I’ve talked before here about how I think that business needs effective and appropriate regulation and restriction in order to protect people and have a positive impact on society. But as it’s Easter Sunday, one of two special days in the UK where all shops that are bigger than 3014 square feet are legally banned from opening their doors, then I thought I would write specifically about a piece of regulation that I think we need to be without. This is all topical right now, not just because it is Easter Sunday, but also because our government has announced its intention to suspend The Sunday Trading Act during the London Olympics which has caused quite a storm.
A brief history of Sunday trading in England
The Shops Act 1950 started the restriction of buying and selling of goods and made it illegal to sell most goods on a Sunday. 36 years later, it was nearly repealed by The Shops Act 1986 which would have ended legal regulation of Sunday trading and left it for shops to decide, but the bill was defeated at its second reading in the House of Commons.
Eight years later, a compromise was reached with The Sunday Trading Act 1994 which allows shops to open, but restricting opening times of larger stores (over 3,014 sq ft) to a maximum of six hours, between 10am and 6pm only.
In Scotland, shop opening hours have been deregulated for longer, and workers’ rights to not have to work Sundays are protected by separate legislation.
Is shopping every day a good thing? No, it’s not.
The keystone of the movement to keep shop hours regulated on a Sunday is that Sundays should be kept special. Actually I don’t really disagree with this. I think if you spend every day of your life shopping you’ll end up exhausted and will lose out on some really important things in life such as parks, exercise, family and friends. I often refuse to go into the West End or shopping at all because I’ve already done it two weekends on the trot and I don’t want “that sort of a weekend again”.
But whilst I think it’s important to have balance in my life, and I would suggest to anyone who asked me that I think shopping every day is a bad thing, I don’t think it is the place of the state to enshrine a particular day in law that is reserved for the nation simultaneously to have their shopping rationed. And that is where I think this issue is important - it’s not about shopping, it’s about freedom and what is appropriate for a state to control.
If I was to describe the role of the state using the Two Things principle, then I think it is:
- To protect the vulnerable in our society and those without a voice, helping them to become less vulnerable where possible and find a voice where they can.
- To protect our future from our present - i.e. to prevent short term benefits from creating long term problems, as we could see if short term profits were made with long term environmental impacts, for example.
But as I said, it’s not because of consumer choice, that we need to repeal The Sunday Trading Act, it’s about freedom. I just don’t believe it is right for the state to restrict something without good reason. Whether you personally want to shop on a Sunday, or think others should, or think others even want to, I don’t believe the state should be involved in restricting things that do not cause significant harm to those unable to stand up for themselves.
The Keep Sunday Special campaign
There is an emotive campaign by the Keep Sunday Special group that uses many surveys and statistics to demonstrate that Sunday trading is undesirable. But when you really look at them, they don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. Here are the first three that I noticed on their website:
“71% of people say that they would not be bothered much or at all if all shops were closed on a Sunday”. Well that’s fine then, if there is no demand the shops won’t need to open and if they do, the 71% who are not bothered won’t need to go. A claimed lack of demand (which I am certain is over-stated) does not mean the state should ban something.
“Almost half of people surveyed thought shopping on a Sunday could add to overall weekend stress”. I could’t agree more! I think shopping on most days adds to stress. But that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed and made illegal or restricted in any way by law. I’m an adult and it’s for me to manage my shopping habits and my stress levels. I often go a whole weekend or even weeks without going shopping - I don’t need the state to protect me from myself by making it illegal on one day a week.
“87% of people thought it important for family stability and community life to have a common day off each week”. This is complicated - and its applicability to the Sunday trading argument assumes that everyone works in retail, and that people outside of retail don’t work on Sundays - neither of which is true. The entire service industry is working their nuts off on a Sunday as everyone piles in to hotels, restaurants and cafes for lunch and snacks. Many call centres and other office locations are open on Sundays. And stores are open on Sundays already (except for Easter and Christmas Day) so that does’t really wash.
Ultimately I think the arguments of the Keep Sunday Special campaign reflect accurately the selfish arguments of their biggest supporters. The Christian religious right want to keep their particular hold day holy - not just for themselves, but for everyone. Which I just don’t see fitting in multicultural, multi-ethnicity Britain. Everyone should have the right to have their own religious preferences and have them respected, but they should not force them on others - that is a foundation of a free, respectful society.
The other strong force in this seems to come from USDAW, the union for shop workers. They are there to protect the rights of their members, but I suspect are looking for a hobby horse to jump on to demonstrate their value to their members, rather than really contributing something useful to society as a whole. Will they have done their job in protecting their members when their members lose their jobs because the shop has closed and people are buying online? High street retail is already under enough pressure from the structural change brought on by internet shopping that it does not need its hands tied further by law. Store owners and their customers should be the ones to decide, not the government.
This is about freedom, not shopping. Freedom to choose.
Campaigners against the suspension of The Sunday Trading Act during the Olympics are worried that it will be the precursor to a wider relaxation of the laws and in time, that we might end up like the lawless Scotland where they allow shops and consumers to make their own minds up on when to open and when to go shopping (how daring). They think it will erode the fabric of family life that they are trying so hard to promote. And that’s where I get cross - it’s the thought that a group of people are using the law of the country that I live in, to tell me what “family life” should look like and how I should spend it. My family life is not the same as theirs, and not the same as yours. We should all have the freedom to define our own view of family life as fits us, as long as it does not impinge unduly on the rights of others to enjoy theirs. This sort of regulation is the enemy of freedom and tolerance.
I’m happy for any group to talk, promote and discuss whatever they want and share whatever is their view of a good family life. But not to restrict my freedom, or the freedom of a society as a whole to fit in with their particular viewpoint. And that is why The Sunday Trading Act should be repealed - because it is a compromise that is wrong.
Erosion of freedom always comes in small steps, and for seemingly good reasons. That is why it must be challenged.
If you have 5 more minutes, I would urge you to read a Guardian article called “How the US uses sexual humiliation as a political tool to control the masses”, it’s a fascinating and frightening article about the limitations on freedom that we accept and endure for what we think of as reasonable reasons. Many people have fought for freedom, but we need to remember it is fragile and must be protected against constant incursion.