Why Sunday trading laws must return after the Olympics

We must not surrender every vision we have of a good society to the market.

What was your first time like? Did you enjoy it? No doubt you were nervous but then so was everyone else there, so that presumably made it a bit more exciting. Yes, it was an exquisite moment, for which we all waited so many years: the annoying tannoy wasn’t heard, the doors weren’t locked, and everyone was free to stroll the aisles of Tesco long into the balmy Sunday evening.

When George Osborne announced the "temporary" suspension of Sunday trading laws during the Olympics, there were many, myself included, who thought that temporary was the odd word out in that sentence. Obviously, we shouldn’t prejudge the situation and obviously we have to wait till the figures come out but only the most witless of chancellors would fail to seize every opportunity to drag the nation from the precipice of a triple-dip recession.

No surprise, then, to see City AM editor Allister Heath argue that now is the moment to throw open the doors once and for all or, more substantially, Alex Deane on ConservativeHome making the same case for reasons of economic growth, fairness, personal choice, and employment.

There is much to question in both these arguments. Circumventing Heath’s argument from exaggeration and trivialisation ("contrary to what many killjoys have been predicting over the years, at the time of writing this article, society appeared to have survived") there is Deane’s contention that we need to liberalise the laws because "the British high street is struggling". This does not persuade: deregulating opening hours for out-of-town mega-stores is unlikely to help the high street. Similarly, his claim that "the current rules are unfair… [as] some retailers can remain open while others are forced to close" invites us to imagine that a playing field populated by handful of Gullivers and a myriad of Lilliputians is already, somehow, fair.

Comparably fantastic is Deane’s explanation that Sunday trading rules actually inhibit "family and community activity": "if consumers no longer had to build their weekend schedule around restrictive shopping hours, they would have greater flexibility to engage in a wide range of activities." Build their weekend schedule? Around the fact that they can’t visit Asda at 7pm on a Sunday evening?

The more serious argument is apparently the economic one, of which Heath says, "I have never actually seen a cost-benefit analysis that showed that there would be a negative impact from liberalising retail." Apparently, that is, because it is hard to imagine that either writer would revise their position if the figures showed that liberalisation had but a marginal economic impact. On the contrary, both are clear that there is, for want of a better word, a moral argument at play. "The government should not limit the options of how individuals and families spend their Sundays", writes Deane. "Why not permanently allow consenting adults to shop freely on Sundays?" asks Heath.

Beneath the relatively trivial question of whether a small number of large shops should be able to open for a few extra hours one evening a week, lurks one of the biggest ethical fault lines of our age. For those on one side of this divide, the phrase "consenting adults" acts like a universal acid on any ethical discourse: are they adult? Are they informed? Do they consent? Well, what’s your problem them?

For others, their problem is that "I want" is not a sufficient argument, even when hitched to the tattered, over-used and hopelessly vague harm principle. Most of us are unwilling to embrace the moral relativism that this kind of approach demands. Notions of the good invariably come into play, as even the hardiest of economic libertarians will recognise – witness Professor Michael Sandel asking John Redwood whether he was up for a free market in kidneys.

OK, so perhaps that isn’t the most objective description of this ethical fault line, but that is partly my point. In all serious questions of the just and the good, there is no neutral place to stand. Sunday trading laws come and, I fear, go. But the question beneath them will remain: are we really prepared to surrender every vision we have of a good society to the freedom and alleged fairness of the market?

Sunday trading laws have been suspended for eight weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”