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I was recently in a pub in central Stockport* when a bloke quickly finished his pint and said he had to leave to put a bet on at the nearby bookie’s. “Beer and betting, that’s all I live for now,” he said. And the two activities certainly have a long and close connection. Before the legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, the pub was the favourite hangout of the bookie’s runner, and the preferred activity of the legendary Pub Shaman of Prestwich was “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packet of Bensons.” One of my local pubs when I lived in Runcorn had a betting shop built in a corner of the car park for the convenience of its customers.
I have to say it’s something that has never remotely appealed to me, and I have never put a commercial bet on in my life. However, I recognise that, since the dawn of mankind, there has been an irresistible inclination to lay wagers on all kinds of activities, and gambling is an extremely popular activity worldwide, even in countries where alcohol is prohibited. It is also something that is highly susceptible to criminal activity, which is why there is a strong argument for making it legal to a greater or lesser extent, to bring it in from the cold. That, of course, was the motivation behind the legalisation of off-course betting in the UK in 1961. While strictly illegal, it was widely tolerated beforehand and indeed implicitly supported by the publication of race cards in newspapers.
In some respects, gambling is similar to alcohol in that it is something that is widely enjoyed, that most people manage to cope with and keep under control, but which does cause serious problems of addiction for a minority. Both have issues of restricting access for minors – while children are now widely admitted to pubs, betting shops are strictly over-18s only. Plus, both have for a very long time been the target of campaigns of moral disapproval. Indeed at present it seems that gambling, especially in terms of its connection with football, is the subject of a moral panic that possibly is diverting some of the prohibitionists’ attention from alcohol.
I can’t say it’s a subject that I’ve studied in any depth, and it’s not for me to say that the balance between control and permissiveness has currently been struck in the right place. But I know that Christopher Snowdon, who has been assiduous in exposing the lies and exaggerations of the anti-drink lobby on his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has pointed out many of the same things about gambling, that both the prevalence of “problem gambling” and the rate of its increase have been greatly overstated by the those whose agenda is to oppose gambling per se.
This underlines one of the key problems faced by those who are opposed to increased lifestyle regulation, that people so often think in silos and, while they may perceive a threat to their favoured indulgence, fail to draw the connection with other activities towards which they are indifferent or indeed may even actively oppose. There’s no point in standing up for freedom if you’re only prepared to defend those things you personally like.
* No prizes for guessing which one.