Lotto killjoys

Experts warn that winning millions could ruin your life. Chance would be a fine thing.

Mike Clough

Topics Politics

Last Friday’s euro lottery jackpot of £120million was shared between three lucky winners. Eleven rollover weeks had seen an explosion in ticket sales accompanied by the usual media frenzy. Polls were conducted on the 24-hour news channels, with familiar arguments being raised for and against. Alleged experts on the human condition voiced concern that the recipients would be somehow damaged. Viv Nicholson, the ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ football pools winner of the 1960s, was mentioned as testament to working-class folly.

One criticism, which initially seems reasonable, is that a state lottery is a regressive tax. The statistics bear this out by showing that the overwhelming majority of ticket buyers are from the lower income brackets. All those pounds are redistributed in ways that the majority will gain little advantage from. Few Doncaster pensioners are ever likely to visit the lottery-funded Royal Opera House, for example.

It makes sense that the less well-off should ignore the abysmal odds and buy more tickets than the well-off. The drudgery of low-paid work and unemployment is magically vanquished, if only in the imagination before once again the wrong numbers are rolled.

However it is patronising to suppose that this will somehow damage or traumatise. Fantasising about a dramatic reversal of fortune is a condition of being human, as is having enough self-awareness to understand the limits of such dreaming. And there is, after all, next week’s jackpot to look forward to! It would surely be better to put the argument for progressive tax than to rail against something which is, after all, a matter of choice rather than compulsion.

Another argument against the lottery is that a big win can damage the individual and community.

When the UK lottery was introduced, it was argued that profit would be used to bolster rundown estates, with the building of sports centres, youth clubs and grants for new businesses. Yet opponents point to how communities can in fact be irreparably damaged. One example cited is the closure in 1998 of a south Wales oil company when its lottery syndicate hit the jackpot. The winnings were distributed between members, the notices of key workers handed in. Although the majority chose to stay on, the site was no longer viable. After an unsuccessful search for replacements the company was forced to relocate to Manchester. Company chairman Paul Miller solemnly announced the closure: ‘I can confirm that we are closing the operation down because the workers have won the Lottery. We interviewed each of the staff about their intentions and decided we could not carry on. The whole situation has come out of the blue.’

Certainly this impacted on the community, with a loss of trade to local shops and business. Yet cost-cutting practices are hardly the unique manifestation of lottery wins. A business folding because of a lottery win is a rarity. Companies downsize, relocate and collapse all the time. This is because of the volatility of market forces, something which communities in South Wales already have much experience of.

The impact on the individual is also a concern. Among the winners at the factory was 21-year-old Mark Baylis, who three months before had matched five numbers and the bonus ball to scoop £27,000. ‘I regard myself as the luckiest man in Wales’, he said. ‘I am certainly going to keep playing the Lottery. I know it might sound greedy, but after all, everything comes in threes. To be honest, I’ve done everything I wanted to with the money from the win in May but I am sure I will find something to spend it on.’

Winners who are flagrant and free in their spending are more easily demonised. These include ‘lotto lout’ Michael Carroll. He was accused of ‘terrorising’ his neighbours by racing quad bikes and, in a ‘just’ end to the morality tale, ended up in prison on drug offences. The Daily Mail took pleasure in vilifying his nouveau-riche lifestyle. The Guardian condemned the Lotto for encouraging a culture of instant gratification. There is also the notorious ‘Lotto rapist’, Iorworth Hoare, whose £7million win while on temporary release gave rise to widespread outrage. Claire Phillipson, director of ‘Wearside Women in Need’, was delighted that the press had revealed his identity. The fact the lottery is entirely random, and therefore unselective, seems to have been temporarily forgotten. Luck, it seems, must come only to the deserving.

When the UK lottery was set up in 1994, a broad platform of Calvinists, penitent gamblers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argued that the seeds of addiction would be sown among the disadvantaged in society. This is an assertion alarming in its condescension. Anecdotes aside, there is no solid statistical evidence in support of the assumption that playing the lottery plunges a person into addictive behaviour. For the overwhelming majority it is harmless fun on a par with backing a horse in the Grand National.

It’s nothing new for the well off to be concerned about the follies of the working classes. In the early 1900s cinema going was similarly demonised, as were the adventure paperbacks known as penny dreadfuls.

The impulse to patronise remains. Take for example Camelot’s insistence on counselling its big winners. It’s debatable whether this reflects a puritan disdain for excess, or a fear of the bad press should the winnings be blown in an orgy of drugs and sex. The advice given before the fat, life-transforming cheque is handed over is more sober than any winner is likely to be. Camelot says:

– Do not rush into anything

– Get used to what you now have

– Look forward to planning your future and consider all options

– Consult a financial advisor

– Ensure you know what is happening to your money

– Make a will

– Don’t talk to strange men in parks and under no condition return home with them to view puppies.

Academics are also keen to put a dampener on the celebrations. Since the launch of Britain’s lottery in 1994, 1,053 millionaires have been created. It is easy to suppose that each of these has had an easy time of it, but not according to research conducted by Michael Argyle, a professor at Oxford University.

According to Argyle the big win undermines any reasonable stability that a person has until then enjoyed. The termination of a work contract severs links with friends, without gaining automatic acceptance by an alternative peer group. The win is a source of estrangement rather than fulfilment. Similarly, the papering over of problems in any relationship merely serves to hide rather than solve them. Taste in clothing, housing and even food may be challenged. The basic belief at the heart of such theorising is that ordinary people lack the capacity to cope with change, even when it is so obviously sought after. He argues: ‘The things we really want – love, health, eternal life – can’t be easily bought.’

To the best knowledge of historians, lotteries have been around since Old Testament times, with Moses using one to award tracts of land west of the River Jordan. The Great Wall of China may also have been financed by a lottery, as was the network of roads in Julius Caesar’s day. Portugal set up the first one in the modern era, in 1498, with the profits being distributed to the poor. However, it is arguably only in our own age that lotteries have been subject to such fear, loathing and condemnation.

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Topics Politics


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