The machines that ate my life

Forget super-casinos: worry about the brash "virtual roulette" in the high street

Three days ago, I got paid and put all my money into a machine in a Coral's betting shop around the corner from where I live. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. But I did. It's called a "virtual roulette" machine; the gaming industry calls it a "fixed-odds betting terminal", or FOBT. Walk into any bookies in the country and you'll see several, all with the sounds and effects of a real roulette wheel, usually with a crowd around them. It took less than an hour to lose my money. I walked home, sat in front of my window and wept. Occasionally, the word "probation" crossed my mind and I found myself slamming the window sill.

That is the word that our Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, used during the second reading of the Gambling Bill in November to describe how the government views the 20,000 unregulated roulette machines that have been in betting shops up and down the country since 2001. Frankly, it was nothing more than an aside. Last month, during the third reading, she didn't even mention them. The remainder of her speech - indeed, the rest of the near-six-hour debate - concentrated mainly on the issue of deregulating casinos.

This is nothing new. Over the past several months, I have listened to politicians, journalists, editors, bishops, social workers, experts, members of the public and even a "professor of gambling" talking or writing about the consequences of relaxing the gambling regulations. Talk has centred on the so-called super-casinos and fears that this country is about to be turned into Las Vegas. The debates on the Gambling Bill have followed the same pattern.

Why is no one talking about this or showing what is happening? This government has already relaxed the gaming laws to such an extent that there are now thousands of "mini-casinos" in the country, and each one houses one or more of these roulette machines - a far more addictive and lethal game than anything you will find at a "proper" casino.

Put simply, you can now walk up any high street, in any town, on any day of the week, at ten o'clock in the morning, and be able to feed - literally feed - anything up to £500 into a machine for one spin. A few seconds later you can do it again. If you are short of ready cash, no problem, because you can use your credit card. If you find feeding £20 notes into a machine a bit laborious, just give the cashier your money and she will "top up" the machine for you, automatically. And if you find it a bit tedious having to press the start button for each game, there's an auto button, and then a repeat button. The cumulative effect is that there can be only seconds between each spin: exactly the formula for turning anyone into a potential addict. You can win or lose thousands of pounds in minutes.

Jowell calls these machines "very popular". That is an understatement. British gamblers are staking more than three times as much money on them (£290m) as they bet every week on the National Lottery (£88m).

This new betting craze, the annualised turnover of which is estimated at more than £15bn at the "big five" bookmakers, has become far and away Britain's most popular gambling product. Since the machines were introduced in 2001, betting-industry turnover has had a fourfold leap to £29.4bn. Gambling addiction has leapt, too. Only this month, GamCare, the gambling addiction charity, linked the rising number of calls to its helpline to the spread of roulette machines in betting shops.

Gambling in general has cost me dearly, but these machines especially so. A few years ago, I moved to a town that doesn't have a casino. This meant I would have to travel for miles to get to a roulette machine.

It was a good disincentive. Then the virtual roulette machines arrived and my world fell apart. I was like a heroin addict who suddenly could get a fix five hundred yards from his front doorstep.

It's what I did again this week. And it is why the debate over the Gambling Bill, again, has left me close to tears with frustration. You have got to understand that for me - and thousands like me - it's personal.

James Burton will be the subject of a 90-minute documentary special, The Confession, on BBC2 in April this year

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Condoleezza Rice

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Who would oppose Scottish independence in a second referendum campaign?

The case for unionism is there. But after Brexit, who will make it?

Back in September, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mobilised her troops. Standing on the stage at the party's conference, watched by thousands of SNP supporters, she instructed activists to speak to at least five people each month in the run-up to St Andrew’s Day. 

At the time, with opinion polls against independence and the possibility of a soft Brexit still dangling above the Remainer heads, it seemed like a diversion tactic.

But by March, staying in the single market had been ruled out. Support for Scottish independence rose to 50 per cent, according to an Ipsos Mori poll. And Sturgeon has now declared that she wants another vote by 2018. 

Which will leave a lot of Scots asking: “Where’s the unionist campaign?”

***

Now that Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor, has retired from frontline politics, there is little doubt about who the star of Scottish unionism is. Ruth Davidson, the lesbian kickboxer who single-handedly revived the Scottish Conservatives, did so by defining her party as the voice of the union. 

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign, held before the Brexit vote, the Scottish Tory party leader pledged to do “a specific job” – oppose a second indyref.

However, despite Davidson self-described reputation as a “photo tart”, she is unlikely to spearhead a campaign. The Scottish Tories’ official position on a second referendum is denial (to acknowledge it is seen as playing into the SNP’s hands). She is also seen as too divisive for a cross-party campaign. 

“I think Ruth is a very talented politician and a good communicator,” Blair McDougall, who was head strategist on the 2014 cross-party Better Together campaign, tells me. “But she is not a figure everyone would unite around.

“I think she is smart enough to know a Scottish referendum isn’t the next stage in the rehabilitation of the Scottish Conservatives.”

If a second referendum should be called, McDougall expects unionist politicians to accept less prominence than in 2014. 

“You need politicians to do the dog-fighting in the TV studios when there is a particularly hot debate,” he says. “But actually this time it is probably more fruitful to be a campaign that is led by civilians.” 

While many of Better Together's big beasts are savouring retirement, the prospect of a second referendum is already causing some of them to stir.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s last-ditch speech in favour of the union has been watched more than half a million times. Since the EU referendum – in which he made an equally impassioned, but less successful pro-union intervention – Brown has been lobbying for a federalist solution to the UK’s constitutional woes.

McDougall describes Brown as “indefatigable”, but expects him to focus his attentions on the “Labour side of things”. 

This touches on another change from 2014. Labour entered the Scottish referendum as a party defeated in Westminster, but still holding 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Today, only one Labour MP, Ian Murray, remains. Since the referendum, activists have fought and lost two elections and an EU referendum. They are exhausted and demoralised.

***

Then there are the issues. In 2014, the Better Together campaign’s message of cold, hard economic facts worked. Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK. 

McDougall believes economic realism is still the best strategy, if focused on an argument about protecting the NHS, and other public services put at risk by an economic crisis.

Scots on both sides of the 2014 debate have remarked to me that, as the Brexit negotiations sour, voters may think twice about quitting another economic union. 

Others are less convinced. The veteran campaigner I speak to compares the Better Together campaign to the later Remain campaign, which backfired after being parodied as “Project Fear”.

He says of the 2014 message: “It got us to the finishing line, but it didn’t make people feel particularly good.”

Some of the unionists I speak to believe a second pro-union campaign would be more targeted, with different messages for “left behinds” who voted to leave the UK, but approve of Brexit, compared to the pro-Remain pro-EU crowd in leafy Edinburgh neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, unionists fear the SNP may summon an emotional nationalism powerful enough to eclipse spreadsheet slogans – and that Westminster may inadvertently help if MPs try to block a second poll. 

“Most people I’ve spoken to think Sturgeon wants to have a fight about getting to hold the referendum,” the unionist campaigner tells me. “The moment [Westminster] Parliament turns them down, they’ve got a grievance.”

***

For now, the Holyrood and Westminster gossip is focused purely on whether there is going to be another referendum, and if so, when. But to me, the lack of an organised union movement betrays a deeper challenge for the UK constitution.

In 2014, Brown declared that Scottish achievements happen “not in spite of the union but because of the union – and none of us is any less a Scot as a result of it”. 

It was still possible, at that time, to imagine a Lib-Lab coalition taking power in Westminster the following year. The UK’s membership of the EU was intact. The economy was improving. 

Since then, Scottish Tories aside, the unionists have lost representation in Westminster, lost membership of the EU, and spend their energy fighting cuts and debating the impact of Brexit on the economy. 

Even if a second referendum is never called, progressive unionists have been left homeless by the UK’s mainstream parties. The Tories ask them to defend the UK's single market while turning their back on the EU’s. Labour, from opposition, is asking the same. Neither party is making the case for a soft Brexit, let alone a coherent argument for the ideal of unionism. If it dies in Scotland, perhaps not in 2017, but in 2020, or 2025, they will only have themselves to blame. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.