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Sunday, Bloodied Sunday

What are people so afraid of in life that they cannot cope without wall to wall shopping to soothe them?

Government proposals to extend Sunday trading announced in the 2015 Budget are a dispiriting commentary on modern values. Laws enacted in 1994 restricted larger shops to six hours of trade and have already had the effect of reducing the one distinctive day of the week to the character of the other six, but it seems this is not enough. The plan is to give to elected mayors and local councils the power to relax laws if it might boost economic activity.

In the late 1980s, as larger shops began to disregard the law against Sunday trading in large numbers, central government refused to enforce legislation by repeating the mantra that it was for local councils to prosecute law-breakers. As these councils patently lacked the finances to take on the lawyers of large retailers, it meant that shops traded with impunity long before the law was changed. This suited the government of the time, which was committed to Sunday trading not just because large shops wanted it, but because it fitted an ideology of deregulation as the only means to free society up.

In a way, then, the suggestion it be left to local councils to make the decision over longer opening has a retro feel to it. The trouble is, no council is going to hold the existing line if a neighbouring one chooses to relax opening hours. The government knows this, but can wash its hands of the outcome.

The Small Business Minister, Anna Souby, in comments so redolent of the 1980s that she might have been sporting shoulder pads, a large perm and listening to Tainted Love, said that Sunday was the most ‘miserable’ day of the week and that it is ‘a myth that families came together on the day of rest’. Meantime, life has moved on. In the 1980s, it was rare to find any media commentator willing to support restrictions on Sunday trading but this latest announcement has been greeted gloomily in many places.

Writing in the Times, Tim Montgomerie asked about the social cost of people being taken away from their friends and families on Sundays to work, just so others can spend a few more hours buying stuff the don’t need with money they don’t have. In the same newspaper, Carol Midgley, noting that MPs have the whole summer to spend with their families, asked people to see the impact on the growing number of shift workers who are finding it harder to create shared space with those they care about. Rachel Cooke of the Observer called for space to breathe and think. Britons have ‘lost the very particular boredom that comes with unplanned, expansive time – the ‘sloth’ that once came as standard to us all at least one day a week’.

Each commentator has identified notable changes to the way we live – speed, dislocation, stimulation - which were remedied by one day a week with a difference; one with the capacity to re-boot us for the week ahead. This is a day which those with a heart for the Judeo-Christian tradition cherish; the gift of a day to the world to unburden people of an unremitting, slavish way of life. What are those who call for full-on activity so afraid of in life that they cannot cope without wall to wall shopping to soothe them?

George Osborn’s Treasury points to research by the New West End Company that suggests two extra hours of Sunday trading could create almost three thousand jobs and generate more than £200 million more in additional sales. Are the economic gains to be had the only account we can make of a good society now? Social costs are remaindered as numbers which do not fit, cannot be quantified and so can safely be ignored. The reduction to a crude form of ‘economism’, where the only grown up debate allowed seems to be over the financial bottom line, is a sign of our era. If a social good cannot be measured on a balance sheet it is deemed not to exist.

As Oscar Wilde put into the mouth of one of his characters, a cynic is ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. If so, it seems we are living in cynical times.



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