26 Jun 2024

Debate: Does betting on politics reduce it to a game?

Gambling is big business, permeating British culture, from sports teams to the national lottery, to those annoying ads that pop up whenever you’re online.

But allegations that some in the Conservative Party have used inside information to bet on the election has thrown a spotlight on political betting. Like sport, politics has winners and losers.

But does betting on it reduce politics to a game?

We spoke to Graham Sharpe, who expanded betting from sports to politics and entertainment during the 45 years he worked for the bookmaker William Hill.

He’s also the man who introduced betting on a white Christmas and the Christmas number one.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: It’s all your fault. You have corrupted British democracy and Conservative politicians?

Graham Sharpe: What I set out to do in about 1972 and mission accomplished, I think.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: What do you make of this scandal? Is it a scandal?

Graham Sharpe: It’s a confected scandal, isn’t it? In a way. You accept when you bet on something that’s decided by human beings that somebody, somewhere is going to know, possibly a little bit more than you are, about certain aspects of whatever the event you’re betting on. Maybe you take that as part of the risk that you take when you open a book on anything. You don’t know that a horse might not be doped. You don’t know that a footballer might not have been got at, but you hope over a period of time that’s not going to happen too frequently. And by and large, events will be done honestly and logically. We’ve been betting on elections for donkey’s years. I’m surprised this hasn’t come up before.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: I suppose traditionally when bets are placed face to face, mostly, a bookie could raise the alarm. Is it harder now?

Graham Sharpe: Betting started before betting shop betting, let’s put it that way. So it hasn’t always been face to face. You could say that’s an advantage but if somebody wants to disguise the bet they’re having, they’ll send somebody else in, to put it on for them.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: That’s the really surprising thing about this so far, that we haven’t seen that. We’ve seen people putting bets in their own name.

Graham Sharpe: I’m unaware how that information has come about, as it were, information in inverted commas, because bookmakers don’t willy-nilly give out details of people that have had bets with them. So it’s a surprise to me to see these names being bandied around in public. And I’m wondering, how does anybody know that they’ve had these particular bets?

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Is it the way we frame politics as a race, a competition, with runners and riders?

Graham Sharpe: I’m sure that happened long before bookmakers were getting interested in having bets on the outcome.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: But is that what sort of brought the bookies in, I suppose?

Graham Sharpe: A bookmaker’s going to say I hope so, because that’s what, I use the word ‘we’, even though I’m now retired, as bookmakers want to do, is encourage people to have a bet on anything in which they’re particularly interested. And that’s why, as you pointed out, it’s now possible to bet on everything from the weather to the World Cup. So will there be an election on such and such a day?

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: And how have social attitudes changed towards gambling in your career?

Graham Sharpe: There will always be people who are anti. By and large, I think nobody goes through life without gambling. Every time you cross the road, you gamble, don’t you? If it was possible to have a bet on whether I get to the other side of the road without getting knocked over, a lot of people would take it.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: But you think things like the National Lottery have kind of detoxified gambling?

Graham Sharpe: That’s not gambling, is it? That’s a guaranteed win for the lottery. You can’t possibly lose money staging a lottery. Bookmakers can always lose money. That’s why they’re very sensitive. If somebody comes in and wants to bet on something that they’re not quite sure they know all the information about, but they fear the person that’s coming in to have the bet might do, that’s not illegal unless the event is being twisted by criminal methods. Bookmakers are aware that sometimes there will be information they don’t know about. They accept that as part of the overall game.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Do you have any sense of how much money is involved in political betting in Britain right now?

Graham Sharpe: Probably there’s more gambled on something like the American election than there is on the British quite often. But there will be millions gambled on the outcome of the next general election. Every aspect of it, from who’s going to win, to how many seats will this party get, to will this particular individual get in or be kicked out? It’s limitless. It’s dependent on the amount of things the bookmakers can think of to offer the punters, and the punters can think of, to ask from the bookmakers.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: We’re in a situation now where politicians are being asked, should politicians be banned from betting on politics?

Graham Sharpe: They’d get somebody to do it for them.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: But do you think it’s a good idea? Should politicians be banned from betting? Should anyone be banned from betting in their own sphere of influence? Should a jockey be allowed to bet on a race?

Graham Sharpe: Adults have to be trusted, to be honest, basically in life, don’t they? And in that respect, bookmaking is no different.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: You just accept that a proportion of people aren’t honest?

Graham Sharpe: Yes. Don’t you? You know some of them, we all do.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So where do you think this sort of leads us to? There’s a lot of sort of frowning upon this. Do you think that’s a media confection, or do you think that’s what the public…?

Graham Sharpe: As I said, I can’t imagine that this hasn’t happened before over many years. Bookmaking on political events has been going for hundreds of years, in this format for probably 50 years. So I’m sure it’s happened before. It’s just that somehow these names have got into the public domain.