A Budget blow to the "big society"

Osborne's relaxation of Sunday trading laws continues the hyper-marketisation of life.

There is general consensus that the deregulation of Sunday trading around the Olympics is a dry run for the real thing.

When the figures roll in some time early in the autumn and it is shown that an extra x-million pounds were taken in those precious Sunday evenings, the Chancellor will step forward to tell us that we need to marshal all the forces we can to reinvigorate the economy and that the summer experiment showed this was one way of doing it and that in any case it isn't the government's business to tell people when they can and can't go shopping and... well, the conclusion writes itself.

When scholars come to write the history of our time, they should take note of the fact that the 25 year assault on Sunday trading legislation came exclusively from "Conservative" governments. From Thatcher's 1986 Shops Bill, through the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, to this year's efforts, it is Tories who have repeatedly brought the moneylenders back into the Temple.

Ranked against them has been one of the oddest coalitions of recent political history, including Christians, Trades Unions, small business, and old school Tories, achieving a remarkable success in 1986 but firmly on the back foot since then.

The fact that Conservatives can be found on both sides of this argument is indicative of the division that has dogged the Tory party for many years now, for which Sunday trading is merely a cipher. On the one hand, are the "One Nation" Conservatives, for want of a better term, who believe that cultural constraints, both written and unwritten, are essential to any society worth the name. On the other are the neo-liberals, for whom individual freedom and choice are totemic and to be prioritised irrespective of the wider social cost.

The division runs through today's Tory party as it has every one since the '70s. The difference now is that the present Prime Minister has made a "One Nation" style policy, "the big society", his stated political ambition, which means that, theoretically, it is the neo-liberals who should be on the back foot. Or not, it appears.

The brute fact is that if you genuinely want a "big society", in which people seriously invest in their neighbourhoods, they need time and energy to do so. And the hyper-marketisation of life - in which millions are required to work on Sundays, there is no area of our lives immune to consumerism, and independent, local businesses that bind communities together are further put under pressure by multinationals for whom Sunday trading presents no problem - in which, in short, there is no opportunity to stop and collectively draw breath - drains us of that time and energy.

It would be daft to read in this little spat over (even more) Sunday trading the epitaph for the big society. But it would be foolish to ignore its implications. No epitaph, maybe, but perhaps another letter chiselled on its headstone.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.