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Jesus v. George
20th March 2012
George Osborne suggested on Sunday that he would like to pass emergency legislation to lift Sunday trading legislation for the duration of the Olympics and Paralympics. He also wants to see how this Olympic moratorium on limited hours goes. There might be lessons to be learnt, he says. He’s a clever man, George. After all, there’s an election in a couple of years and a few hours extra trading every week for the next two years wouldn’t do the numbers any harm.
Memorably, this was the issue on which Thatcher was famously handed her only Parliamentary defeat – and that by a strange alliance of traditionalist Tories and the Labour Party, often behind Liberal MP David Alton. They joined a campaign which included the churches, unions and – let’s not forget – a good number of small businesses.
In the event of Osborne et. al. pushing for further permanent deregulation, would this alliance be reassembled? Sadly, I suspect that it would not. Labour’s increasingly uneasy relationship with the Unions makes it hard to see it taking up 'a workers’ cause' with gusto. More importantly, the Party is ever more socially liberal. Regulating trading hours feels slightly authoritarian (it is fairly obvious that there are millions of people who do shop on Sundays). Given the sharpness of the debate on gay marriage, there will be plenty of members who might be a bit nervous about joining a campaign tinged with religious rhetoric – just the latest chance for the churches to try and dictate what people should and shouldn’t be doing, only this time with Labour’s help?
Jesus, of course, was actually rather lax on the issue of the observance of the Jewish Sabbath. More than that, the Gospels have him scandalising his contemporaries by performing healings and allowing his disciples to pick ears of corn. In Hebrew, Sabbath simply means 'stop' – it is a practice founded on the view that on the seventh day of creation God did exactly that, and human beings should do likewise. After one of these Sabbath day controversies, Jesus insisted "My Father is always at his work to this very day.” The Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and the Christian ‘Lord’s Day’ (Sunday – gradually preferred because of the resurrection) are actually quite different things. The one celebrates God and humanity at rest, the other that God is at work.
So what’s the problem? Broadly, I think that most Christians take a relaxed view on the matter as it stands. It’s still oddly embarrassing when you run into one of your co-religionists in ASDA after the service, but nothing more (unless you happen to be reading this in the Western Isles). But churches are increasingly sensitive to the hyper-marketisation of life, where there is simply no limit to the demand on people to work, and when they’re not working, to buy. The home is no longer a refuge, since through incessant advertising, TV product placement and constant internet access we are exposed to the dark arts of marketers even when at rest. Leisure, at best, is becoming synonymous with being entertained and, at worst, disappearing underneath the wall to wall task of consumption.
Generally, I think that life before de-regulation of Sunday trading was both a little harder (if a moderate level of inconvenience can be called hard), but better. Put it this way, I can remember a time when there was absolutely no prospect of ending up in a supermarket, which for a child was not at all unhappy. But this is not a Monty Python-esque ‘back in my day’ argument. There are three fundamental problems with deregulation, any of which would be a persuasive argument against:
First, there’s the hundreds of thousands of shop workers who’ll be obliged to work longer hours. We’re not talking about Christians – though even they have had little success when they have sought in the courts to be allowed not to work on Sundays – but the vast majority of hard working people who want time off on a Sunday to spend with friends and family. All parties are rhetorically supportive of 'hard working families', but one tangible benefit they could be afforded even in straightened economic times, is the possibility of a shared day off.
Second, our economy has changed fundamentally since Thatcher’s attempt to de-regulate Sunday trading. I had understood that the general consensus was that these changes have not been universally beneficial. Industrial output is reported with less pathos than the number of barbecues bought during a major football tournament, or sales of unwanted gifts at Christmas. That’s the problem, isn’t it? The consumption-led model is looking decidedly knackered. There’s only so much money to be squeezed out of stagnant wages packets in a stagnant economy. Or perhaps George wants to force consumers back into the arms of cheap and not-so-cheap credit? If that’s what higher consumer confidence means, who needs it?
Third, it’s about the kind of society we want. Remember the Big Society? Presuming the Conservative Party is still hitched to that train (and I don’t think it’s a vision without merit) then you need people with time, energy, spirit and a cause. Right now, all of these are in short supply.
It's de rigueur to frown on any attempt to 'restrict choice' - mainly because choice is treated as the highest good, even above the freedom which it points to. An alliance against deregulation of Sunday trading would not be alliance of those who want to constrain choice, but of those who think that the markets might impose limits on freedoms, and thus should be regulated.
Or, as Jesus would say to George, “the economy is made for people, not people for the economy”.
Paul Bickley | Photo from HM Treasury