Back in 2012 when it was announced that Sunday trading laws would be relaxed during the London Olympics, voices from the Church of England along with various others raised the concern that this was the first step to them being permanently scrapped. It was particularly understandable given that George Osborne refused to rule this out as an option.
As it turned out, any boost to retailers as a result of the change was inconclusive: overall retail sales fell during the Olympics. So, afterwards, everything went back to how it was, and all those who were opposed to permanent changes breathed a sigh of relief. All went quiet on the subject, and that has remained the case even as recently as April of this year when a letter on behalf of David Cameron was written to the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which gave an assurance that the government had no plans to relax the Sunday trading laws.
As we now know, George Osborne has other plans, and those who were making predictions back in 2012 have been proved right. He may be attempting to deflect accusations of government backtracking by promising to devolve the issue to local councils and mayors, but Osborne has made his opinion on the matter quite apparent: “Even two decades on from the introduction of the Sunday Trading Act, it is clear that that there is still a growing appetite for shopping on a Sunday,” he explained.
Well, that’s alright then. But let’s imagine that over the last couple of decades there might just have been a growing appetite amongst teenagers to view porn. Does that mean the government should be encouraging that, too?
But let’s lay down the morality of such a change for a moment. Surely, no one can argue with the research that the Chancellor cited, which forecasts that extending Sunday trading by two hours in London alone would generate 3000 jobs and more than £200 million a year in extra income. It would, of course, bring in more money, because we are all so addicted to shopping that we’d be using those extra 120 minutes to spend even more than we do now. Cosmopolitan is working itself into a frenzy at the thought of extended shopping sprees, so it must undoubtedly be a good thing.
And just in case anyone is still foolish enough to be harking back to a time when Sundays were seen to be special, Anna Soubry, Minister for Small Business, has kindly thrown those idyllic thoughts out of the window. On Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday, she reminded listeners of a certain age that “We are of that generation where Sunday, truthfully, was the most miserable day of the week. The only thing to look forward to was ‘Sing Something Simple’ on the radio. Goodness me, if that didn’t sum up a miserable Sunday.”
Wow. Things really were unbelievably bad before we could all shop on a Sunday.
Now, compared to the £12 billion of welfare cuts that will give journalists enough material to keep them going for the next fortnight, a few extra hours to go shopping on a Sunday might seem trivial. But it actually says a great deal about what we consider important as a society. The flaw with George Osborne’s approach is that it all revolves around money and perceived financial benefits. How much more will it generate for the national economy? Regarding Sunday as a day to be set apart and treated with a greater level of respect in the Chancellor’s eyes just doesn’t make financial sense. Any pandering to Judaeo-Christian values cannot be considered if it hinders the opportunity to improve our GDP.
But you can’t get away from the fact that we are a country with a deep Christian heritage, and many people, even if they like the convenience of being able to pop to the shops, still see Sunday as special, irrespective of any religious beliefs they may have. This is the case for many retailers, too. Asda and Morrisons may be pressing for the Government to change the law, but Tesco, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis support the current restrictions. And last August, when ICM asked if it was important to provide legal protection for people who don’t want to work on Sundays, should Sunday opening hours be extended, 73 per cent of respondents said ‘yes’, with only 8 per cent disagreeing.
Anna Soubry might not enjoy Sundays, but perhaps she just needs to try harder. There are plenty of people who make the most of Sunday, using it as a sabbath to have some guaranteed family time, do sports, go for walks, potter about in the garden, or – if they want to be really radical – go to church. Not being able to shop all day forces us to use the time in other, hopefully more beneficial ways. Life is busy enough as it is. Having a few hours a week set aside from consumerism is surely no bad thing.
Arguments about how the Sabbath should be spent are nothing new, of course. God revealed the concept in the second verse of the second chapter of the first book of the Bible, and He then reinforced its importance by sticking it in the Ten Commandments. Centuries later, the religious authorities had become so obsessed with it that rather than seeing it as a blessing which ensures we get enough rest, they stripped it of its human and spiritual dimension, turning it into an oppressive form of legalism. When Jesus came along, He went about railing against these restrictions. During one verbal altercation with some Pharisees, He came out with the famous saying: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath‘ (Mk 2:27). The Sabbath was created for our benefit; not to subjugate us and hold us to ransom.
In a similar way, Jesus could just easily have said that the markets are made for man, not man for the markets. George Osborne is offering us a vision of Sunday where money governs the actions of man, and there is no place or time to escape from boosting the economy. If we cannot afford ourselves such a luxury, then we will have sold ourselves as slaves to a belief that our humanity is more about the generation of wealth and consumption of material goods than it is about relationships, freedom and well-being. Is this really the vacuous, soulless life we want to create for ourselves?