General Election 2024: Should politicians be forced to publicly declare political bets?

Dr Anthony Pickles reflects on the ongoing political betting scandal, and if politicians should be forced to declare any wagers on political events.

People playing poker at a table

In June a prominent politician put a sizeable bet on a political event that he was intimately involved with. The politician was Nigel Farage, the bet was £1000, the year was 2016 and the event was the Brexit Referendum. He bet for Leave, in case you were wondering. So, why was this seen as a bit of harmless fun and the current scandal a scandal?

The question comes down to secrecy.

As an anthropologist deeply involved in political gambling for my research, I know that it is common knowledge among political gamblers that politicians and their accomplices bet on politics prodigiously. As a result, it is unlikely that many politicians are actually surprised that this story has mushroomed. But the public don’t know about this, except when politicians make their bets publicly.

When politicians like Nigel Farage make public bets, they invoke several images: the slightly macho brinksmanship that is associated with how men gamble, a clarity of conviction backed by one’s own wealth which is associated with savvy entrepreneurs, and the idea of the ‘cheeky flutter’ that Craig Williams also drew on to trivialise his bet.

Craig Williams and the other election date bettors’ bet fails to come across as a ‘flutter’ to me (and I would suggest, to almost everyone) because it appears to rely on secret information so involves no brinksmanship, it is not ‘macho’ and shows no clarity of conviction for the same reason, and they definitely didn’t broadcast their bets.

Recent days have seen serious cases of political insiders using private information in order to bet privately. The gradations of what counts as insider knowledge challenge our understanding of fair play. What happens when you have access to internal polling that says you are more likely to lose than the publicly available polling indicates? That is secret information, yes, but is it certain knowledge, no. In the Labour candidate Kevin Craig’s case, the situation is potentially yet more serious because he could potentially be in a situation to influence the outcome through his campaigning efforts. Then again, the same was true for Nigel Farage in 2016. One could argue that the stakes were higher in the case of Brexit, but for Craig like Farage, his political future was on the line.

It seems that in the UK politicians and gambling go together, and have done for centuries, legally or illegally. In the end, the idea that gambling on politics can be a legitimate part of public life depends on these gambles being broadcast. If forced to broadcast their bets, this might have influenced Craig Williams and his fellow bettors’ decision-making.

Any attempt to enforce or regulate political gambling will inevitably be fraught with ambiguity and overlapping authorities. Perhaps, when it comes time to regulate in the wake of this scandal, one element might be making all politicians, perhaps even all political bettors, declare their bets publicly and then enforce harsh political punishments for those political insiders who don’t.

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