The war on slot machines: saving the poor from themselves

This new moral crusade echoes yesteryear’s paternalistic campaigns against working-class gambling.

Britain’s great and good are stepping up their war on gambling slot machines. Apparently these machines, into which people ply money in the hope of winning some back, are ‘sucking cash out of communities’. Lurking in the corner of pretty much every betting shop on every high street, these machines are symbols of ‘predatory capitalism’, we are told. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband says they are ‘dangerously addictive’. His MPs are using opposition day in the House of Commons tomorrow to force a vote on having a government clampdown on these wicked, pocket-emptying machines.

Reading the commentary and earnest political speeches about slot machines, you could be forgiven for thinking they are semi-sentient forces, invading poor communities, B-movie style, to corrupt and impoverish the inhabitants. Campaigners describe the machines as ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ and claim they are parasitical on the poor, exploiting their desperation to make a life-saving buck. They ‘enslave the poor’, says the Daily Mail, having ‘devastating effects on the needy’. Maybe if we got rid of these machines, life in poorer communities would suddenly start looking up. That is certainly the belief of those, such as the campaign group Fairer Gambling, that have devoted themselves to erasing the blight of slot machines from high-street betting shops.

Does this stuff sound familiar? It ought to. Because moral crusades against gambling – especially the kind of gambling indulged in by poorer folk – have been around for a very long time. And they have always been tinged with paternalism, with a desire to save ‘the poor’ from their own worst instincts and habits. Declaring war on gambling in poor communities has for a long time been a sad stand-in for a more serious debate about how to end poverty in such communities and improve the lot of the less well-off. And so it is today, when, once again, social-reform types seem keener on the pretty easy task of making it harder for the poor to gamble than they are on asking, or answering, the tough question of how the poor might be made richer.

Today’s anti-slot machine army focuses, not on the gambling habits of the rich, but on the gambling antics of the poor, whom they look upon as an easily influenced blob ‘enslaved’ to machines in betting shops. This echoes yesteryear’s moral panicking among puritans, who likewise fretted about the poor gambling themselves into ‘hell’. So in 1750, the London magistrate Henry Fielding published his pamphlet An Inquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, in which he described gambling as one of the ‘riotous pleasures of the lower orders’ and said it was exacerbating poverty and crime. In the nineteenth century, too, as Emma Casey points out in her book Women, Pleasure and the Gambling Experience, ‘Working-class gambling was the focus of anti-gambling organisations’.

Indeed, the National Anti-Gambling League (NAGL), a largely religious group founded in 1890, denounced poor people’s gambling as ‘irresponsible’ and a major cause of ‘secondary poverty’ - that is, ‘poverty which could be avoided by careful money management’ . The NAGL, alongside such groups as the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, worked hard to show the dumb, feckless poor that gambling was ‘destructive, corrupting and parasitical’. That word – parasitical – is still used today, by pseudo-radicals whose talk about how slot machines exploit the poor is really just an updated version of past handwringing over gambling’s moral corruption of poor communities. In the past, moral puritans were at least more explicit about their double standards in relation to rich and poor people’s gambling habits. In 1906, when the Street Betting Act was passed, designed to tackle the ‘very great public evil’ of working-class gambling in bars and on street corners, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police openly admitted that it was a case of ‘one law for the rich and one for the poor’. That is, less well-off communities’ right to have a flutter was being clamped down on harder than that of better-off communities. Today, history is repeating itself.

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Likewise, today’s depiction of slot-machine users as ‘addicts’, as ‘enslaved’, as ‘hooked’, is helping to resurrect another prejudice of early paternalistic warriors against problem gambling: the idea that the poor lack agency, are fundamentally incapable of deciphering right from wrong, and thus need a law or a ban to help them see and act straight.

In the past, anti-gambling campaigners often argued that poor communities had been ‘contaminated’ by gambling. As pointed out in the 2003 book The Sociology of Gambling, it was widely believed that ‘since the poor typically have less education, they may lack any awareness of the true odds against them and… overestimate their chances for winning’. A similar view of the poor as brainwashed by gambling, contaminated by its wicked charms, infuses modern campaigning commentary on slot machines. A Daily Mail reporter wrote last week about encountering robot-like individuals experiencing a ‘sense of immersion’ at these machines. He cited one expert who says these ‘bloody machines… work on your brain like a drug’. Here, we have a pseudo-scientific rehabilitation of the idea of contamination, only where in the past gambling was said to rot the poor man’s soul, now we’re told it invades and warps his brain.

But perhaps the main thing that today’s campaign against slot machines shares in common with the anti-gambling crusades of the past is its infantile understanding of the problem of poverty. Like earlier paternalists and puritans, today’s Labourites, social reformers and tabloid hacks – all weirdly united when it comes to the ‘evils’ of slot machines – prefer to wring their hands over the behaviour of the poor rather than think up some solutions to the problem of poverty. They seriously believe that removing a certain machine from working-class communities will alleviate those communities’ problems and make the inhabitants a bit wealthier. What a sorry substitute for asking why poverty exists, and how it might be overcome. Nothing better illustrates the ideological disarray and dearth of vision among the modern-day left – and others – than their investment of so much energy into a campaign to switch off a few slot machines.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture: Daniel Hambury/PA Wire/Press Association Images

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