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Is Sunday special?

Is Sunday special?

Three years ago the Coalition government passed the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act. This temporarily de-regulated Sunday opening hours, with the aim of allowing shops to benefit from the Olympic trading boost. Was it the thin end of a wedge to finally abolish all controls on Sunday trading? No, said George Osborne, but “there might be lessons to be learnt”.

One lesson learnt was that you might be able to get measures like this through Parliament if you give them the right kind of cover. In 2012, it was the Olympics. In 2015, in measures announced in the post-election budget, it’s devolution. The consultation will close on Wednesday of this week – those inclined to respond can do so here, or find out more about the Keep Sunday Special Campaign here

Why the subterfuge? Well, this was the issue on which Thatcher was handed her only Parliamentary defeat on the Shops Bill of 1986 – and that by an alliance of traditionalist Tories and the Labour members, often behind Liberal MP David Alton. They joined a campaign which included the churches, unions and – let’s not forget a large number of small businesses. A similar coalition was not successful when Sunday trading was substantially de-regulated in 1994. The only remaining restriction is the opening times of larger stores (those over 280 m2) to a maximum of six hours. There is an opposite coalition of economic and social liberals for whom even this limited control is too much.

It is fairly obvious that there are millions of people who do shop on Sunday. So, on exactly what basis should they be prevented from doing so? There are lots of un-religious reasons, as per the broad coalition for the famous 1986 campaign.

First, it’s one of the few times when local corner/convenience stores hold any conceivable advantage over the big supermarkets, which for some years have not just sold food, but virtually everything you want to put your hands on, a few steps away from a free car park. Sunday trading restrictions are one of the few small measures which protect diverse high streets – something which this Coalition sought to support through the ‘Portas Review’. 

Second, the normalisation of Sunday has, without a doubt, had adverse effects on workers. Not only is there a potential loss of time for family – even for religious observance for those so inclined – but Sunday pay rates are disappearing also. Why should staff be paid more, it’s not as if you’re giving anything up by working on a Sunday?

Third, even in 2012 some large retailers expressed doubts about the benefits of extended hours – opening longer doesn’t mean that people have more money in their pocket. A longer day might just result in the same amount of spending with increased overheads. It’s hard to see how further liberalisation fits into the objective is a more productive, less debt-driven economy.

So no, Sunday trading controls are not yet another example of religious bossiness. I actually think the Sabbatarian argument for a day of rest and religious observance doesn’t have a strong New Testament justification (discuss). Jesus, of course, was actually rather lax on the issue of the observance of the Sabbath. 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” (John 5.17). The Jewish Sabbath (Friday evening – Saturday evening) and the ‘Lord’s Day’ (Sunday – preferred by Christians because of the day of Jesus’ resurrection) are actually quite different things. The one acknowledges God and humanity at rest, the other celebrates that God is at work, commemoration the resurrection of Jesus and the first day of a new creation.

I don’t think, though, that Christians should be ambivalent about the proposed changes. This has little to do with a 1950s-style Sabbatarianism, everything to do with the way in which the logic of the market will simply expand to fill its given space – an old challenge, but one which we’re experiencing in new ways.

In the past, the task was to humanise the economy by placing limits on the amount of work that could be demanded and from whom, and ensure that the worker received a fair share of the profits generated. Now, in a financial-sector-led, post-industrial economy, where industrial output is reported with less pathos than the number of barbecues bought during a major football tournament, the task is to protect the times and places where we are something other than potential consumers. In such an economy, there is precious little ‘rest’ (Sabbath in the Jewish sense) or time for celebration (Sabbath in the Christian sense). There’s only work and ‘leisure’ which, at best, is becoming synonymous with being entertained and, at worst, disappearing underneath an all-encompassing obligation to get out there and spend.

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. But to oppose the final deregulation of Sunday trading would not be join with those who want to constrain choice, but of those who think that an unrestrained market limits our human freedoms.

Or as Jesus would say to George, “the economy is made for people, not people for the economy”.

Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos. 

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Image by Gwydion M. Williams from under Creative Commons 2.0



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