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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.