Perhaps a Merlot

Ross McKibbin

  • Regulating Commercial Gambling: Past, Present and Future by David Miers
    Oxford, 588 pp, £70.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 19 825672 8

Hardly any aspect of British life has combined religion, class, ideology, politics and law more potently than attitudes to gambling – not even attitudes to drink and sex. That is because, as with drink and sex, two strong impulses have contended. On the one hand, the majority of British people have always liked to gamble; on the other, a smaller number, who have had privileged access to political elites, have sought to stop gambling – usually on a priori moral grounds. Those who dislike gambling have normally felt more strongly than those who like it; their passion has made up for their paucity of numbers. The state has tried to please both majority and minority and typically has pleased neither. It has passed much prohibitory legislation – conspicuously the Street Betting Act of 1906, which attempted to ban off-course betting on horses – but has been very reluctant to enforce it, particularly if, as in the case of the Street Betting Act, legislation seemed to favour the non-working class against the working class. One result of this tension is that the whole apparatus of modern mass gambling largely originated in an activity – street betting – which was until 1961 formally illegal.

In the contemporary Labour Party, too, strong puritanical and authoritarian impulses jostle with (rather weaker) libertarian ones. While there is a conviction that everyone should be fingerprinted, photographed, numbered and generally pushed around, there is also a feeling that people should enjoy themselves without the state interfering. More relaxed pub opening hours are one manifestation of this. The gambling bill recently introduced by the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, is another. The bill, though likely to be passed in some form, has run into fire – more, certainly, than the government expected. It is thus an opportune moment for David Miers to publish Regulating Commercial Gambling, a legal history of how we got where we are. Miers and his colleague David Dixon are probably the two leading authorities on the legal history of British gambling, and this is an impressive book, marred only by poor indexing, the most surprising example of which is the confusion of W.E. Gladstone with his son Herbert. The book covers a long span – from the 17th century to April 2004 – and is based on a remarkable array of sources. Every form of commercial gambling is covered: cards, horses, dogs, football pools, lotteries, gaming machines, casinos. It has a technical command which can be daunting, but is indispensable to anyone who wishes to understand why a gambling bill can still be controversial, or at least difficult to frame. (The Home Office and the Department of Culture should each buy copies.) More important, for anyone interested in the problems of the new bill or of the equally problematic National Lottery, Regulating Commercial Gambling has a lengthy discussion of both the character and significance of the lottery and of the Gambling Review Report, on whose recommendations the present bill is based.

Several lessons can be drawn from Miers’s account. The first is the sheer pointlessness of, and the waste of intellectual and political energy involved in, the attempt to devise prohibitory legislation that covers all cases, is proof against the ingenuity of the gambling lobby and its lawyers, and that the police are actually willing to enforce. All prohibitory legislation has hitherto represented the triumph of hope over experience, something instinctively recognised by the Home Office, which has always had, as Miers notes, ‘an institutional preference for letting sleeping dogs lie’. Indeed, its foot-dragging is a constant theme in this story. The second lesson is that the decision to move from prohibitory legislation to regulation – a consequence of the obvious failure of prohibition – has been to legitimise commercial gambling as a business. The state now approaches it as it does any other legitimate industry. The Gambling Review Report, which specifically declared itself morally neutral, therefore differs fundamentally, Miers rightly argues, from all previous inquiries and legislation. Even the 1949 Royal Commission, which came as close to moral neutrality as was then possible, tended to regard gambling as a difficulty (though a relatively harmless one) whose only real value lay in the taxation which might be levied on it, and it was a decade before its recommendations – principally the legalisation of off-course betting – took form in the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act. But that act, while conceding that people should be able to bet legally at a convenient betting shop, required those shops to look so sordid as to deter any but the most hardened better. The result was that it became difficult to distinguish a betting shop from a dirty book shop, and that remained the case until the 1980s, when all-party legislation promoted by Ian Gilmour permitted their owners to make the shops look more or less civilised. That legislation, and the establishment of the ‘good causes’ National Lottery in 1993, anticipated the moral neutrality of the Gambling Review Report.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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