Clause 15. — (Betting Duty.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Finance Bill. – in the House of Commons on 15th July 1926.

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Photo of Mr Frederick Montague Mr Frederick Montague , Islington West

I have not had petitions from my constituents, but I have had quite a number of letters, and I find that these letters are pretty equally divided between those who oppose the tax upon what is called the moral issue, and those who oppose the tax because it is an interference with the betting community. It seems to me that if I vote in favour of this Amendment, I shall be upon the right side from both points of view. A reflection that occurs to me with regard to most of the Debates we have had upon the subject is that betting is a luxury which is enjoyed or followed by probably the vast majority of the people of this country It is not only a question of betting upon horses. Other forms of gambling are very popular. You have only to take up your weekly newspapers arid you will find that their millions of circulation depend more than anything else upon the spirit of gambling among the people. In view of that fact, it seems to me that the talk in opposition to this tax from the moral point of view is a kind of Parliamentary Puritanism which is beside the mark. I must confess I have very strong prejudice against Puritanism of any kind except the Puritanism of individuals.

Puritanism may be a fine thing for the individual, but when it is projected into the law, when it is a case of pushing one's principles down other people's throats, it has a tendency to become very objectionable, and sometimes not only to become objectionable, but to defeat the very purpose it is supposed to support. I am not going to vote in favour of the Betting Duty for quite other reasons. I was interested in listening, to the speech of the hon. Member below the Gangway about productive as against unproductive expenditure. There is a point in that argument of recognising the economic facts of the case. But it is not a question of productive or unproductive expenditure. If I take money from one pocket and put it into another you would not base an argument on it that it was productive or unproductive expenditure. When two rich men make a bet, men who perhaps have obtained their riches from bad sources, the mere fact that one wins and the other loses makes not the slightest difference to the production of the country. It is merely equivalent to taking money from one pocket and putting it into another.

I fail to see the fundamental objection from the moral point of view to betting. It is not a moral question at all; it is a social question. Betting is harmful because the people who are encouraged to engage in it to extremes, because of the lack of rational interest and reasonable excitement in their lives, cannot afford to bet. That is an argument against poverty, but it is not an argument against betting on principle. I do not see why an individual transaction involving a risk of loss should be more immoral than a church bazaar or playing a game of cards in my own private house. Everybody gambles in one way or another. Life, especially under modern competitive conditions, is bound up with the principle of gambling, and I find my own friends who are Socialists using the argument against my particular point of view, which is not very popular on this side, that as a Socialist I should object upon moral grounds to the principle of taking something for nothing. I do not object to the principle of taking something for nothing, if it is a voluntary transaction and if there is an equal chance for both sides, one winning at the expense of another and there is nothing of compulsion.

What I object to so much is not getting something for nothing, but to the imposition of a condition of society and circumstances upon me, or upon any member of the class that lives by its labour, which allows other people to get something for nothing at the expense of my labour without any voluntary transaction about it. That is what I object to, but I fail to see what there is of a moral character involved in the principle of betting. I object to the Betting Duty in the first place, as the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Barr) has said, that it is creating a new vested interest and, secondly, because I object to all kinds of indirect taxation. For these two reasons I am going into the Lobby in support of the Amendment. I want to urge hon. Members not to imagine that every member of the Labour party is necessarily governed by Free Church or Wee Church policy. Some of us have our own point of view which is not determined by the Nonconformist conscience. I have every respect for the Nonconformist conscience, but morality to me is an individual question; when it is not individual it is worth nothing. I believe every church council and every body of social workers have a perfect right to their own line of propaganda, but when it comes to imposing their point of view on the rest of the community on moral questions, as in the case of prohibition, my anti-puritanism comes uppermost and I object most strongly.

I do not think you are ever going to achieve morality by Acts of Parliament You can improve social conditions, look after the bodies of the people; their souls will look after themselves. I do not think it is desirable to give the Government cachet to betting if it is going to help the extension of betting amongst people who cannot afford to bet on the ground that the money the working classes spend in betting is money which ought to be spent productively. I do not think everything should be judged from the standpoint of whether it is productive or not. I think the working people ought to have some surplus which they can throw away on their own pleasures; I want my class to have some surplus to throw away on their own pleasures. There is one other point of view which occurs to me. The question of prostitution has been used as an analogy between one particular form of vice and the vice, as it is called, of betting; and it is a vice in a social sense because of its effects under the circumstances of life as we live it. But you can never by Acts of Parliament stop prostitution. You can imprison brothel keepers, but that is not stopping prostitution. You can stop, and wisely stop, the creation and existence of gaming houses, but that does not stop gambling. You will not stop gambling by passing Acts of Parliament making it unlawful for anybody to make a bet on a horse. If people cannot bet that way they will bet, and are going to bet, in some other way.

The best thing to do if you want to raise the moral tone and standard of the people is to see that they have a rational sort of life, a decent education and a chance to look upon life in a, well-balanced way. That is the best way to deal with all the moral issues, and there is no reason why Parliament should assist the development of betting, or any kind of social evil which may be disadvantageous to any class of the community. There is far too much unction about this question of morality. It is an individual question; it is not the business of Parliament. We have no right to interfere at all with self-regarded acts until they become a public nuisance, and until they become a public nuisance I am not prepared to vote for Acts of Parliament which interfere with the habits of the people.