Hardly any aspect of British life has combined religion, class, ideology, politics and law more potently than attitudes to gambling - not even attitudes to drink and sex. That is because, as with drink and sex, two strong impulses have contended. On the one hand, the majority of British people have always liked to gamble; on the other, a smaller number, who have had privileged access to political elites, have sought to stop gambling - usually on a priori moral grounds. Those who dislike gambling have normally felt more strongly than those who like it; their passion has made up for their paucity of numbers. The state has tried to please both majority and minority and typically has pleased neither. It has passed much prohibitory legislation - conspicuously the Street Betting Act of 1906, which attempted to ban off-course betting on horses - but has been very reluctant to enforce it, particularly if, as in the case of the Street Betting Act, legislation seemed to favour the non-working class against the working class. One result of this tension is that the whole apparatus of modern mass gambling largely originated in an activity - street betting - which was until 1961 formally illegal.
LRB 3 March 2005 | PDF Download