A couple of years after the National Lottery started, I put a ticket in my Granddad's birthday card. Like most tickets it didn't win anything, but the old man didn't want to give up on the numbers. What if they won the following week? He'd be mortified. So he kept on playing them. The same ones. For about a decade. At a rough guess, that afterthought I stuffed in his card cost my Granddad about five hundred quid, only slightly offset by the odd tenner he won over the years. Still, it's the thought that counts.
Like any form of gambling, virtually everyone who plays the National Lottery loses. "It could be you," was its famous slogan, but really that's bollocks. It could be you in the same way that I could technically marry Jennifer Lawrence, but almost certainly won't. You might get the odd token payout for matching three or four numbers, but when it comes to the big prizes you're more likely to die carrying your ticket home than you are to win anything with it. You'd be better off investing your money in a Greek bank.
The figures involved aren't exactly small, either. People spent a record £7.28 billion on lottery tickets and scratch cards last year. That's more revenue than the entire British commercial gambling industry made the year before. By creating the National Lottery, John Major's "family values"-obsessed Conservative government managed to double the scale of gambling in Britain while unwittingly providing drug dealers with an endless amount of perfect coke wrap material. It's hard to think of another recent government that's had more success in promoting vice.
Of course the Lottery raises a lot of money for good causes (and the Millennium Dome, but we all have bad days) but it's kind of an odd way to do it. Take last year's sales. Of the seven billion quid people spent, four billion was randomly spunked back out in prize money, £1.8 billion went to good causes and about £0.87 billion went to the government in tax.
The projects being funded range across health, education, sport, culture, charity, the environment and heritage. The people who hand out the cash are technically independent, "at arm's length" from the government, but follow "strict guidelines". Strip away the bullshit, and the point of the Lottery is to raise money for the kind of stuff the government would like to fund, but doesn't want to from the main budget.
The National Lottery is basically a stealth tax. And once you think about it that way, you begin to realise just how weird, big and downright evil it actually is.
Let's talk size. You may have heard some talk in the news recently about inheritance tax, which was tweaked in George Osborne's budget. That change was apparently a pretty big deal – people have been writing comment pieces about it all week – but according to HMRC, inheritance tax raised a total of just over £3.5billion last year. That's about half what people are handing over for the National Lottery. Not such a big deal now, is it? Even if you take off the money that the lottery pays out – which is a bit dodgy, since it would basically be like a completely random tax rebate – it's still about the same size.– – –
Watch our film Beasts of Burden, about illicit quail fight gambling rings in Afghanistan:
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Then there's the issue of who actually pays it. A report on the National Lottery by the Theos think tank in 2009 makes for pretty grim reading. People on benefits were more likely to play scratch cards than anyone else. Manual workers spent an average of £70.60 per year on cards, whereas professionals only spent £40.64. When it came to the main draw, the poorest people were the most committed to playing, and spent a far greater proportion of their income on the Lottery, with people on £15k-20k per year coughing up almost a week's earnings.
The National Lottery is basically a stealth tax on poor people. And where does this money actually go? Billions were poured into the 2012 Olympics, and millions more into Britain's sports teams. Hundreds of millions have been invested in stately homes, arts funding and other things that middle-class people like to watch or visit. Meanwhile, the poorest regions in Britain had, as of 2009 at least, received precious little cash.
As Theos summed it up, "The old argument that the National Lottery is a 'tax' on the poor for the benefit of the middle classes may have some justification." National Lottery projects are all pretty deserving, but the way they've been funded is so cynical it's unbelievable. They should carry stickers saying "funded by the working class" and then maybe the sheer cheek of the situation would be obvious.
Theos' report contains a fantastic quote from an 1808 House of Commons report on lotteries that could have been written about the National Lottery today: "No mode of raising Money appears to Your Committee so burdensome, so pernicious, and so unproductive; no species of adventure is known, where the chances are so great against the adventurer, none where the infatuation is more powerful, lasting, and destructive."
If the government want to spend an extra £2 billion on good causes, then how about taxing rich people to pay for them? Why should people on benefits fund the Millennium Dome, or the 2012 Olympics, or other events they can't even afford tickets to? Why should manual workers have to stump up the cash to restore Britain's stately homes, or to fund Britain's Olympians in Rio?