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The Crusade Against Slot Machines Is Motored By Old-Fashioned Victorian Paternalism

11/01/2013 10:37 GMT | Updated 12/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Apparently, addictive slot machines are sucking the life and the cash out of poor communities. According to research commissioned by the campaign group Fairer Gambling, high-stakes casino machines in betting shops and other venues hoovered up a whopping £5.6 billion in poor communities over the past year.

These machines are the "crack cocaine of gambling", we're told; they are parasitical on the poor, exploiting these pathetic people's desperation to be rich or just to make a quick, life-saving buck. Something, of course, must be done.

Haven't we heard all this before? Yes, we have. Moral crusades against gambling - especially the kind of gambling engaged in by "the poor" - are nothing new. There have always been social reformers, religious folk and promoters of good manners who have found themselves more shocked by the moral slovenliness of the poor than by the existence of poverty itself. And so it is today with the more PC-sounding but equally paternalistic war on underclass gambling. 

The current campaign's exclusive focus on poor people's gambling habits - as opposed to, say, the big-money flutters of some of the wealthy people who patronise Ascot - directly echoes the panic among earlier puritans about poor folk gambling themselves into "hell".

In 1750, the London magistrate Henry Fielding published An Inquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, in which he singled out gambling as one of the "riotous pleasures of the lower orders" that was exacerbating poverty and crime. Sound familiar?

In the nineteenth century, too, as Emma Casey noted in her book Women, Pleasure and the Gambling Experience, it was poor people's gambling antics that caught the eye of moralisers. "Working-class gambling was the focus of early anti-gambling organisations", said Casey.

One such organisation was the National Anti-Gambling League (NAGL), founded in 1890, a largely religious group which 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, along with groups like the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, worked hard to show the dumb, feckless poor that gambling was "destructive, corrupting and parasitical" - just as today's do-gooders who tend to observe the world through Dickensian spectacles describe gambling as "parasitical" on the poor and a "brutal exploitation of [poor people's] hope".

George Moore's novel Esther Waters, published in 1894, had a pop at the double standards of the Victorian crusaders against gambling. The character William, who does a bit of bookmaking in bars, says: "What's the difference between betting on the course and betting in the bar?... The Stock Exchange, too, where thousands and thousands is betted every day... Why shouldn't the poor man 'ave his 'alf-crown's worth of excitement? It is the old story - one law for the rich and another for the poor."

He was absolutely right - 12 years after Moore's novel was published, in 1906, the Street Betting Act was passed with the explicit aim of tackling "the very great public evil" of working-class gambling, which often took place in public places like bars and street corners. Indeed, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner of the time said of the new Act, "Contrary to principle, we need one law for the rich and one for the poor". If today's puritans get their way and casino machines in poor areas are done away with while other forms of more upmarket gambling continue, history will repeat itself.

Likewise, in depicting working-glass gamblers as "addicts" - being apparently as physiologically hooked on slot machines as others are on crack cocaine - today's crusaders echo another prejudice of their historical peers: namely that the poor lack agency and are bereft of the capacity to decipher right from wrong and to choose their course in life.

In the past, the anti-gambling set claimed the poor had been "contaminated" by gambling. It was believed, as the 2003 book The Sociology of Gambling put it, 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".

Today, that explicitly paternalistic view of the poor has been given a lick of scientific (or pseudoscientific) paint, so that now we're told the poor are addicted to slot machines because of what these machines do to the serotonin in the brains. But the end result of both the old claim that the poor were contaminated by gambling and today's claim that they've "developed a dependency on it" are the same: the poor are depicted as automatons who require better-educated campaigners to rescue them from their stupor.

The thing that the old and new crusaders against gambling most obviously share in common is their one-eyed focus on the behaviour of the poor rather than on the fact of poverty itself. How much easier it is to condemn the pastimes of the down-at-heel than to seriously address the lack of gainful employment and dearth of aspiration in certain communities in modern Britain. This is what the current crusade against poor people's gambling most explicitly resurrects from the Victorian era - a preference for morally condemning the poor, or even worse pitying them, over having a grown-up debate about how to end poverty.