The Lottery is a symptom of a malaise that impoverishes us all

'Roman rulers kept people amenable with bread and circuses. The Lottery performs the same function'
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The Independent Online

The existence of the National Lottery, and its huge popularity, is a sign of a fundamental malaise in our society, an indication that something has gone badly askew.

The existence of the National Lottery, and its huge popularity, is a sign of a fundamental malaise in our society, an indication that something has gone badly askew.

Supporters of the lottery who appeal to its entertainment value and the fun it gives to millions of people would, I hope, at least concede that in an ideal world the lottery would not exist. In a better society, the basic necessities of life - in education and health for example - would be met for everyone, irrespective of income, by the state. Furthermore, everyone would receive a fair reward for the work they do and would feel that they have a sense of participating in the growing wealth of our society. That would be a society characterised by a culture of giving.

But now, with the lottery being so comparatively successful in raising huge sums of money, there is a real danger that the proper financial responsibilities of the state will be shuffled off on to lottery funding. There is some indication that this has already happened. An even more serious point, arises from the fact that there is a growing gap between rich and poor. The poorest members of our society feel that the only way in which they have any hope of changing their life is through a win on the lottery.

In the last two years, the incomes of the rich have gone up by more than three times those of the poor; and, according to the Department of Social Security, a further 500,000 people have dropped below the poverty line (as indicated by receiving less than half the average national income).

So we have a situation in which we constantly read about the glamorous lifestyles of the super-rich and rich, while the poorest people in our society are not only getting poorer but feel that they have no opportunity of having a share in all this wealth that is going round. It is very understandable, indeed, that they should want to put themselves in the way of some of it through the lottery.

A friend of mine, a parish priest in a poorish part of Birmingham, did an assessment of the amount of money going out of his parish each week into the National Lottery, and the result was staggering. The more people's lives are depressed by the circumstances in which they live, with a sense that there is no real chance of changing their lot for the better, the more they will spend on the lottery. This is very understandable and I certainly don't blame people in that state. But is this really the kind of society we want?

I am not opposed to gambling on a small scale and am certainly not a puritan. But the National Lottery's huge roll-over prizes fuel fantasies of escape, of a total change of lifestyle, which is personally damaging and spiritually unhealthy. If you win a few pounds on the horses, or even a few hundred pounds, there is a bit of fun and excitement and a treat at the end. But the gigantic lottery prizes encourage people to think that with a bit of luck (and they certainly need a very great deal of luck to win the lottery) their whole life can be changed. They too can become one of those they read about in the colour supplements.

This is spiritually unhealthy because it makes people think that if only they had all that money their worries would be at an end; everything would be all right. This is nonsense of course and all that money coming suddenly to people who are unused to it can literally ruin lives. But the huge prizes now available reinforce the kind of fantasy to which we are all prone.

I am against the lottery in principle. Indeed, I am coming round to the view of Jim Thompson, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who once described it as the biggest spiritual blow that this country has received since the Second World War.

Nevertheless, if it is going to stay with us, there is a strong case for putting an upper limit on the prizes and having many more smaller ones. If instead of having one prize of £10m, we had 100 prizes of £100,000 each, that would enable people either to buy somewhere to live or at least put down a deposit on somewhere to live.

House prices in London and more widely in the South-east are now so skewed by the vast salaries paid to bankers and lawyers in the City of London that ordinary people, including ordinary professional people, are being pushed out of the market. Those who champion the cause of lotteries say that it is the huge prizes that fuel excitement and get more people to gamble. But the alternative of having far more of what might be called human-sized prizes has not really been tried.

Roman rulers kept people socially amenable with bread and circuses. The lottery may be more civilised than that, but it performs the same function. It distracts us from focusing on the kind of society we ought to be trying to shape and the stark contrast between that and the actual society we have.

People point to all the money that goes to good causes. But there are better ways of raising money. The United States has a culture of giving which we are very far from having developed in this country. Lottery funding could even be inhibiting the development of a similar culture here.

In criticising something as popular and apparently as well established as the lottery one feels a bit like Don Quixote, romantic but useless when it comes to the brutal world in which we live. But priests, like poets and seers in all shapes and sizes, exist to put a mirror up to our society, asking that we look into it and say whether we like what we see. A better way would be to encourage a culture of giving and to ensure that the state fully shouldered its responsibilities.

Above all, we need to work towards an economic system in which those at the bottom of the pile do not simply feel envious and outraged by those at the top, but know that with hard work and through developing their abilities, they too could share in such prosperity as is going around. The lottery is a huge distraction from these proper goals.

The writer is the Bishop of Oxford