Gambling shop in Hackney. Picture Credit: Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Don’t let the bookies’ cry for freedom fool you

Desperate to win Conservative hearts and minds, the gambling industry is pulling the cheapest trick in the book

There is a scene in the new Netflix movie Don’t Look Up where President Orlean attacks the scientific community in a speech to her supporters. “Do you know why they want you to look up?” she asks the crowd, the Stars and Stripes behind her. “Because they are looking down their noses at you! They think they are better than you!” The supporters lap it up. On social media the message goes out: these experts “wanna rob you of your freedom, and that’s a fact!”

A cynical attempt to parrot the government’s agenda of levelling up

Sound familiar? It will be to anyone who has been following the debate over gambling policy in recent months. Last year a group of parliamentarians from the House of Lords published a report on the cost of gambling addiction to the Treasury. In response, the industry lobby group the Betting and Gaming Council issued a statement saying that while “a minority of peers may look down their noses at the millions of working people who enjoy a bet”, the government must not curb people’s freedom to satisfy “anti-gambling prohibitionists”. Two months prior to that statement, the same lobby group accused reformers of engaging in a culture war against Red Wall voters.

Mixing fears about individual freedom and cultural vulnerability is — to put it mildly — the oldest trick in the demagogue’s playbook. And it is a trick that these lobbyists have mastered. 

Whenever an unpopular industry is threatened with reform, it goes through three stages of refusal to comply. First, the industry will appeal to the principle of self-regulation in the hope that it can dig itself out of the hole. When this does not work, industry leaders try to buy time by calling for an “evidence-based approach” – knowing full well that they have the financial firepower to pay for any evidence they want. When that fails, their lobbyists fall back on the last thing left: a call to arms to defend freedom against the nanny state.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls this the “Cry Freedom” strategy. Large corporations demand freedom topursue their own practices and promote their own products, “aggressively asserting the necessity of their ‘freedom from’ law and regulation”. 

Cry Freedom works in two ways. In terms of market freedom, it presents state regulation as a negative force that impedes industry innovation and progress. In terms of personal freedom, it accuses government of inhibiting individual agency and consumer choice.

The conclusion is always the same: restrict our freedom too much, and you will end up with the wrong people replacing us. The gambling lobbyists have repeatedly made this claim when they say that too much regulation of the online gambling industry in the UK will drive customers to the offshore black market. It is from the same playbook as Haribo’s resistance to government plans for a ban on sugary sweet advertising by saying that it would lead to “a race to lower quality products, containing more sugars, salts and fats”, and hitting manufacturers “in areas that the government wants to level up”. 

In the world of gambling policy, the hill that the industry lobbyists have chosen to die on is that of affordability. Government is considering the introduction of non-intrusive affordability checks on gambling transactions by an independent public agency to ensure that people do not fall into serious financial harm. The lobbyists say that this would be an unparalleled attack by a nanny state on individual freedoms and, in a cynical attempt to parrot the government’s agenda of levelling up, they claim that it would be overwhelmingly opposed by Red Wall voters — in spite of polling saying the exact opposite.

What these lobbyists fail to say is that many industry operators carry out affordability checks already — they just want to maintain control over that process without independent oversight. Control over the process means control over the data that the operators hold on their customers. Like most other aspects of big tech, remote gambling operators harvest significant amounts of data from their customers in order to build models of behavioural profiles and target those profiles with inducements and advertising. This data is made commercially available to third parties, often without the consumer’s knowledge or consent. 

The right to a pint and a flutter

In other words, the gambling lobbyists reject calls for affordability checks because of the potential for intrusion in the lives of individuals by the big state, yet they ignore the actual intrusion in the lives of individuals by big business.

These lobbyists don’t care about being coherent in their position because they don’t really care about free markets. Not if true freedom means upholding the dignity of people as well as profit, or fairness as well as flourishing. Instead, they want to maintain strategically controlled markets where the only dials that do exist are forever turned in their own favour — at the same time as pushing a line about freedom and the Red Wall in the hope that it will land well with Conservative MPs. 

It is a hybrid of libertarianism and populism which offers little more to the policy debate than self-regulation with a flag wrapped around it. It reduces the Red Wall to a shallow caricature of working people whose only care is to fight for the right to a pint and a flutter. It is the British version of the American “keep your goddam government off my Medicare”. And it is a dangerous path to take — where the final step is the NRA’s words “to the forces that would take freedom away: From my cold dead hands”.

There was a time when libertarian populism in America had political support during the Tea Party and the Trump years. But that time has passed, and gambling lobbyists insult the intelligence of Conservatives in the UK if they think that they can bring it back to life today. Their cry for freedom makes no sense in a world of surveillance capitalism and offshore centibillionaires, or the new realities facing the market and state following the Covid-19 crisis. Nor does it make sense to a Conservative government which is committed to the reform of big tech, online harms and gambling.

We need to have a serious debate about the relationship between markets and the state, and not be distracted by empty, irresponsible slogans. Desperate to win Conservative hearts and minds, the lobbyists have tried to pull the cheapest trick in the book. It is time to look up — and through them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover