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Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. How Britain's economy got dumber: Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca (Guardian)

The true significance of the proposed takeover is how few options Britain has now that our manufacturing and research capacity has withered away, writes Aditya Chakrabortty

2. Despite the rifts, the coalition will stagger on until the election. But can you imagine Cameron and Clegg reunited in the rose garden? (Independent)

There are Tory MPs aching for a brief period of minority government, writes Steve Richards. 

3. A Swift way to curb Putin’s ambitions (Financial Times)

The evidence suggests that while the Russian president is bold, he is not mindlessly reckless, writes Gideon Rachman.

4. Spend, spend, spend: the chaotic world of free schools (Guardian)

While the crisis of primary places mounts, vast sums of public cash are being chucked at the education secretary's pet, writes John Harris.

5. This time the coalition is fighting for real (Times)

There is nothing phoney about rows over free schools or knife crime, writes Rachel Sylvester. And it can only get worse as the election nears.

6. Look in the mirror, Gary. You did a bad thing (Times)

The prime minister, who believes in the Big Society, should take a strong line against the Take That tax avoiders, says Hugo Rifkind. 

7. Now troubled children are an investment opportunity (Guardian)

An 18% return on the most disturbed and needy children in care homes is the extreme end of Britain's outsourcing culture, writes Polly Toynbee. 

8. If the super-rich like Gary Barlow paid their share, maybe the taxman wouldn't have to pick our pockets (Daily Mail)

The old saying is untrue, that the only certainties in life are death and taxes: for the super-rich only the former applies, writes Max Hastings. 

9. A day in the life of David Cameron (Daily Telegraph)

In the age of social media, meeting voters is more demanding than ever before, writes Benedict Brogan. On the road with the Prime Minister, we see how he copes.

10. Tories fail to grasp the minority vote (Financial Times)

A party stands or falls by the gut impression it creates when voters pay attention to politics, writes Janan Ganesh.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war