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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Sturgeon's mission: how Brexit changes the SNP's argument for independence

With Labour in disarray and Westminster focused on leaving the European Union, the next Scottish referendum - whenever it happens - is the SNP’s to lose.

If the political events of a single day can set the tone for what follows, the UK is on its last legs. Calling for another independence referendum at Bute House in Edinburgh on the morning of Monday 13 March, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared typically poised and (apparently) in control of events, while from Downing Street that afternoon there was the distinct sound of flapping.

Brexit highlights the contradictions on both sides of the constitutional divide. There is an obvious flaw in the SNP leader’s argument that the UK extracting itself from an economically beneficial union – the EU – would prove “catastrophic” while Scotland leaving the UK will be fine. Equally, Theresa May cannot credibly talk up the benefits of UK “independence” while casting the Scottish equivalent as a calamity.

Yet the optics in Edinburgh and London don’t give the full picture. By any empirical measurement, the economic case for Scottish independence is weaker than it was in 2014. However, the trouble for unionists – as for Democrats in the US and Remainers in the UK – is that the political conversation is no longer taking place in the realm of balance sheets or, indeed, of objective reality.

Sturgeon probably knew that this was coming from the moment she put a second independence referendum back “on the table” the morning after a majority of UK voters (but not Scotland) chose to leave the European Union. Yet between then and Monday morning, she had to appear reasonable, as if she had exhausted every possible compromise. The British government’s inflexible response to the First Minister’s quixotic plans for a “differentiated” Scottish settlement strengthened her hand.

No one in the SNP expected Theresa May to deliver the requested compromise. And while many believe that Sturgeon got a little carried away on 24 June 2016 in her expectation that pro-European sentiment would boost support for independence significantly, Brexit has been a political gift. Not only did the differential outcome in Scotland reinforce long-standing arguments about the “democratic deficit”, it also enabled the SNP to recast Scottish nationalism as internationalist and cosmopolitan, in contrast to the “Little Englander” variety.

Nevertheless, the First Minister ended up taking the plunge slightly earlier than anticipated, probably because newspapers had suggested that Article 50 could be triggered on 14 March. Sturgeon will now get a second media “hit” at her party’s spring conference in Aberdeen this weekend. Forcing her hand was not Alex Salmond, as some spurious reports implied, but the realisation that circumstances would never be this good again. Yes, there is the backdrop of Brexit, but equally important are the existence of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament (which is unlikely to be sustained beyond the 2021 Holyrood elections) and the continuing dysfunction of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might go down in history as an unwitting facilitator of both Brexit and Scottish independence.

This time last year, Nicola Sturgeon was telling interviewers that she would pursue another referendum only if opinion polls showed a sustained lead for independence. Though two recent surveys suggest a modest tilt towards Yes, this has not transpired – at least not in public polling. It seems likely, however, that private polling tells a different story, which is another reason why the SNP leader felt able to move as she did.

Crucial to the next vote is the group that we might call “Yes-Leavers”. With a degree of intellectual consistency, its members want to regain “sovereignty” from both London and Brussels. In an attempt to keep hold of that constituency, the First Minister has attempted in recent months to detach a second referendum from Brexit, arguing that independence “transcends” this and almost every other political consideration. SNP advisers also floated the idea that an independent Scotland might settle for membership of the European Economic Area, like Iceland or Norway (the party’s favourite constitutional case study), rather than full-blooded membership of the EU.

The SNP is confident that, come the crunch, the majority of Yes-Leavers will end up backing independence. The tenuous claims, made during the last Scottish referendum campaign, that an independent Scotland would “automatically” become or remain an EU member are dead in the water. Instead, the Scottish government tacitly accepts – indeed, welcomes – the possibility that it will be outside the EU, at least for the time being.

On 13 March the First Minister said the Yes side would “be frank about the challenges we face”, yet another indication that the independence proposition will be less Pollyannaish than it was in 2014. Its advocates have little choice. Not only have North Sea oil revenues dwindled, but the sizeable gap between what Scotland raises in taxation and what it spends on public services – somewhere between £9bn and £15bn a year – is given an annual airing with the publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures.

Just as the SNP reversed its opposition to membership of Nato in 2012, the party is now closing down potential lines of opposition attack. The benefit of having fought a referendum just a few years ago is that nationalist strategists know where their weaknesses lie. Central to this process is a “growth commission”, led by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson.

Wilson has said that oil revenues will no longer be “baked” into the economic case for independence. His remarks were not intentional but proved useful, neutralising the oil issue early on, but the twin challenges of currency and the deficit remain. Last time, the SNP adopted the least bad option of a “currency union” with the rest of the UK, but since then opinion within the SNP has shifted in favour of a separate Scottish currency. Whether that becomes policy, however, is not yet clear.

There has also been a change of tone regarding the deficit, if not a wholehearted acceptance that the early years of independence would necessitate both steep tax rises and deep cuts to public spending. “It’s going to be tough for the first few years,” one Salmond-era adviser admits, but how frank the SNP is about that in public will be a test of the new realism.

Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the SNP has been better at calling for an alternative economic model than articulating what it would be. That won’t matter much in the heat of another referendum battle. The meta-narrative remains strong, and as the EU referendum and US presidential election demonstrated, a beguiling story of apparently easy solutions to difficult problems – even in the absence of any details – can prove a winning formula.

The central role of Andrew Wilson in the SNP’s pivot away from land-of-milk-and-honey predictions is also interesting. He and Sturgeon were colleagues in the first Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, but they were far from close, and Wilson is typical of the Salmondista nationalists who once thought the idea of her leading the party was a bad joke but now view her with increasing admiration, not least for her willingness to gamble her career on a second referendum. The First Minister’s kitchen cabinet is small, but over the past few months, as a source puts it, “there’s been some reaching out” to Salmond-era advisers. A divided movement is not in any nationalist’s interest.

So where does that leave those who want to preserve the United Kingdom? Not in a good place, as the initial response demonstrated. The carrot-and-stick approach of the 2014 referendum is subject to the law of diminishing returns; offering yet “more powers” is difficult, now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and Project Fear II would likely suffer the same fate as last year’s Remain campaign. Organisationally, each of the three unionist parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – will fight its own anti-independence campaign, thus appearing disunited (the Yes campaign will probably be much more disciplined than in 2012-14).

More to the point, with Northern Ireland once again in tumult, what precisely is it that binds Ulster, Wales and Scotland to England, beyond a balance sheet? In recent weeks, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, has attempted to articulate the Holy Grail of a “positive” case for the Union. None has got beyond the usual platitudes about past (the tense is revealing) British greatness and fuzzy rhetoric about “solidarity”. There is also English public opinion to factor in. A few years ago, the English, on balance, wanted Scotland to stay, but who can say if that sentiment will survive Brexit and a second independence referendum?

As Europhiles know all too well, defending a union that can appear harsh and remote is no easy task. It doesn’t matter that independence is a conclusion in search of an argument – oil in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Iraq War in the 2000s and now Brexit – or that economic reality favours the status quo. Success in 2019 (or perhaps even later) will come down to who tells the better story. Brexit gives the Yes side a more compelling good v evil tale than it had in 2014. If the No campaign relies on the same old boring story of economic woe (what else is there?), a second indepen­dence referendum is the SNP’s to lose.

David Torrance has written biographies of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain