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Happy birthday, National Robbery

The National Lottery isn't just a tax on stupidity. It's also a levy on delusion

The odds are that, if you're reading this piece, you don't play the National Lottery. I say "play" advisedly because, for millions of your fellow citizens, there's nothing playful about the Lottery at all. Yes, they may say, they're only having a bit of a flutter, but in the back of their clouded minds, as they stand hunched by the till on a rainy Tuesday morning in Solihull or Swindon, there lurk the phantoms of freedom, effortless sexual conquest, power and possession - all the things that near-limitless money might buy.

I'll go further. (Don't I always?) The odds are way higher that you're reading these words while standing behind someone in a queue in a newsagent's in Solihull than they are of that someone winning the jackpot. There's a 1:13,983,816 chance of picking all six winning numbers in any given week's Lotto draw and, good university-graduate statistician that you undoubtedly are, you know those odds remain the same no matter how many times someone plays, just as it doesn't matter how many times you flip a coin: the odds of landing on Queenie's constipated smile will remain absolutely even.

Grand illusion

The National Lottery has been called a tax on stupidity and certainly the lineaments of this are in place. The "players" are largely the disadvantaged and can ill-afford the outlay, while many of the recipients of their myriad pound coins - Camelot shareholders, elite athletes, leotard-wearing Chloes prancing about experimental theatres, wispily bearded arts wonks - are, by definition, advantaged. Since its inception in 1994, the Lottery has generated somewhere in the region of £23bn for the government's "good causes" fund as well as about half that in direct revenue. Well, you might say - attentive reader of this magazine that you are - that's only 6 per cent of this year's gross tax receipts alone, so why the hissy-hoopla? Besides, many of the good causes are just that: charitable, educational and environmental bodies that could well do with the dosh.

But the National Lottery isn't just a tax on stupidity. It's also a levy on delusion. In no other area of our national life is Dame Fortuna ushered in to determine the fate of millions. The US at least has precedents for chance being incorporated into the body politic: a tranche of green cards is awarded by lot, as were "lucky numbers" during the years of the draft for the Vietnam war (my brother had one). But unless you count Churchill's Tote (now in the process of being privatised, although no one can quite figure out who owns it to begin with), Britain has cleaved obstinately to the notion of rational choice and just deserts as the fulcrum on which to balance our collective contributions and the commonwealth's distributions.

But aha! I hear you cry, what about fags and booze? Isn't the revenue accrued from these a tax on addiction - at least for some? Agreed, and addiction is also a form of mental illness, but the duty on it is a historical fact, while the Lotto is a new introduction. Would I be happier if there was no hypothecation for Lottery revenue at all, if all of it went directly into the Treasury? Yes, in some ways; given that, as things stand, every poor soul standing miserable in the Mancunian drear has in effect just tossed the National Lottery Commission (under the oversight of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) a couple of quid to do with it as it pleases, you might as well ask Tessa Jowell randomly to pick the new colour for your bathroom. I say "you", but of course I mean them.

Lotto Hot Picks, Thunderball, Dream Numbers and the scratch cards so beloved of the gambling addict, these are the battlements that surround Camelot. Inside, at the round table, sit Merlin, Arthur, Galahad, Vyvyan and Lancelot, those magical, kingly and knightly machines charged with fiddling with the balls of fate! The battlements look easy enough to scale - the odds on scooping a prize are as favourable as 52:1 - but the citadel is impene­trable and within it there's a vault guarded by phantasms with names like Noel Edmonds and Christopher Biggins. And just when you thought the whole farrago looked as if it couldn't get any tackier, along came EuroMillions, a federated psychosis, with your - I mean their - chance of winning being 1:76,275,360.

Conga line to Ukip

In 2004, the National Lottery Awards were instituted, gongs given to individuals and in­stitutions that have received grants from the "good causes" fund - and so are the futile longings of millions factored into just deserts. Actually, I'm not that opposed to the operations of chance being institutionalised. After all, David Cameron is little more than an accident of birth, and the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem once calculated the odds on any given individual being born at all to be “a teragigamegamulticentillion-to-one shot" (although how he figured this out is a mystery). No, what I can't abide is inconsistency: if millionaires are to be chosen by lot, then why not, as in Periclean Athens, choose our legislators that way as well? It seems fairer to me than the current system, under which my vote has been useless in every constituency I've ever lived in.

On 16 November, to mark the 15th anniversary of the National Delusion, more than 100 of the 2,300 millionaires it has "created" gathered for a big party at which they all congaed for joy at their good fortune. I wonder if, as gym-toned hands gripped foie-gras-larded hips, any one of them pondered that alternate reality where they were still standing in a Solihull news­agent's. Probably, because, after all, there's nothing like your entire life being reordered by chance to make someone wax philosophic - and vote Ukip.

Madness of Crowds is published fortnightly


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Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George