National Robbery 2

Payback time

""We think you are stupid,
We give you money 'cause our assets are fluid"
Taxloss, Mansun

"What's the point in being rich,
If you can't think what to do with it,
'Cos you're so bleedin' thick"
Mis-shapes, Pulp

Money is the root of all evil (although armed psychopaths and power-crazed dictators have a lot to do with it as well). Large concentrations of money bring out the worst in everyone who comes into contact with them. One of the largest concentrations is presumably in the Bank of England. However, this is under secure guard (one hopes) and most of it only exists on hard disk anyway (which probably isn't under such secure guard, knowing how much lip service most banks pay to system security). However, the UK National Lottery is one such accumulation within reach of the public - at odds of 13 million to 1 for those who play - and most people are extremely keen to get their hands on a share of it. Guy Snowdon was so keen to get his share that he was prepared to use bribery as a means of stopping anyone else from doing the same. However, Guy Snowdon wasn't interested in odds of 13 million to 1 - those are for the little people. He wanted the revenue that came from running the lottery, and the person he attempted to bribe into withdrawing his bid for the same was Richard Branson, the goody-two-shoes of British industry. This is the man who identifies himself very publically with his ventures, to the extent of wearing a wedding dress at the launch of his bridal business (although you'll be lucky if you ever find him sitting next to you on the 0710 Virgin express to Euston, because he's not known for being late). A few years ago, he was even involved in a high profile government initiative to clean up litter, for which we were invited to believe that Richard himself would be pushing a dustcart down our own roads. (Whatever happened to that initiative anyway? Did Branson put his back out or something?)

Richard Branson was bidding to run the lottery on a non-profit basis, in order that the maximum amount of money would go to the "good causes". Guy Snowdon was the chairman of G-Tech, a company whose business was running lotteries and who already ran several in the US (despite allegations of bid-rigging and ... bribery). He was involved in the Camelot profit-centered bid, which was eventually successful and has made millionaires of quite a few people who never played the lottery in their lives.

Yesterday, Guy Snowdon lost his court battle against Branson's bribery allegation, proving immediately, at least to the satisfaction of the law, the media and anyone who hates rich, fat bastards with their snouts in the trough, that he was a lying, swindling, low down dirty cheat. During the trial, Branson claimed that Snowdon had broken out in a brisk sweat while making his overtures, to which Snowdon had countered that he "didn't sweat" ever. One glance at his rotund, well-fed figure and double chin in the paper tells us that this is the sort of man who breaks into a sweat while climbing out of his Merc. Presumably, Mr Snowdon would also claim that he is a devilishly handsome young dude who doesn't even sweat when working out in the gym. One thing he certainly can't claim to be anymore is a non-executive director of Camelot, since he was forced to resign immediately after the verdict. Someone else who is under pressure to do the same is the lottery regulator, Peter Davies, who thought Mr Snowdon's company was eminently suitable to run the lottery and who enjoyed plenty of warm hospitality at G-Tech's expense.

Yet we can't tut too loudly at these great and - well OK, not very good - men who allowed their less noble instincts to rule their relationship with the lottery, because it taints all of us who have any contact with this massive moneychase, including you and me. Well, more you really because I've never played it. The only crime I'm perhaps guilty of is overbearing, smug sanctimony. But that's better than being blinded by pound signs and a load of balls.

The lottery gives hope to a lot of people who do not possess that kind of money and will never possess it any other way, owing to their backgrounds, qualifications, employment prospects or personal situation (e.g. if you've got kids, you'll never be rich). However, there is an unspoken assumption here that wealth of the sort possible through getting all six numbers right is somehow a worthy goal to pursue. It is true that a lottery winner would be in a position to perform great deeds in society - funding charities, sponsoring medical research, setting up a benevolent fund for impoverished gamblers or just getting the local park cleaned up.

Pause for a moment - how many lottery winners do we know that have actually done things like that? There might be some that prefer to remain anonymous, in which case, much quiet applause for them, but for most people with both eyes on the balls, charity comes a long way after blatent self-interest and the thought of telling the boss to stick it up his arse. Certainly, 12% of lottery income goes to charity, but too often that forms a (cheap) excuse for being an obsessive breadhead whose last fiver went on scratchcards.

No one plays the lottery because they think they'd distribute the winnings better than those other buggers. People play the lottery because they think they deserve the winnings more than the other buggers. This is a strong value judgement, yet everyone apparently feels qualified to make it, particularly when they don't win. The amount of bellyaching, prejudice and inverted snobbery that meets each winner is a serious blemish on the national karma. Indeed, the lottery only succeeds in bringing out the worst in the public. Should the lucky winner have a criminal record, a disagreeable lifestyle or the slightest suggestion of a personality flaw, they are immediately castigated for being unsuitable to receive such a prize. "Why should he have it?!" the cry goes out. "It's always the least deserving! It's not fair!"

Listen up, you whining little shits: it's a lottery. It's supposed to be random. Everyone having an equally small chance of winning means that anyone can win, including the drug dealers, the car thieves, the axe-wielding nutters, the divorced, the single parents and the noisy cow from next door. How would you like it if you won one week but had the prize taken off you because they found out about that parking ticket you got in 1976? Or even if the newsagent refused to process your slip because you buy top shelf magazines? If you don't like it, don't play. Now go and clean your room. And don't sulk.

Indeed, winning can cause no end of ill feeling, from estranged partners suddenly revisiting their divorce settlement (or worse, turning up on your doorstep wearing only a red rose) and workmates who left the syndicate last week, to suddenly no longer selfless parents and suddenly ex-girlfriends. It's as if people feel it should be possible to win by association, forgetting that the only valid winner is the person who bought the ticket. Everyone remembers Mark Gardiner, the winner whose mother said she "hopes he drinks himself to death with the money." Maybe Mr Gardiner is a right bastard, but at least he really can blame his parents.

Even syndicates can exhibit a form of collective tightfistedness. Former members who only dropped out the week before are treated to a brisk view of naked arse and a "Bad luck, pal". True, they don't technically deserve a penny, but if you can't afford to be altruistic with £2 million, how much do you really need?

Heck, the trouble even starts before you win (as you surely must - after all, stranger things than that Elvis-hits-Loch Ness Monster-while-piloting-UFO comparison have happened; take Anthea Turner, for instance). Sad, mad obsessives playing the same numbers every week, too terrified to change them now in case they come up next week. Crazed biscuit packers locked into the works syndicate, who daren't leave because they can't stand the thought of seeing their mates driving BMWs. Even my mother talks about getting three numbers as if she somehow "came close" that week, despite the fact that it's a mathematical crap shoot every time. Never have so many thought so little about so much.

There's no evidence that the lottery is turning anyone into a better person. A few are richer, a lot are poorer and most are meaner. If it really were about good causes, charitable donations wouldn't have dropped so sharply; indeed, their awareness raised, the public should be donating more to charity. The lottery only really benefits one group in society: those twisted, cynical souls amongst for whom the sight of naked greed and unchecked moneygrabbing only confirms every uncharitable, disturbed thought we've ever delighted in having. "Just a bit of fun!" Fun?! This isn't fun, it's a celebration of mass self-interest.

Even the notional real benefit of the lottery - the charitable distribution of the profits (I mean, to the real charities, rather than the pretend ones that Guy Snowden runs like "National Society for the Protection of My Mercedes") - is subject to endless whining and self-righteous indignation. Most of it apparently goes to large insitutions that are well-placed and big enough to go out and earn it themselves if they bothered. If any is given to small community funds - particularly communities containing gays, ethnic minorities or people who are even too poor to play the lottery - then it's a) a miracle and b) diverting funding from the arts. Every half-cocked Millenium project in the country is spending most of their time submitting bids instead of thinking about what they're doing or why they're bothering to do it. And the government kids itself that anything can be called be a charity if you squint hard enough - education, health, tax revenues...

I'm not a communist, I don't believe in true equality and I'm not against huge wads of cash - certainly for me, because I'm a self-interested organism too. But the lottery was misconceived to being with and is no better now it's an everyday part of society. The real scandal isn't about porky businessmen telling porky stories for a bigger share of the trough - it's that anyone believes the present system could ever lend itself to honesty or moral behaviour.

Update, 24th April 1998: A lot has happened in the intervening months. Peter Davies went pretty quickly when the culture secretary demanded his scalp. There were a few shake ups at G-Tech and Camelot, but the dust seems to be settling back to its original state now. The BBC's new Big Ticket show is due for the axe, the culmination of a really awful month for Anthea it's not all bad news. But the lottery remains much as before, with no prospect of any change before the present licence expires. Then the government may nominate the Post Office as the latest charity to receive lottery profits, I mean aid.

3rd February 1998

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