By Dr James Eglinton

IN today’s Scotland, gambling is everywhere. In the 25 years since John Major’s Conservative government introduced the National Lottery, and the 15 years since Tony Blair’s Labour government radically liberalised our gambling laws, the gambling industry’s reach has spread into most areas of life. Spaces in society where we are not encouraged to take a punt are increasingly rare: at the football stadium and the museum, in the corner shop and even the local primary school – where school lottery schemes are often used to prop up underfunded state education – we are prompted to gamble. Each year, across the UK, we now give £14.4 billion of our money to the gambling industry.

This vast sum, of course, is not supplied equally by all. Rather, about half of the population gambles – and more often than not, those who gamble do so regularly, and are from lower-income backgrounds. While the gambling industry presents itself as an instrument of positive economic redistribution – you might win big, or your good cause might receive a donation – the money moves in more than one direction. Those who run the industry enjoy the benefits of unimaginable profits thanks to the regular offerings of the average Scottish gambler.

In 2020, the wide reach of the gambling industry is part and parcel of a society in which income inequality continues to grow. Social mobility has all but stopped for some segments of society. For all that the big gambling industry casts the poor and worthy a few crumbs from its table, it is hard to see that industry as anything other than part of the problem of poverty, rather than part of its solution. The widespread promotion of gambling remains, in effect, an implicit tax on the poor, whose money often goes towards making the worlds of art and culture more affordable to the middle class.

Many of us are aware of this. Indeed, the Gambling Commission’s own most recent surveys have shown that 79 per cent of us – even of those who do gamble – think that “there are too many opportunities for gambling nowadays”. I agree. Perhaps it is time more of us did something about it. Where might this fight for economic justice begin? We could take note of Greta Thunberg’s campaign for climate justice, which began in a school – a social space imbued with symbolic value, in so far as the school environment represents the hopes and dreams that we pass on to our children. Greta’s school strike has changed the world.

Perhaps a renewed fight against poverty might also begin in our schools, which are increasingly turning to school lottery systems to paper over the cracks in an underfunded state school system. Given the symbolic power of our schools, what does it say to our children about the aspirations we pass on to them if their access to textbooks, music lessons, or computers also becomes dependent – albeit often in small ways – on a system that reinforces poverty?

As a parent of children who receive a gambling-funded state school education, at a time where 340,000 British adults (and 55,000 children) are problem gamblers, I find it painful when my children ask me where their school’s money comes from. If enough parents (and children) were to say “no thanks” to a gambling-funded education, society would only lose one opportunity to gamble – but in teaching a new generation to dream of a more equal society, that one loss could change everything.

Dr James Eglinton is Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh