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What’s so special about Sundays?

We should be free to do what we want on Sundays, not have our options limited to please preachy campaigners.

Tom Bailey

Topics Politics

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When the traditional Sunday trading laws were suspended in March, for both the Olympics and in an effort to promote economic growth, the measure was only supposed to be temporary. Now, however, government ministers are considering maintaining the suspension. UK prime minister David Cameron may still be cautiously skating around the issue, but the chancellor George Osborne and community minister Eric Pickles are pushing for the change to become permanent.

Sunday trading laws have gradually been relaxed over the years, going from when on Sundays, according to one Telegraph commentator, ‘the pubs were shut for much of the day – and entertainment consisted of watching Everton v Coventry City on ITV. And even Sunday football was then a relative novelty’, to a more relaxed situation whereby shops are only allowed to trade for a set number of hours.

There has been some opposition to the proposals, with campaigners citing reasons from protecting small local business, to protecting people’s ‘mental wellbeing’.

The restrictions on Sunday trading did not apply to small convenience stores, as they were allowed to remain open to give people the ability to purchasing essentials when all else was closed. The relaxation of the laws, it is claimed, will mean small local owned businesses will face an even greater challenge by the menacing superpowers of Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Maybe so, but for good reason. What this really means is, if people had the choice where to shop on a Sunday, they would choose the often-cheaper supermarket option with its greater variation in products. The replacement of small local business with large national, and then international businesses is nothing new. One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx described how the small local business ‘does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on’. The appeal to save traditional local business seems to reflect nothing other than contemporary fear and anguish over progress, which manifests itself in an irrational reverence of a simpler, mythical past where small shopkeepers and artisans sold fine produce.

Campaigners also call for trading laws will be preserved because it will allow people to pursue other activities on a Sunday. According to the campaign group Keep Sunday Special, the disappearance of Sunday will prevent people ‘getting together with others at church meetings, [or] playing football in the local league’, as well as spending time with families. But if the shops are open, the argument goes, people would opt to go shopping and engage in a bit of ‘conspicuous consumption’ instead. This, according to campaigners, is not the best way to spend a Sunday. As the public can not be trusted to make the ‘right’ choice about what to do with their day of rest, the state is need to preserve bans on Sunday trading.

Just as the fans of Sunday trading restrictions believe state legislation can make sure people pursue the correct activity on a Sunday such as going to church, playing for a local football team or volunteering in the local community (neither of which remotely appeal to me, thanks), they believe they can make sure people get their rest on a Sunday. According to Keep Sunday Special, ‘everyone needs to have a weekly, regular and shared day off’, and with the temptation or possibility to go to Oxford Street or put in some extra hours on a Sunday we won’t be able to. Apparently we need the state to legislate a nursery time nap time for us – you don’t have to sleep, you just can’t do anything else.

Unsurprisingly, the Keep Sunday Special campaign seems rather keen on the modern therapeutic culture of being concerned for everyone’s ‘mental wellbeing’. So, for example, Sunday shopping leaving less time for community activities which are ‘important for the mental and physical health of individuals in the community’, and we need a Sunday for rest as ‘work-related stress affects more than one in five people’.

What is perhaps most interesting about opposition to abandoning the Sunday trading laws is the deploying of very modern arguments, prejudices and fears in defence of what is essentially an old Christian tradition. Sunday is ‘special’, at least for Christians, because it was the Lord’s decreed day of rest. However, the closest Keep Sunday Special gets to making this traditional defence is that apparently employees may feel compelled to work Sundays, which may infringe upon their ability to attend their Sunday church service.

Rather than openly state that Sunday should be a day of rest as mandated by the bible, those in favour of Sunday trading restrictions would rather substitute this principled argument for arguments that play on modern-day secular prejudices and concerns of the day; fear of supermarkets dispossessing local business, people favouring consumerism over family or community time, and concern of the fragile population’s ‘mental wellbeing’.

Rather than Sunday being special because God told us so, Sunday is to be kept sacred because current restrictions force people to shop in the ‘right’ shops (that is, small, local and probably more expensive ones), and spend their free time in the ‘right’ way, rather than engaging in a bit of consumerism. All this of course is rather belittling – people should be able to choose to spend their Sundays however they wish, be it in Westfield shopping centre, sleeping off a hangover, going to the park with their kids, or praying in Church. People don’t need state legislation to make their decisions for them.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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Topics Politics

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