Just for a moment, take yourself back to the most desperate period in your life and recall what things kept you going. Among them will surely be hope. Or perhaps, if hopeless, blind faith: that that blinking, unreachable light is a rescue ship. We excel at expecting miracles – no wonder God still looms over our age of science. But when drowning, we cling to anything: a dilapidated raft, a slippery rock, and often, the very person trying to drown us. It is why the pithiest novel of 2012 – Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander – was so expertly titled.
It could have been about the National Lottery. Or any of the “winners” who later describe in pathos-drenched detail how £10m (or these days more like £2m) swung at their life like a wrecking ball. It could also have described those who never win, but week in, week out, keep shelling out, trapped in an ugly, compulsive loop.
Thanks to the price of a ticket now doubling to £2, this state-endorsed gambling gets uglier still as those who can least afford it cough up more. But to call the Lotto a tax on hope would lavish it with undeserved praise. It is much, much worse. Everyone hopes, not everyone pays. And while it isn’t only the desperate queuing up for a ticket, it is certainly a contingent, buying in poverty-blinded faith that the flickering TV screen with the coloured balls could be their money-laden ship. The Lottery acts as God, and like God, has salvation on the menu but nothing in the kitchen.
Yes, “it could be you”. But statistically you have a much higher chance of sleeping with Dale Winton. That’s assuming, given there’s a one-in-14-million probability of winning, that the host of In It To Win it has slept with more than four Britons. Now that I’d put a bet on.
A Camelot worker appeared on the BBC to defend the price hike, and raved about the “virtuous circle” triggered by such a move: more prizes, more money for good causes, yadda yadda. He didn’t mention the greater profits for Camelot. Remind me, in which ancient text does avarice appear as a virtue?
The tragedy isn’t only hope; it is the gut-kicking truth that a tiny fraction of such winnings could transform many of the gamblers’ lives. And that fraction should come from a fairer dispersal of taxes, or Sure Start, or free university education, or the EMA or any invaluable measure bulldozed by George Osborne. Because, of course, five years after our City-born depression, the only “trickle down” Britain witnesses is the bleeding noses of cocaine-snorting bankers.
And those good causes? Let a higher rate of tax for the super rich fund them. Otherwise we have the poor hooked into an all-night slot machine, pulling the lever, nothing ever coming out, and the House proudly proclaiming they’re helping the needy with the proceeds. As ever, the haves are ennobled, the have-nots are hobbled. Dickens would weep. The Lottery is not a circle of virtue but a spiral of hope and despair, the blinking light never reaching us.