson was scathing, commenting that government expenditure now depended on 'a squalid raffle'. But, of course, when Labour came into office he increased the prizes. The National Lottery is in a different league. The scale of its operation and its huge prizes guarantee that it forces out other forms of countrywide gambling. In effect it nationalises gambling and, given that pro rata many more poor people than rich buy tickets, it is a way of getting the poor to tax themselves voluntarily each week in order to make a few people very rich. Worse still it has harmed the ability of charities to raise their own funds and has made good causes more and more dependent on hand outs from one or other of the grant making bodies funded by the lottery. In addition the present Labour government has increasingly subverted lottery funds into paying for services that fall within the government's own responsibilities.

The pervasiveness of the gambling ethic always annoys me. Horse racing on television seems to exist mainly for the betting process. Certainly more time is spent before and after the race itself on publicising the starting prices and the final odds. Even the Radio 4 Today programme has to broadcast its racing tips. Why? It is not a question of personal freedom, but has everything to do with gratuitously promoting an activity that has nothing intrinsically to commend it and which has ruined many families.

The danger of the government's current plans is that they will open the door to the big operators, many of them from overseas, and will incrementally turn many resorts and whole areas of our cities into gambling monopolies. I have been to Las Vegas and I have seen the future. With its queues of people rushing from the airport or from the taxi to get into the queue for the different gaming machines, I found it frightening and deeply unattractive.

At its heart our human values are eroded by the apparent need to be enticed into paying a small sum in the hope of winning a large sum. Whether it is the Christmas raffle or the local bingo session, or the brash and flashy casino, that principle is the same and those with a predisposition to being addicted to gambling progress seamlessly from one to the other. For those who say, 'it's for a good cause', the question to answer is, 'then why is the incentive of a potential gain required?'

I am not arguing for an authoritarian regulatory regime looking for raffles and pinball machines to ban, but rather for political movements that understand how the gambling imperative is damaging, which expose the dangers, and which campaign for a very different, co-operative and mutual vision of society. I want persuasion not compulsion. There are real choices to be made and they are not yet being put in front of the electors. If politics is not about the kind of society that produces 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' it can be no surprise when it brings itself into disrepute.

26 October 2004