Listening to the car radio last week, I happened to stumble on You and Yours. The question to be debated was “Should the relaxation of Sunday trading laws for the Olympics be made permanent?” I hadn’t actually realised that current Sunday trading laws restrict large shops from opening for more than six hours on Sundays or that this law has been relaxed for the eight-week period of the Olympics and Paralympics. There is now talk of the Government making this temporary relaxation permanent – hence the radio discussion.
This turned on two quite opposing points of view: those libertarians, affronted that there should be any restrictions on Sunday shopping, whose views were voiced by a chap called Robert Lloyd Griffiths of the Institute of Directors; and those arguing that Sunday should not become just another weekday, articulated by Mark Pritchard, Tory MP for the Wrekin. It struck me that this argument is rehearsed over and over again in other debates: whether to change the nature of marriage or leave it as it is; whether to let people eat, drink and smoke themselves to death if they choose, or try to stop them; whether to have censorship or not, and so on. As the phone-in radio programme reflected, those who hate any kind of restriction on their behaviour tend to think of themselves, while those arguing for laws and curbs on behaviour think more of the common good.
On the question, “Do we want Sunday to be like every other day of the week?” I instinctively respond, “No!” Libertarians would say that this is because I am a church-goer; why should my (very minority) interest affect their wish to be able to shop for as long as they wish on any day they choose? Reading about this question in the Telegraph, it is interesting to note that those opposed to unrestricted Sunday trading hours don’t generally mention religion or church-worship. They are the new agnostics, no doubt spurred on by watching the Olympics, who want Sunday to be different so that families can enjoy leisure time together, shop workers aren’t forced to go to work (to the detriment of their own family life) and more generally, so that the hectic pace of life is forced to slow down.
Apart from Pritchard himself, the two people on the radio who argued most eloquently to keep Sunday special were an English woman living in France and a woman who had lived in Holland. Neither were church-goers and the second woman even admitted: “I’m not a religious person, more of a shopaholic really.” The lady from France said “Sunday in France is heaven on earth”. Why? Because all large shops and supermarkets are shut, there are therefore no heavy lorries on the roads and small, specialist food shops can thus flourish without competition. The lady who had lived in Holland said that because all shops were shut (cafes are open) everyone knew it was a day for leisure purposes and families took advantage of this. Now back in England she wished it was more like Holland. A woman who phoned in from Scotland, where unrestricted trading is already in place, said she looked enviously south of the border.
Pritchard comments: “All of us deserve rest and that includes shop workers. As somebody who has worked in a shop on a Sunday, and not every Conservative MP has done that, I know there is a lot of pressure on workers to turn up.” Columnist Philip Johnston in the Telegraph admits to shopping at a Devon superstore recently on a Sunday; the girl at the checkout told him she wasn’t bothered about working until 6pm instead of 4pm “because Sunday is ruined in any case”. I sympathise with her; I don’t see the current six-hours opening law for large stores as the happy compromise it has been described; it still takes up most of the day. If I were in power I would bring in the Dutch system with a dash of the French: only corner shops open and lots of outdoor activities.
I went for a walk in our village yesterday and noticed several families out cycling together (the Chris Hoy/Victoria Pembleton effect?); others were dog-walking, picnicking or (mainly fathers and boys) fishing in a local pond. I know the sunshine helped but there was still a very pleasant Sunday feel to the day. The Rt Rev John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, warns: “The danger is that we turn into a 24/7 shopping society where the natural rhythms of life are gradually obliterated.” Dr Johnson understood all this. His resolutions for Sunday July 13 1752 included church-going and spiritual reading but also social visits and dining with friends. That sounds the right balance.