A selection of articles written by James Noyes
"Can Town Hall America take on Trump?" (Prospect Magazine, 2017)
I was in Washington DC a fortnight ago, and spent a few nights at the Trump International Hotel, which opened in September. The place is as you probably imagine it: a cornucopia of marble and fake gold, with signature cocktails and steak dinners in a vast inner atrium. In his own brash way, Donald Trump is resurrecting a tradition. The use of the term "to lobby" is sometimes said to come from the old practice of policy hacks hanging around in hotel hallways, hoping to grab the attention of passing congressmen. Trump has given the city a terrific, huge new lobby — right on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House.
While I was in the city, I sat in on a "Nebraska Breakfast" in one of the Senate buildings up on Capitol Hill. This event is an example of American localism in action: each Wednesday, any Nebraskan in the capital can take part in a kind of meet-and-greet session with their senators and congressmen. No other state holds a gathering of this kind in Washington. It has been going on since 1943 and Nebraskans take it very seriously.
Nebraska Breakfast has the feel of a school assembly. Sitting in rows were groups of families, friends and schoolchildren; there was also a university professor, a farmer, a soldier in uniform and someone representing an association of cyclists. Republican Senators Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer both gave short speeches, then each person was given the opportunity to stand up and introduce themselves to the assembly.
America is at its best when it is at its most local. The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville saw this as far back as 1831, when he visited the fledgling United States and marvelled at its culture of democratic participation. It is a tradition of civil society — let’s call it "Town Hall America" — that remains an integral part of the country’s identity. Town Hall America is a form of politics fostered through organisations and neighbourhood associations, clubs and cooperatives, tea parties and state committees that span the land from New England to New Mexico.
Town Hall America is an untidy creature. It does not stop thinking and it cannot stop talking. If it allows anything to define it, then it is two principles: decentralisation for government, and direct representation for the people. The evidence suggests that it has a wide appeal. In Gallup polls in late 2016, 71 per cent of Americans say they have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in local government to handle problems; only 42 per cent feel the same way about their political leaders. Recently, town hall meetings were instrumental in the successful opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
This type of localism and social capital is different from most other countries. In France, where I have lived for much of my adult life, two political entities reign supreme: the individual and the state. Anything messy that operates in the middle is considered illegitimate and there is little scope for what Americans call "intermediary institutions". It is perhaps no coincidence that the French are great rebels as individuals, yet centralists as a people.
And yet despite its lineage, Town Hall America is going through difficult times. Much has already been said about the challenges facing communities in "flyover country" — the dismissive term for the land between the east and west coasts. The decline in established industries, a shortage of skilled jobs, a decaying infrastructure and the flat-lining of social mobility has affected the way in which people do politics. In this dispossessed landscape, localism has become a way of expressing disillusionment with the national situation rather than a celebration of civil society.
These are the communities that made Trump the president. The irony that it was a metropolitan billionaire who tapped into the disillusionment shows the extent to which the main political parties have taken localism for granted. But such opportunism would never have been possible were it not for the weakening of the civil structures that are the bedrock of local communities.
We see it in America through the rising interference of corporate interests and the cult of personality. We see it in the UK too, where local authorities are infantilised and given the language of sovereignty with little of its authority. In other words, the battle over localism has become a common cause. Political commentators and policymakers are increasingly making this case that a degraded civil society at the local level is dangerous for all of us globally.
More needs to be done to support this cause. It is only through building from the bottom up, through strong associations and empowering institutions, that local communities can become resilient to fragmentation and dispossession. As journalist and political analyst Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic, by restoring the institutions that stand between isolated individuals and the national state, America can renew its social contract.
This should be the rallying cry of the Town Hall — for Nebraskans as for the other states; for Americans and for the rest of us. Together, it is time to take back the local for us all.
"Britain’s betting industry is out of control. A new gambling act must curb it" (Guardian, 2020)
Not a day goes by without another horror story about gambling. A familiar theme now dominates the front pages: for too long, the betting industry has encouraged excessive spending, exploited vulnerable people, and failed to tackle money laundering or protect its customers.
Gambling has become a canary in the coalmine of our economy. It is now embedded in every aspect of our lives: our banks, high streets, television screens and football teams. When we talk about gambling, we enter a vast world that spans questions from addiction and isolation to market failure and machine learning. It is a world that stretches the limits of the relationship between freedom and the protection of the state. And, in the breakdown of that relationship, many people have been harmed.
Research suggests that there are just under half a million problem gamblers who have their lives damaged by debt, depression, family breakdown and, in the worst cases, suicide.
The stories stack up. The Guardian recently showed how one operator profits from a company that treats gambling addicts. Similar scandals have highlighted the industry use of VIP schemes, and the fact that some FA Cup games have been exclusively streamed via betting giants such as Bet365.
These stories have led to outrage. Figures from John Simpson to Gary Lineker have joined the condemnation, with Lineker calling the Bet365 story "all kinds of wrong".
Politically, the outrage has led to a cross-party consensus that it is time for change. Early voices in parliament for reform, such as Tom Watson, Tracey Crouch and Carolyn Harris, have been joined by a coterie of support from all sides, including the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, the prime minister’s trade envoy Richard Graham and the SNP’s Ronnie Cowan. There has also been a Lords inquiry into gambling, an all-party parliamentary group inquiry into gambling-related harm, and material published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. Echoing both the Labour party and campaigners, the government has just committed to a review of the 2005 Gambling Act.
The last major gambling review was conducted in 2001 by Alan Budd, a founding member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. Budd worked on the premise that a balance could be struck between economic freedom and social protection. This was the right question to ask at the time, but since 2001 the world has experienced technological change that Budd could not have foreseen.
A review of the 2005 act will require a Budd report fit for the digital age. It will face four big challenges.
First is the question of its premise. Budd sought a balance between the freedom to gamble and protection from harm. Technological change is mentioned, but the report could not have foreseen the rise of smartphones and social media – let alone recent developments in data analytics and algorithmic intelligence. A new review must be based on a premise that incorporates the reality of machines as well as humans and the market. Today’s gambling landscape is less about casinos and seaside piers and more about computer random number generators, in-play betting and hybrid, often predatory, online forms of product and marketing.
Second is the question of scope. The 2005 act reads like a Victorian novel. It categorises and it promulgates, it espouses key concepts in subclauses. It is a hefty tome. There is an argument that new legislation should be leaner and agile enough to respond to innovation and change. In other words, a new review should be more novella than novel.
Third is the question of time. The Budd report took over a year to write and was published in 2001. The act became law in 2005 and was fully implemented in 2007. The whole process took the best part of a decade. If the same happens now, then by the time a new act comes into effect, in 2027, the industry will have changed beyond recognition, with new products, new markets and new types of currency. It is important that a new review does not create a similar delay.
Fourth is the question of scale. Because of the risks of scope and time, there is an argument that instead of One Single Big Act, a series of smaller interventions could be drafted around specific questions – not dissimilar to the approach taken in the shorter 2014 act on online gambling. The advantage to this approach would be that it ensures leanness and agility. The disadvantage would be that it risks being piecemeal.
None of these four challenges will be easy to resolve. A new review will require someone of the stature and integrity of Alan Budd to lead it, and its success will depend on the quality of the relationship between the Department of Health, the Treasury and – if the rumours in Whitehall are true – whatever is about to replace DCMS.
But if the government does get this balance right, then there is no reason why the horror stories of recent years cannot be transformed into a foundation for positive change, turn Britain’s regulation of gambling into an example to the world – and allow us to redefine what we mean by gambling in the 21st century.
"Gambling reform is not easy to do. But it’s worth the risk" (New Statesman, 2018)
New Labour’s 2005 Gambling Act attempted to perform a magic trick that proved impossible to pull off. Announcing "the least restricted, most free-market based regime in Europe" at the same time as "the toughest rules and the most powerful regulator in the world", the Blair government tried to appeal to all interests: economic deregulation, political devolution and social responsibility. In reality, it satisfied none.
The 2005 Act left loopholes that created the ideal conditions for industry exploitation to flourish over market sustainability. The most famous example of this has been the recent battle over fixed odds betting terminals. And we see it in our daily lives. Betting shops now cluster on our high streets. Football matches are dominated by gambling ads on billboards, squad shirts and television screens. Our social media accounts have become targeted by increasingly sophisticated marketing, much of it coming from affiliate operators based overseas.
At the same time, the number of problem gamblers has refused to go down, leading to a human cost that blights some of our poorest communities. There are up to half a million problem gamblers in Britain today, but only one specialised NHS clinic dedicated to their treatment. Eight years of Tory austerity have not helped, leaving the Gambling Commission with an almost impossible task.
Those of us pushing for reform have never argued for more regulation of the same mess. Rather, we want to see the flawed 2005 Gambling Act replaced with legislation fit for the realities of 2018. We want to see a functioning market. Yet despite the evidence, our critics claim that good legislation equates to a bad nanny state.
Considering that the failures of the Gambling Act are a Labour legacy, one would think that the Tories would be leading the charge for change. But they cannot get their heads around the fact that achieving this change would mean rolling back the failed liberalisation of the market. As a result, we have seen eight years of policy drift. Conservative MPs since 2010 have voted consistently against tighter regulation on issues like self-exclusion bans for problem gamblers, local authority licensing of betting premises, and rules on bookmakers based overseas. This is despite warm words to the contrary from ministers under both David Cameron and Theresa May.
Following the electoral disaster of 2017, and the collapse of May’s domestic agenda, the balance of Conservatism has tilted away from reform. Tory MPs who never felt easy with intervention have become increasingly vocal in their rejection of government "meddling". Voices from the free market fringe are growing louder. Regulation is now costed in economic rather than social terms. And even approved changes to legislation, such as the new cap on fixed odds betting terminals, have been made subject to delay.
None of this comes as a surprise. Gambling reform has long been a battleground for free market fundamentalists. We saw this highlighted during the debate over FOBTs, when free market think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs accused reformist MPs of "paternalism". It was a line that came straight out of the textbook of 1990s America. When George Bush introduced a limit to sports betting with the Bradley Act in 1992, he too was accused of paternalism – a familiar dog whistle used by libertarians at the time to label someone a socialist.
The mantra of the free market fundamentalists essentially boils down to this. In their view, markets thrive through the balancing effects of corporate self-interest and consumer choice rather than government intervention. Regulation supposedly leads to a rise in prices and a collapse in freedom. This applies even to markets of potential harm. As Milton Friedman famously said, "there is no place for government to prohibit consumers from buying products the effect of which will be to harm themselves".
Friedman applied his argument to the question of automobile safety. Given the freedom to choose between a safe or unsafe car, he said, consumers do not need government to regulate the market. The demand for safer cars, if desired, will lead to greater supply.
Applied to gambling, it is a mantra that makes no sense. Unlike the purchase of a fixed product such as an unsafe car, gambling is a complex process of odds and speculation, gain and loss, investment and reinvestment in an economic context that changes, continually and unpredictably, during the course of play. It is an act of speculative excess not dissimilar to what Adam Smith – the man often wrongly held up as the grandfather of the free market – called "overtrading" in The Wealth of Nations.
The speculative excess of gambling has had a damaging double effect on the UK. On the one hand, gambling has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, to a point where even children cannot avoid being exposed to its omnipresent industry. On the other hand, industry omnipresence has been coupled with a constriction of market competition to a small group of big brands. Think about it. When was the last time you saw an independent bookie on your local high street?
This is the effect of a profoundly negative view of human exchange. Society is seen as a concession, kept in check by the mutually-assured deterrence of individual greed. Government is undesirable because it is understood as an extension of that greed. Regulation becomes an act of theft, protection an act of control. The result is self-contradiction.
Faced with the question of gambling, it is clear that the free market fundamentalists are going through an identity crisis. Instead of being champions for enterprise, competition and property, they have ended up justifying big business, addiction and debt. This year in America, the Bradley Act was repealed through the efforts of New Jersey’s Chris Christie, supported by a protectionist, tariff-wielding President Trump.
We cannot let ourselves be distracted by such dogma. The stakes are too high. As Tom Watson recently said in a Labour Party review, Britain’s gambling problem has become a public health emergency. The world has changed since 2005 and our priorities must adapt accordingly. We need legislation which understands that freedom and prosperity can only be achieved through market sustainability. To that end, it could be argued that we need a new Gambling Act. With the Tories continuing to stall, it looks like we must turn to Labour for initiative.
A radical reform of our gambling laws will not be easy to do. It will rely on bringing together politicians and interest groups, individuals and the industry. But with the right political appetite, the signs are that change is possible. Far from being the meddling of a nanny state, such reform would show that change can be a collective endeavour, and that regulation can reflect the common good.