Andrew Vine: How doing the lottery paid off for whole nation

I SHALL have a modest flutter 
on the National Lottery tomorrow night as it marks its 20th anniversary, as much for a laugh at my own expense as any other reason.

Two decades ago, in common with about 35m other people, I went through the novel business of buying a ticket for the very first draw, studying the pink slip of paper after it whirred out the machine, with its six numbers made up of birthdays and anniversaries.

And then in common with about 25m other people, I sat down in front of the television to watch two of the biggest stars of the day, Noel Edmonds and Anthea Turner, introduce the show.

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The prize fund was an unheard-of £7m, an immense sum that dwarfed the jackpots of the then national weekly bet, the football pools. Six numbers could change somebody’s life overnight.

The drum with the numbered balls began to spin. Out came the first one. Got it. Then the second. Got that one too. And then the third. I don’t believe this. Got that as well.

I started to perspire and have palpitations. The big finger pointing out of the sky in the adverts as a voice intoned “It could be you” was plainly coming in my direction. A fortune was about to fall into my lap and a new, glamorous life beckoned, thanks to my faith in six numbers that meant much to me.

Since this is being written in the spare room of a very modest house in Leeds with a mug of tea to hand, and not on the sun deck of an ocean-going yacht in the Bahamas with a cocktail, you can guess the rest.

Whoever the big finger was pointing at, it wasn’t me. Those three numbers were all I got. I should have known better than to let fantasies of suddenly becoming super-rich engulf me, not least because as the first draw approached, mathematicians had pointed out that the chance of winning the jackpot was about as likely as being struck by lightning.

Still, receiving a £10 note for getting three numbers from the same newsagent who had sold me the ticket felt very good indeed, and served to remind that small pieces of good luck brighten lives, whilst massive windfalls can wreck them.

But fantasies have kept the Lotto, as it is now known, fresh and a lure for the public for its 20 years.

Yet it’s not ridiculous fantasies about buying yachts and Maseratis, or the means to tell the boss what to do with his job that continue to tempt millions of people to shell out a couple of pounds, but more modest hopes and dreams.

The chances are that the public continues to pick six numbers in the hope not of throwing away all that is familiar in favour of extravagant spending for the sake of it, but because of the wish for their lives to become that much more comfortable.

Pay off the mortgage, help the children onto the housing
ladder, have the security that there will be enough money in retirement, swap the car for a newer model, trade up to a nicer resort for the annual two-week holiday – these are the dreams of the millions who still play every week.

The lottery has produced any number of modern-day morality fables of lives turned upside down by fortunes descending
on people who haven’t the faintest clue what to do with the money.

But for all that, it has been a benign presence in our national life. For every jackpot winner who has been suffocated by the riches they thought would liberate them, there have been countless other winners – big or more modest – whose lives have run much more happily as a result.

Better than that, though, is that the lottery has done a power of good for the whole country. The £32bn poured into deserving causes over 20 years would be justification for it alone.

The few pounds staked every week by hopeful punters have aided the work of charities and voluntary groups in helping those in need. Up and down
the country, sports clubs that that help young and old alike might still be changing in draughty huts or cars instead
of proper pavilions with hot water and showers without the lottery.

Our heritage has benefited too. There are historic buildings that might have crumbled into ruin without the funds provided to preserve them, and that work has helped to foster an increased awareness of the importance of cherishing jewels of the past for future generations.

The fears aired at the time the lottery was launched 20 years ago that it would turn Britain into a nation of gambling addicts have proved unfounded.

So a happy birthday to it, and many more to come, because it has much good work yet to fund. It could still be you, even if it most probably won’t be. And at least when it isn’t, that wasted couple of pounds might help transform somebody else’s life for the better.