How politics sparked the UK’s online gambling boom


There’s no hiding from the fact that the gambling landscape in the United Kingdom stands head and shoulders above any other market in the world. Between 2011 and 2019 the industry grew by nearly £6billion to £14.3billion with 31% of residents betting at least once per week… Truly staggering statistics.

If those figures didn’t quite hit home hard enough, amongst the 67 million people living within the United Kingdom, a massive 31 million active betting accounts exist with licensed operators right this second. 

It’s also evident that popular operators such as Paddy Power, Ladbrokes and Bet365 have ingrained themselves into British culture as recognisable household names, whether that be down to their creative advertising campaigns, high street presence or because of their presence within a certain region and the jobs they create… 

Lawmakers and those opposed to the industry certainly won’t want to admit it, but gambling has become a quintessential British past-time, whether it be a football accumulator, a punt on the horses or spinning the reels of their favourite slot, betting is part of the furniture.

How gambling gained a foothold in the United Kingdom

In the early 1900s the only sport that was regularly wagered upon in the UK was horse racing, with greyhound racing and football betting becoming more prominent in the 1920s, especially when the famous Littlewoods Pools were founded, giving the working class a means to bet.

Very little changed until 1960 when Parliament approved the Betting and Gaming Act, which was put in place to strip away inconsistent and restrictive gambling laws that weren’t relevant to the times. Importantly, the new Act legalised betting shops, bingo halls and casinos, however this was more as a means to bring betting off the streets and in-house, with hundreds of establishments opening each week in the first six months, giving people a taste of what was to come. 

Ten years later a new Gaming Act came into place which tightened restrictions on all forms of betting and gaming. It also put gambling in the hands of the Gaming Board for Great Britain, an organisation that reported directly to the Home Office.

As time went on gambling restrictions were slowly lifted with the National Lottery and football betting becoming mainstream in the early 1990s, however major gambling reforms didn’t arrive until 2005 when Tony Blair’s government passed the 2005 Gambling Act. 

It was Blair’s unshackling of the industry (In particular advertising) that ultimately led to a flood of operators capitalising on what was perceived as large scale ‘deregulation’, introducing the people of the UK to everything the industry had to offer and more. 

How Tony Blair’s government opened the floodgates

The Labour government at the time argued that the 2005 Gambling Act was passed in order to help move the UK from an unregulated and potentially dangerous market into one that prioritised safety and openness in which players were protected from gambling harm. 

This protection came from the Gambling Commission, a newly formed regulatory body that ensured all operators both physical and online operated safely and responsibly, adhering to a strict framework that allowed them to offer their services to players in the UK.

Despite introducing these protections, Tony Blair and Tessa Jowell (the Member of Parliament who pioneered the legislation) came under intense scrutiny for making Britain the first country to legally permit online gambling, as they feared it would lead to a spike in problem gambling.

Instead the duo strongly argued that it was better to take a liberal approach to gambling, especially considering the government were implementing new measures to make it safer. 

Despite understanding and appreciating the concerns raised by his peers, Blair insisted that the vast bulk of the legislation was actually about regulating gambling, not deregulating it, he also claimed there was ‘no evidence changes would lead to gambling addiction and crime’.

Whilst it can be said that his government succeeded in modernising gambling regulations for the time, they failed to take into account the rapid rate in which the internet was growing. It can be strongly argued that the bill did not (and still does not) do enough to regulate those operating in a digital age.

The 2005 Gambling Act forced operators to pay tax on their earnings, meaning an unprecedented amount of money flooded into the coffers, however it can be argued that the money gained from taxation hardly makes up for the negative impact gambling has had on countless lives. 

That said, some would point to the millions of pounds that have been invested into safe and responsible gambling initiatives over the years by the Gambling Commission as a result of hefty fines slapped on operators that have broken the rules. 

The long term effects of Blair’s gambling ‘deregulation’

Naturally, the real winners as a result of the 2005 Gambling Act were those at the helm of the gambling firms. Bet365 Chief Executive Denise Coates, who was ahead of the curve, purchasing the domain on eBay for £19,000 at the turn of the millennium, has enjoyed unprecedented success as a result of getting on board with online gambling early on.

It was recently reported that Coates, the UK’s 16th richest individual, earns 500 times more than the average UK salary and has raked in more than half a billion pounds in the last two years alone. Elsewhere Betfred brothers Fred and Peter Done have amassed a combined fortune of £1.25 billion whilst Mark Scheinberg of PokerStars has cemented himself as the richest person on the Isle of Man with a net worth of over £4.8 billion.

The most noticeable change as a result of Blair’s ‘deregulation’ was an phenomenally sharp increase in the number of gambling adverts. So much so that a 2013 investigation by broadcast regulator Ofcom found the number of gambling adverts on television had increased by 600% since the Gambling Act was introduced. 

Public concern about the potential impact gambling ads were having on young people led to the industry eventually imposing a voluntary “whistle-to-whistle” ban on betting ads during sporting events last year, with further changes coming into place in June 2020 that sees 20% of all advertisements being dedicated to responsible gambling messages.

Can we expect widespread gambling reform in the UK any time soon? 

From 2010 onwards as online gambling boomed, a number of major gambling operators have run rampant as they’ve perfectly fine-tuned their player retention strategy thanks to attractive VIP schemes and savvy online marketing campaigns.

Unfortunately, this success has often led to greed and complacency with operators often being accused of putting profit ahead of their players…  Major operators including Ladbrokes Coral, 888, William Hill, Betfred, SkyBet, 32Red PaddyPower and LeoVegas have all been on the receiving end of landmark fines and punishments at the hands of the regulator for failings.

Of course, these failings have managed to catch the attention of lawmakers in the UK who have been calling for stronger action across the entire industry in the last few years.

50 prominent MPs from all sides of the political spectrum make up the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group. Together they have demanded the complete ban of gambling advertising and the reduction of stake limits online to £2 per spin, somewhat unrealistic changes that would completely undermine Blair’s fifteen year old Act, and likely lead to new legislation altogether in the not so distant future.

Whilst it’s unclear whether the All Party Parliamentary Group will find success with their pleas to drastically alter the gambling landscape, one thing is for sure, time is ticking on the 2005 Gambling Act as new light is shined upon gaping holes in the legislation.