I was in Manchester this week to meet the Coalition Against Gambling Ads, a group of campaigners who have been driving a bus around cities across the UK to spread their message about gambling advertising and addiction. The bus had stopped off at Media City in Salford for the night as it made its way to Edinburgh from Swansea. It was good to see some old faces that I have not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, like Matt Zarb-Cousin of Clean Up Gambling and Matt Gaskell of the NHS Northern Gambling Clinics, as well as meet some new faces – including the bus driver Nick Phillips, a former soldier from Swansea whose life has been deeply disrupted by gambling and who has committed himself to preventing the same harm happening to others. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining on Salford Quays and everyone seemed to be smiling.
CAGA is a coalition of organisations which are campaigning for an end to all gambling advertising promotion and sponsorship. They argue that these adverts should be banned in order to protect the 55,000 children whom the Gambling Commission categorise (using figures from the 2019 Young People and Gambling Survey, carried out by Ipsos MORI) as ‘problem gamblers.’
The 55,000 figure, which was also used by the House of Lords Select Committee in its report on the social and economic impact of the gambling industry, equates to the 1.7% of 11-16 year olds in England and Scotland classified in the Ipsos MORI survey as ‘problem’ gamblers, with another 2.7% classified as ‘at risk’ according to the DSM-IV-MR-J screen. The figure continues a trend from previous years and was repeated in the 2020 Young People and Gambling Survey (showing 1.9% 'problem gamblers' and 2.7% 'at risk'), which also found that 58% of 11-16 year olds have been exposed to gambling adverts or sponsorship, of which 7% said that this had prompted them to gamble when they weren’t already planning to.
The CAGA tour has attracted public attention and political support in the cities it has visited, with Welsh members of the Senedd, MSPs at Holyrood and cross-party MPs and Peers in Westminster all lending their voice to the campaign. This list of names includes Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, Ronnie Cowan, the SNP MP for Inverclyde, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party and Lord Foster of Bath. In Birmingham, the bus parked outside the headquarters of the Gambling Commission in Victoria Square and was met by the Commission’s new Chief Executive, Andrew Rhodes.
Inevitably, the tour has attracted criticism from the gambling industry as well as support from parliamentarians. The industry challenges the campaign in two ways: first, it refutes the Gambling Commission survey figures; and second, it refutes the idea that exposure to gambling advertising is in any way connected to gambling addiction or harm.
In terms of the Commission's figures, some industry analysts have taken issue with the statistics which show that 450,000 children gamble regularly, claiming that this figure is extrapolated from the 2018 Young People and Gambling Survey (n= 2,865) of past-week behaviour relating to all forms of gambling (including private bets with friends, playing cards with the family, playing seaside arcade machines and buying National Lottery products). As many of these activities do not involve the advertising of products, the analysts argue that it is incorrect to claim a link between gambling advertising and gambling prevalence among 11-16 year olds.
I tend to be sympathetic towards concerns about extrapolated figures, and have myself argued against the Betting and Gaming Council's use of extrapolated figures in their claims about black market gambling activity. In February 2021, the BGC announced that research carried out by PwC showed the number of customers using an unlicensed betting website had grown from 210,000 two years ago to 460,000 today – a 'shocking' statistic which was then plugged word-for-word in a story in the Sun. Yet closer examination of the survey itself shows that these figures are in fact an "estimated scale" extrapolated from two surveys of online gamblers conducted by PwC in October 2018 and March 2019 (n= 3,463) and December 2020 (n= 2,363). These surveys found that in 2018/19, 2.2% of the 3,463 people interviewed (in other words, 76 people) said that they had used an unlicensed operator in the last 12 months. In 2020, 4.5% of the 2,363 people interviewed (in other words, 106 people) said the same thing. It is worth noting that PwC make the observation that "given the nature of gambling, it can be difficult to elicit truthful responses from survey respondents around their overall gambling spend" and even state in the footnotes of the report that “there is an inherent degree of uncertainty in any results that are a sample of an overall population” – yet this did not stop the BGC from putting out a press release which made the categorical claim that almost half a million people in the UK now use black market gambling operators.
In other words, if the 450,000 Gambling Commission figure for youth gambling prevalence is being questioned because it has been extrapolated from a survey sample of 2,865 respondents, then methodological fairness would dictate that it is certainly no more questionable than the 460,000 Betting and Gaming Council figure for black market gambling prevalence that has been extrapolated from a survey sample of 2,363 respondents (of course, the key difference between the data of the Gambling Commission and the BGC is that of context and purpose: one is used for the purpose of regulation, while the other is used to resist regulation for the purpose of commercial gain). Nevertheless, I remain sympathetic towards concerns about extrapolation and to the calls for more data to determine gambling prevalence both within and between age groups.
I also try to be sympathetic towards the debate over the Gambling Commission figure which shows that 55,000 children and young people are classified as problem gamblers. Regulus Partners have argued that "the Young People and Gambling Survey 2020 did record a 'problem gambling' rate of 1.9% (roughly equivalent to 55,000 to 60,000 children) but this is categorically not a measure of addiction. The DSM-IV-MR-J screening instrument used in the surveys is analogous to the DSM-IV screen used for adults but adopts far softer thresholds." Comparing the criteria of the DSM-IV and DSM-IV-MR-J screening instruments is a valid debate (and an essential one in the clinical context of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment), but it runs the risk of pettifoggery when it reduces that debate to an essentially semantic exercise of interpreting for a policy-making audience the perceived 'softness' of thresholds in terms of the difference between 'pathological gambling' (DSM-IV) and 'problem gambling' (Ipsos MORI), or the difference between 'addiction' and 'loss of control' (DSM-IV-MR-J), or between 'significant impairment or distress' (DSM-V) and 'harm'. In short: such a debate is of use to policy making until it starts to prevent policy makers from being able to see the wood for the trees. The wood – let us not lose sight of the fact – is harm. The 55,000 figure was not just thrown up in one survey in 2020; it has been established now for several years. The key objective for everyone should be getting this number reduced.
Questions about extrapolation and semantics are valid contributions to the scientific debate over harm. What is less valid is the engineering of that debate by the industry to serve a commercial purpose. This week, the Betting and Gaming Council put out a promoted story on PoliticsHome (an almost identical rehash of another piece on PoliticsHome from June) about the link between gambling advertising and gambling harm, which stated that “in a written parliamentary answer, DCMS minister John Whittingdale – the man leading the Government’s Gambling Review – pointed to an academic study into the link between advertising and betting and said 'it did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling'".
The parliamentary answer mentioned by the BGC in this piece was made by Whittingdale in May this year in response to a question from Ronnie Cowan, who asked “the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, pursuant to the Answer of 24 May 2021 to Question 2347 on Gambling: Advertising, whether the Government has an evidential basis for the absence of a causal link between (a) exposure to gambling advertising and (b) the development of problem gambling.” The academic study cited by Whittingdale is a 2014 literature review compiled by Professor Per Binde of the University of Gothenburg for the Responsible Gambling Trust (now GambleAware), which explored five possible mechanisms by which gambling advertising could impact problem gambling behaviour. They are: stimulating a current gambler’s gambling behaviour to an extent that it becomes problematic; inducing a non-gambler to start gambling in a way that quickly becomes problematic; inducing a non-gambler to start gambling in a way that eventually becomes problematic; maintaining or exacerbating existing problem gambling behaviour; and creating a positive societal attitude (particularly among young people) towards gambling. "Of these potential impacts," Whittingdale (or rather, the officials who advise him) concluded that "Binde's review found empirical evidence only for the fourth. While this research found evidence that advertising may adversely impact problem gamblers’ efforts to cut down, it did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling."
Considering the complexity and timing of the question, it is curious that DCMS officials should have encouraged the minister to respond with such an absolute conclusion based on a single report from 2014, without waiting for the current Gambling Act Review consultation to go through the process of collating its own evidence. Similarly, one the repeated themes in Binde's report itself is the lack of sufficient evidence and the need for further empirical studies. Binde states that "it is a high priority to perform systematic and comprehensive reviews of how risk factors for problem gambling relate to themes and messages in gambling advertising. These reviews should preferably consider the varying motivations for gambling across different forms of gambling and for different types of gamblers, and how these motivations may turn into forces that drive excessive involvement. Such reviews would be useful for formulating evidence-inspired responsible advertising codes and regulations. The risk factors identified can be further explored in empirical studies of how people perceive and react to advertising messages and would thus allow for evidence-based codes and policies."
There are also curious anomalies in the 2014 report. For example, Binde's references include an academic survey (Frøyland et al, 2010) of 8,000 Norwegian children who were asked a question on recall of gambling advertising and which found that problem gamblers recalled having seen more advertising than non-problem gamblers, with 'at risk' gamblers in between. Yet Binde's conclusion states – despite his referencing of this kind of empirical evidence and despite his mention of the need for further empirical studies – that “the impact of advertising on the prevalence of problem gambling is in general likely to be neither negligible nor considerable, but rather relatively small." Binde's language of "in general" and "likely" is unscientific, to say the least. This is unsurprising, as he is not a scientist. What is surprising is that a government minister should lean so heavily on such a report to make a categorical claim about the causal link between advertising and harm without waiting for the formal process of legislative consultation to reach its own conclusions.
I shall leave the reader to make their own judgement about the final conclusion of Binde's 2014 report. In full, it reads: “the conclusion of this report is that although research on the impact of gambling advertising is methodologically challenging, it is possible to conduct studies that produce knowledge valuable for policy making, regulation and the responsible marketing of gambling. While current knowledge at best allows for evidence-inspired policy and responsible marketing, there are good prospects of gaining more knowledge through future studies that would allow policy and responsible marketing to become more evidence-based. It would then be possible to formulate a general best-practice for gambling advertising.”
Make of that word soup what you will.
Whittingdale's response to the Cowan question, and the BGC's subsequent brandishing of this response as a scientific reason to resist calls for reform, prompted the Gambling Related Harm APPG to write a letter to the Minister, saying "we are deeply concerned that your answer is misleading and that it has been subsequently appropriated by the industry to further their own ends... In your response to a question from Ronnie Cowan MP about the link between advertising and problem gambling, you referenced one study from seven years ago by Professor Per Binde which was a literature review conducted for the Responsible Gambling Trust." Noting that the ministerial response "has subsequently been quoted by the Betting and Gaming Council in the media and they have also used this in a promotional video", the APPG lists the reasons for its concern: first, it argues that "in the midst of a ‘Call for Evidence’ to inform the gambling review, the Government should not base a position on one study from one academic which was undertaken seven years ago"; second, it argues that "the gambling market has evolved dramatically since then, as has advertising and the research base... The review by Per Binde is from 2014 and only covers advertising on traditional media"; third, it notes that Binde produced a further study in 2019 which said that ‘gambling advertising may contribute to problem gambling, and problem gamblers are more sensitive to advertising impact than non-problem gamblers"; and finally, it points to a range of other research which does identify a causal link, including in the Advertising Standards Authority's response to the Labour Party’s 2018 Gambling Review.
Of course, it should not be forgotten that the industry itself has not entirely rejected the link between exposure to gambling advertising and gambling harm. In 2018, the CEO of Mr Green argued that "the industry has itself to blame to some extent" for the criticism it has received for not "keeping the balance" with advertising. He said that "we have been polluting TV channels with the same message all the time. Deposit here and get 500 free spins, etc. Finally, it will hit back", adding that "there are a lot of people annoyed with gambling advertising. Gaming is an entertainment product and a lot of people are consuming it and we have to make sure that we do what we can to keep the balance. I think we as an industry have a lot to blame ourselves for; being too aggressive and having a business model of buying new customers all the time. It’s not sustainable in the long term and we come across as greedy and loud.”
Also in 2018, the leading UK operators agreed to introduce a voluntary 'whistle-to-whistle' ban on television advertising during live sports broadcasts. In 2020, the BGC published analysis which showed that the ban reduced the amount of gambling advertising viewed by young people by 70% over the full duration of live sport programmes. Also in 2020, the BGC announced "tough new measures aimed at further preventing under-18s from seeing gambling adverts online"; specifically, that "BGC members must ensure that all sponsored or paid for social media adverts must be targeted at consumers aged 25 and over unless the website can prove its adverts can be precisely targeted at over 18s"; that "gambling ads appearing on search engines must make clear that they are for those aged 18 and over"; and that "YouTube users will also have to use age-verified accounts before they can view gambling ads, guaranteeing that they cannot be seen by under-18s."
All of which begs the obvious question: if the BGC are so adamant that there is absolutely no link between the exposure of children to gambling adverts and gambling harm, why on earth would they introduce such measures? It does not make any sense – until these announcements are understood in the context of an appeal for self-regulation in anticipation of the government's Gambling Act Review.
It should also be remembered that reforms to gambling advertising are increasingly becoming the rule, not the exception. In Spain, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Alberto Garzón, recently announced new regulation which will see a ban on the advertising of gambling, saying “it has not been easy. Football and other competitions will be healthier, cleaner and in line with the values of the sport.” This includes a ban on sponsorship in stadiums, on squad shirts and in competitions, an advertising ban between 1am and 5am, curbs on internet marketing, the end of bonus offers and a ban on the use of celebrities to promote gambling. “From September," Garzón said, "all this type of invasive advertising will disappear. There will be no advertising in the stadiums, there will be no advertising on the shirts, there will be no celebrities promoting bookmakers and games of chance, and there will be no advertisements on the radio, on television or in any other type of advertising medium.”
Spain is not the first country to introduce such measures. In Italy, the Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni produced guidelines in 2019 on the 2018 ‘Dignity Decree’ which implemented a ban on gambling and betting advertising, including product placement, branded competition prizes, advertorials and influencer marketing. Despite the protests of the European gambling lobbyist organisation, the European Betting and Gaming Association, that curbs on advertising would drive people to the black market (drawing on a remarkably similar playbook to their British counterparts the BGC), it seems that this has not materialised: in fact, the lockdown during 2020 saw an increase in online gambling in the country (and with that, a record-breaking jump of over 50% in some operator’s profits).
In France, a similar debate is also taking place. A combination of factors including both lockdown and the recent Euros has "led to an explosion in the number of sports bets": according to the French regulator, the number of stakes increased by 79% in the first six months of 2021 and the number of people betting grew by almost 30%. Statistics from the Agence Nationale de Santé Publique also show that 40% of this operator revenue comes from people suffering addiction. This has led the Secretary of State in charge of youth, Sarah El Haïry, to write a letter to the regulator denouncing gambling adverts which glorify gamblers and which target vulnerable young people.
When El Haïry mentions youth vulnerability, she means this in a specific context of social class, culture and deprivation that will be familiar to anyone who knows the 'banlieues' which surround many French cities. There is concern among the press and policymakers in France that online gambling operators are deliberately targeting the young, male population of these districts with marketing that appeals to a clichéd subculture (these are the words of analysts, not my own – the French is "des campagnes de pub sur fond de clichés sur les banlieues font polémique"), leading the Addictions France charity to accuse the operators of planting the idea in the minds of these young men that they can escape the deprivation of their communities by gambling their way to a big win.
Looking at the adverts, it is hard to argue otherwise. Using slang that is typically associated with Arab youth in the banlieue, examples include the trending on Twitter of #BETCLICKHALASS ('khalass' translates to the French 'régaler', which can mean 'to pay out' – in other words, 'Betclic Pays') and Winamax's 'Toute pour la Daronne' ('la daronne' is a slang word for 'mum') which shows a young man gambling to enable his mother to leave their tower block home and escape on a private jet. This has not gone unnoticed by the French regulator, l’Autorité Nationale des Jeux, which on 11 July convened the gambling operators and demanded a 'drastic' and 'immediate' reduction in advertising – with a view to introducing stronger regulation going forward.
In other words, the CAGA bus tour this week was not just a story confined to a few cities in the UK. It is part of a bigger moment of change which is seeing calls for the reform of gambling advertising echoed across a range of different markets and jurisdictions. It is therefore no surprise that the campaign has attracted significant support both in Parliament and among the wider public, with Survation polling of over 100 MPs showing that 60% think that there should be greater restrictions on gambling advertising, and over half of the public in agreement.
Many of these parliamentarians took the time to meet the bus in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Westminster. So too did the new Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, Andrew Rhodes, when the bus stopped outside the Commission’s headquarters in Birmingham. No-one thinks for a moment that the Gambling Commission is suddenly going to support a total ban on gambling advertising. But it was striking to see the consideration and courtesy that Rhodes extended to the campaigners, particularly when they arrived almost two hours later than anticipated (and after Rhodes would normally have left the office for the day). The courtesy that he is showing to those who seek to engage with him is in marked contrast to the famously dismissive manner of his predecessor.
I have to say, it is a shame – and, in my view, a missed opportunity – that the industry did not extend the same courtesy to take the trouble of meeting the campaigners on their bus. No-one expects the Betting and Gaming Council to support a total ban on advertising and marketing, but I do think that as part of their “driving up standards” PR they might have had enough confidence in those standards to spend an hour engaging with people with whom they disagree. It would not have harmed them; on the contrary, I suspect that it might have reflected on them rather well.
Unfortunately, we have instead seen a repeat of the usual name-calling about ‘prohibitionists’ who ‘look down their long noses’ at 'working class British culture'. This name-calling is as absurd as it is offensive. If those who engage in it had taken the time to visit the bus, they would have seen what I did: a group of working people from Stockport and Swansea and Scotland, looking to make a change for the better in their communities. One of those who joined the bus had recently spent a day working at HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow. I'm pretty sure that "looking down their long noses" is not the most accurate way to describe him.
These people do not need to take any lessons in working class culture from the well-heeled lobbyists of the gambling industry. Just like those in the French banlieue targeted by Betclic Khalass, they know first-hand the misery that addiction brings and the intimate relationship it has with the social disadvantage they have seen blight their own communities. They are not naïve enough to be pushed into being cannon fodder for an artificial culture war conjured up by an industry that consistently prioritises profit above people. They know that their views on gambling advertising and harm are shared by a large proportion of the population. They know that disproportionately more gambling outlets are placed in working class communities than in more privileged parts of the country, as recent research from the Standard Life Foundation has shown. They are not fools. When they hear gambling lobbyists describe 'red wall' communities with a patronising caricature of ‘betting is part of the culture… The same goes for the football, snooker, darts, boxing and rugby league… working-class audiences see it as a cultural pursuit,’ they are reminded of George Orwell’s chilling words in 1984 about how ‘The Party’ described the ‘proles’: "heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult…” They see these old tricks, and they want no part in it.
A final thought about absenteeism. The Labour Party has been noticeably silent about gambling over the past 18 months, and it has been left to the formidable Carolyn Harris to lead the case for reform. Harris, who was recently described by Tim Montgomerie as the UK's most effective Labour backbencher ("she'll restore your faith in politics," he says), showed this when she met the bus in Swansea on the first day of its tour and set it off around the rest of the country. Day 4 of the tour saw other Labour MPs, including Paul Blomfield, Zarah Sultana and Hilary Benn take time to meet the bus in London. It could be said that such support should be expected, considering the fact that 76% of Labour MPs say that they back greater restrictions on gambling advertising and the 2019 Labour Party manifesto explicitly pledged to curb gambling advertising in sport – a position which, technically speaking, remains party policy today.
A curb on gambling advertising has been Labour Party policy for years. In fact, all four of the Government's proposals for reform floated in the Daily Mail last month – including a ban on shirt sponsorship, an end to VIP schemes, a £2 limit on online slot stakes, and the introduction of an ombudsman service for customer redress – originated with the Labour Party. I know that because I was the person who wrote the speeches in which some of these policies were first announced. I do not say this to make a party political point: on the contrary, everything that Labour announced over recent years depended on the support of friends in other parties, and Conservative MPs – most notably, Tracey Crouch – have blazed the trail of gambling reform since the earliest days of the FOBT campaign. No, the reason I mention those policy announcements and speeches, as well as Labour's 2018 Review of Problem Gambling and its Treatment, is to highlight the extent to which the party was once a driving force of creative thinking and reform in this area. Carolyn Harris and Tom Watson were the two most important voices in that process, but it should not be forgotten that the 2018 Review was co-sponsored by Jon Ashworth (who remains shadow Health Secretary) and the gambling reform agenda at the time was endorsed by many of his colleagues, including people who sit on the shadow front bench today.
Nobody is quite clear as to why a party that was once at the forefront of the debate over gambling reform has, since early 2020, fallen into silence over the issue. Some might argue that the issue has not been seen as a priority during the global pandemic; others might argue that the shadow front bench is not sufficiently familiar with the policy detail to make a meaningful intervention. It is no secret that proactive policymaking has not been something particularly encouraged by the Leader's Office over the past year, although a new 'roadmap' led by Anneliese Dodds has recently been launched to create new policies 'for the post-Covid age' and Keir Starmer is due to publish an extended 'mission statement' ahead of conference. It is also no secret that some sitting Labour MPs have been receptive to the opportunities presented to them by the gambling industry and its lobbyists.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear: a policy agenda which was once pioneered by the Labour Party has, since the announcement of the Gambling Act Review, been almost entirely adopted by the Conservatives. We now find ourselves in a situation where curbs to end advertising, VIP schemes, unlimited online stakes and unaffordable gambling have now become Conservative issues, leaving Labour increasingly at risk of being perceived to be turning a blind eye to the harms caused by the gambling industry. If that perception is unfair, then it surely does not serve the party well for it to remain so silent on an issue that disproportionately affects the very communities that it purports to represent.
The Labour front bench must start to find its voice again on this matter if it is not to continue to be outflanked by the Tories on such a popular policy agenda. To say nothing about gambling advertising and harm at a time when both topics are the subject of a legislative review is not just unusual, it also marks a departure from existing party policy and a manifesto pledge. When the White Paper is published at the end of this year, sitting on the fence will no longer be an option. Labour will have to say where it stands – one way or another.
"I just didn’t understand the concept that hours could turn into years down there. That we could get trapped so deep that when we wound up on the shore of our own subconscious we lost sight of what was real.
We created, we built the world for ourselves. We did that for years. We built our own world."
Today I went to London.
The last time I was in the city was in February 2020, when I spent an evening in Parliament listening to speeches from politicians and drinking warm white wine in a room packed with colleagues and familiar faces. The world as it used to be: sharing food and shaking hands, small talk at a big event, trying to find a way through the crowded rooms and corridors to step outside into even more crowded streets. People everywhere. The whole of humanity in a single square mile. Taxis, tube stations, tourists – and the cold silver English sky high above our heads.
London! I spent every day (and night) for years carrying my little ball of string around its labyrinth, trying to find a way home.
That was then. Today, London is a different place. There are almost no tourists, and very few office workers. The restaurants are closed inside. The result is empty streets. I thought that I should take some photographs for posterity's sake, a snapshot or two of the city at this eerie moment in history.
The photographs were taken at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Usually this would be rush hour, with hundreds of thousands of people going about the end of their working week. But today it was as quiet as a country market town.
The British Government has today announced the launch of the long-awaited review of the 2005 Gambling Act. I have written an article for the Guardian on what this review might entail – and the importance of getting the politics right as well as the policy. You can read the article here.
I have just come across this old video – of a talk I gave on the politics of iconoclasm back in 2015 at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. My talk begins at 1:41:45, although it is well worth watching the presentation by Riccardo Giacconi beforehand.
It is 85 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt made this speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on the "royalists of the economic order": that "throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly... the field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise", until "for too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality."
The speech might as well have been made yesterday. 85 years – yet we have moved hardly a step forward in this respect.
Senator Robinson, Members of the Democratic Convention, my friends:
Here, and in every community throughout the land, we are met at a time of great moment to the future of the Nation. It is an occasion to be dedicated to the simple and sincere expression of an attitude toward problems, the determination of which will profoundly affect America.
I come not only as a leader of a party, not only as a candidate for high office, but as one upon whom many critical hours have imposed and still impose a grave responsibility.
For the sympathy, help and confidence with which Americans have sustained me in my task I am grateful. For their loyalty I salute the members of our great party, in and out of political life in every part of the Union. I salute those of other parties, especially those in the Congress of the United States who on so many occasions have put partisanship aside. I thank the Governors of the several States, their Legislatures, their State and local officials who participated unselfishly and regardless of party in our efforts to achieve recovery and destroy abuses. Above all I thank the millions of Americans who have borne disaster bravely and have dared to smile through the storm.
America will not forget these recent years, will not forget that the rescue was not a mere party task. It was the concern of all of us. In our strength we rose together, rallied our energies together, applied the old rules of common sense, and together survived.
In those days we feared fear. That was why we fought fear. And today, my friends, we have won against the most dangerous of our foes. We have conquered fear.
But I cannot, with candor, tell you that all is well with the world. Clouds of suspicion, tides of ill-will and intolerance gather darkly in many places. In our own land we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most Nations. But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.
Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history. This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 – an American way of life.
That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy – from the eighteenth century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.
And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own Government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution – all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital – all undreamed of by the fathers – the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.
It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.
The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor – these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age – other people’s money – these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.
Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities.
Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living–a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.
But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.
For more than three years we have fought for them. This Convention, in every word and deed, has pledged that that fight will go on.
The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and of ourselves. Never since the early days of the New England town meeting have the affairs of Government been so widely discussed and so clearly appreciated. It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.
We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.
Faith – in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.
Hope – renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.
Charity – in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.
We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.
We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.
In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.
It is a sobering thing, my friends, to be a servant of this great cause. We try in our daily work to remember that the cause belongs not to us, but to the people. The standard is not in the hands of you and me alone. It is carried by America. We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds.
Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.
Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.
I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.
I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war.
A few months ago, I picked up this copy of Monocle magazine in the Eurostar lounge and decided that yes, 2020 would be the year that I pushed back against the digital flotsam and jetsam in my life. I'd already been thinking about this for a long time. I didn't like the influence that the little black pebble of my iPhone was having over me, I didn't like the anxiety I saw it induce in others, the constant nagging and tapping and clicking and pinging, the rows of bowed heads I'd see on the Underground, nobody looking up at each other, everyone distracted, everyone absorbed – I did not like the fact that I had begun to carry this black pebble around with me like a rosary.
The Covid crisis was the thing which finally pushed me to make the change. I deleted most of the apps on my phone, resolved to walk more, read more, write more, like I always used to do, I made a list of books to get from Daunt Books in Marylebone once the crisis was over, and maybe join the London Library again, I quit Twitter (which has felt like a great release), set up this diary, and I bought myself a treat: an old camera from the 1970s.
The camera is an Olympus OM-1. It is fully manual (apart from the light meter) and is heavy in the hand. When I bought it I knew nothing about shutter speed, F-Stop, field of view, aperture or film speed, and spent a weekend learning about these things from blogs like this and asking basic questions of a couple of my old friends and one of my brothers who also use manual cameras. Then I loaded a film and went out to take photos.
These three photographs were taken with the camera. They are not very good: I still have a lot to learn about judging the right distance, shutter speed and light. But I love the camera so much and take it everywhere with me now (maybe it has become another replacement rosary) and I am finding that the experience of taking a photograph is giving me as much pleasure as the developed result. The camera has helped me look at the world again. I've also gone back to my old paperback of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. I had forgotten how beautifully that book is crafted. Inside the book I found an old photo I had taken in Vienna over twenty years ago and a scribble on the inside cover – "J. Noyes 1999".
The photographs stretch out over several months. They start in the Spring and they end in August. Many of the shots I took ended up blurred or too dark. Some of them turned out exactly as I had hoped, with the grainy quality of an image taken by a machine from the 1970s, like stepping back in time. When I took the film to Maxime at L'Imaginarium du Photographe in Clermont Ferrand, he told me that he couldn't do anything with one of the six films I handed over. Maxime has his own darkroom. He is young and has set up his own shop, which you can visit on a mediaeval side street not far from the cathedral in Clermont, if you ever find yourself in that city.
Rollright Stones (The King's Men), Oxfordshire
Chaînes des Puys, taken near Aigueperse
After a five-month hard slog putting together the Social Market Foundation's gambling report, it's time to unplug for a couple of weeks. Coverage of the report can be found in the Financial Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Mail.
I was interested to see that much of this coverage (no doubt because of the SMF's press release) and the subsequent controversy focused on what I had imagined would be a rather benign proposal for a 'soft cap' affordability check on spending. There are certainly, in my view, more radical recommendations in the report. So I was amused – and a little disappointed – to see that the reaction from some quarters to this rather benign proposal was a rolling-out of the usual rusty old argument about liberty and the nanny state.
It is amusing because it is entirely predictable. I even made reference to it in the introduction of the report, knowing that it would at some point head my way, when I described "the unnecessary and entirely artificial crusade by those who lay claim to gambling as a libertarian cause of economic agency against the spectre of a nanny state." I had hoped that the usual quarters who are critical of reform might have come up with something a little more creative in their rebuttal of my report. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. One industry lobbyist even got in touch with me to complain, "I don't want the state overseeing what I drink, what I eat, how much I spend on clothes and holidays."
I suppose that one should try and remain patient and sympathetic, in that most of the corporate PR guys who use labels like 'nanny state' as a cloak to wrap around their commercial activity do so with little understanding of the philosophical and political significance of the language they use. To these guys, such labels are like white bread: easy to package, cut up and consume. They sprinkle on a few quotes from Hayek or Friedman and they think that they're good to go. They probably have no idea that there is an established philosophical and political context to their words. They probably don't appreciate how complex and contested the labels are – or how complex and contested they were even in Chicago back in the 1940s. I guess that it's not their fault. These guys are built to defend profit, not read books. I just wish that they were a little more careful in the language they use. Anyone who has met me, and who has socialised with me, will know that I'm about as far from the cardboard cutout caricature of a nanny statist as you're going to meet. I just refuse to accept that complex questions can be reduced to a sort of sixth-form debating society level of discourse.
Another interesting thing that has come out of the past three days is this: those industry lobbyists who today are accusing me of being a nanny statist were the same ones who for two years insisted to me that the focus of my thinking had to be on affordability, not stake limits. I have lost count of how many conversations I have had about the need for affordability checks and the need to standardise these checks across all operators. I took all those conversations in good faith, and made sure that the various sensibilities were reflected in my report. Needless to say, I have now taken note that multi-operator affordability checks are actually not what the industry wants, even when packaged with the careful caveats of net deposits and soft caps, and that what I was told was needed over the past two years is now different from what is needed today. So where does that leave us? If the concept of affordability is dismissed as too interventionist and 'arbitrary', then we are left with only one alternative: fixed limits to stakes. I shall be making this clear in any conversations that I have going forward.
The coverage of the 'soft cap' proposal slightly overshadowed what is, in my opinion, the biggest issue going forward: that of offshoring and tax avoidance. There seems to be something of a culture of omertà around this issue, and I've experienced quite a lot of pressure over the past 12 months to not talk about it. Tom Witherow at the Mail is to be congratulated for having had the bravery and the foresight to understand the importance of this issue and to write about it.
I predict that the offshore tax question is going to grow in importance over the course of the next three years. This should be expected in a current political climate in which the established direction of travel is now firmly pointed towards fiscal frameworks like the Digital Services Tax in the UK and the GAFA tax in France, and where protectionist actions like President Trump's new executive orders against Tik Tok overlap with concerns over online harms, data harvesting, 'surveillance capitalism' and the so-called 'Balkanisation of the internet'. Remote gambling operators might like to imagine that they are not connected to these questions, but the fact is this: in many ways, the online gambling industry is the apotheosis of Big Tech, in terms of its algorithms, its flow of capital, its rootlessness, its addictiveness, its marketing techniques, its ability to permeate into the essential elements of our economic, social and cultural lives. And just like Big Tech, online gambling is getting bigger and bigger, through processes of merger, acquisition and consolidation, to a point where some of the super-major operators risk becoming too big to regulate.
This is the absurdity of talking about the 'nanny state', as though we are back in the cosy world of Milton Friedman talking about automobile sales and safety, instead of a world in which the cash reserves of some companies are now equal to the forex reserves of many major developed economies, where capital is left to roam freely around the world, untethered from any semblance of territory, of productivity, of accountability, of reciprocity, of value – if online gambling is not at the heart of the daunting world that we all now face, then what is? Finding the right balance in regulating this world will prove to be one of the great challenges of our age. It needs serious and unflinching minds. I am afraid that lazy talk of the 'nanny state' no longer passes muster.
In September I shall begin a new paper, this time focused on ideas rather than technical details, in which I shall explore some of these questions about economy, society and human agency. I plan to spend my holiday reading books and writing: I have still not read Matt Stoller's Goliath, I would like to go back to Michael Lind and Shoshana Zuboff, I confess that I have not got round to reading Piketty's Capital and Ideology. In other words, I shall be reading a lot of American authors, but I'll also make sure to pack a novel or two in my travel bag (I have recently begun Henri Bosco's Malicroix). Any ideas for other books, please do send me an email. I also aim to write more posts on this blog, now that I have a little more time.
Other than that, I hope to find myself – Covid-19 permitting – in a dusty town square somewhere in the South of France or in Italy, sitting at little table, drinking coffee, writing to the sound of the departing swifts and the kids hitting the horns of their mopeds and the low bass of the lone church bell, and remembering what it means to be a person in the world.
A field of sunflowers near Artonne in the Auvergne today, just by the rue Neuve – and a panoramic view of three mountain ranges: the Chaîne des Puys (with its string of volcanoes), the Plateau de Gergovie (where the Gaul chieftain Vercingetorix defeated Julius Caesar in 52BC) and the long blue line of the Monts du Forez.
These are some words that I wrote three months ago, right at the brutal beginning of the pandemic. They feel like a very different world from the sunflowers today – one full of sadness and anxiety about the future, although of course I hope that they are now just a document of the past:
IT IS THE 7th APRIL 2020. I have not left this town for a whole month. I have barely even left the house except to perform the few essential functions permitted us by the government, which in my case involves the same routine of walking through the fields to the old farm and back, looking at the lambs, and making an occasional trip to the shop for groceries. I have not seen my wife or our son for all that time. We have been cut off from each other by Edouard Philippe's travel ban: me in England, them in France.
Two days ago, the Prime Minister was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth with complications from the disease. Last night, he was taken into intensive care. His officials say that this is just a precaution, but of course no-one really has much confidence in what they are told any more.
Everywhere the streets are empty. There is so little traffic here on the High Street, last night I heard a tawny owl calling under the full moon and inky starry sky. In the morning I am woken early by the sound of wood pigeons and starlings. My friend was shocked last week to see a flock of geese passing over the centre of Paris. I have read that in Poland there are towns where forest deer now wander along main roads which were, until recently, heavy with traffic.
Where humans retreat, animals move quickly forward. Those deer and geese and tawny owls are the early pioneers. Others will follow. By this summer, the great animal dominion will have established itself, until we humans grow strong again and beat it back into submission. This is the endless cycle of encroachment and retreat: curiosity, growth, violence, control, cleansing.
What separates us from the animals is the way in which we translate the cycle into milestones of history. And what a milestone we are living through right now! People on the radio compare it to 9/11 and maybe for some Americans that might be true – the same sense of trauma, the same change of direction, the feeling that things will never be the same again. A generation defined, sent to fight in the alleyways of Afghanistan and Iraq. A new word and way to define the world: security. But while the rest of us got caught up in that fight, and suffered in our own way, it always ultimately felt like Uncle Sam's milestone, not ours.
This is different. This virus belongs to all of us, a sickness given to the whole world. And we all suffer in equal measure. Makeshift mass burial pits in New York. Field hospitals in London exhibition halls. Empty streets in Manhattan, in Manila, in Milan. Over half of the world’s population in lockdown or quarantine. And moving through us all, from air into lungs, hand to mouth, without sight or smell or sound, this disease has taken hold of our shared lives.
The Wuhan Coronavirus. Covid-19. At first, it felt like an abstract story from a world far away. We were already familiar with some of that world, of course, about the animals kept captive and cut up in markets in megacities deep in the dystopia of the world’s second most-powerful country. We knew about the suffering of those animals, in an abstract way, and about the myths of medicine that drives the trade in their body parts – we have seen the photographs of bats laid out in rows on tables, the terrified dogs packed into cages, the boxes of live eels and pangolin parts, the farmed rabbits held up by their ears before being skinned alive, their eyes fixed with fear at the sharpened knife. And we knew already about the corruption in those places, the lies of local officials and the control imposed by the regime.
But this is abstract no more. The virus has become part of nature, and it too is now taking hold of our bodies and our lives.
I think that all this first became an immediate reality to me about two months ago. I was travelling from Clermont Ferrand to London and changed flights at Charles de Gaulle airport. As I waited and wandered around the terminal, looking at shop windows of things I couldn’t afford, I saw a group of Japan Airlines air hostesses walk through security and each one of them was wearing a facemask. They stood in quiet order. It was enough to make me take notice and look around. That is when I saw other people, travellers, with the same: a man sitting over here, a young couple standing over there, each wearing a mask.
This was February 3rd. I took the flight to London and it began to sink in that those abstract stories from far away were becoming signs of anxiety closer to home. We landed in Heathrow and then there was nothing except for a single sign near passport control asking anyone arriving from China to check that they didn’t have a temperature. Apart from that, London seemed to be ticking along as normal. But after the flight I knew that something wasn’t right.
Of course, hindsight means very little now that the virus has coursed through the lungs and the veins of the world. The only thing that matters is staying alive – and making sure that those around us stay alive too.
This is the Spring when everything has been brought to new light. All the structures we have built around us, the mantras we have used to blind us, the baubles we have hung around our necks – all these have been taken from us, and now lie scattered around our feet. I talked about this with [******] on the telephone. Our regret over the time that we have wasted in the black hole of the internet, wasted on rolling news and pay-per-view and WhatsApp groups and Twitter threads, a world of bullshit now exposed for what it is by the cruel, unrelenting light of Covid-19. The years that I have wasted in that world. The idle clicking, the rat runs of videos and links and notifications and sites that have led me nowhere and taught me nothing but have left me empty, exhausted, distracted.
The former Google strategist James Williams calls it the “distraction by design” at the heart of today’s “attention economy”. In one disturbing passage of his book Stand Out Of Our Light, he draws on Neil Postman’s account of a dystopia shared between Orwell and Huxley, and applies it to our new reality of information technology:
Huxley’s foresight, Postman writes, lay in his prediction that freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure: it’s not the prospect of a "boot stamping on a human face – forever" that should keep us up at night, but rather the spectre of a situation in which "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think." A thumb scrolling through an infinite feed, forever.
Once upon a time I used to read, I used to write. Now I talk about both while never really doing either. And it is not just adulthood and a lack of time which has pulled me away from the books I used to love. Yes, when I was a student I could dedicate my days to a world of texts and ideas. But the truth is, I could find the time now. I always carry a book with me, but too often it stays unread while I thumb through my iPhone for gossip from Westminster and Washington.
The sad fact is this: over the years distraction has become a habit, and I fear that it might have turned into a sort of cognitive barrier that is now so automatic, so fixed, that none of us will ever again be able to read a book from beginning to end in the way that we once did. I still watch films and listen to music, of course, and I would like to think that I still think – but who knows? Maybe if things carry on like this, one day I’ll be too distracted even to do that.
The tide moves in and out, it encroaches, it retreats, it leaves a high line of waste on the beach and drags the rest back out to sea. This is where I am today. Standing with everyone else on the empty sands, looking out at the long line of water and then down at the flotsam at our feet.
This is the wreckage that we have been left with: Covid politics, a Covid economy, the Covid remnants of our beautiful, broken world.
The wind was up today, the grass was high, and the lambs — now almost as big as their mothers — huddled together in the shade of the rowan trees.
We found a secret lake, surrounded by willow and ash. One ash has grown around this old fence — and over time, the wood and iron have become enmeshed in each other.
Looking up, its leaves reach into the blue June sky.
The local landowner has built a folly by the walled garden: red brick, gothic windows, a slightly Mughal look. It is splendid. Dad sits by the lake. Everything is still.
The grass full of moths, stag beetles, bumblebees — and me.