The lost weekend

Most Sundays no longer feel special now that shops stay open.

In 1994, after 26 previous attempts to relax our Sunday trading laws, the Sunday Trading Act was passed. This decreed that shops of more than 280 square metres could open for six hours. I paid little heed at the time to the hand-raising and polemic that surrounded the decision. Eventually, the stillness usually associated with Sundays dissipated, and every shopping day rolled into one. The sad thing is that, it all happened so slowly, I barely noticed. And I was too busy shopping to care.

John Lewis was one of the few shops to resist Sunday trading, but even it eventually gave in, starting from 1996 with its Cheadle branch. The flagship Oxford Street store held out until October 2003. Last summer, the Department of Trade and Industry rejected calls from other large shops to further extend the hours they could open.

When I was a young child, before my mother and father started their own business, which meant working 363 days a year, we would go to church on Sunday, then my mother would rush home to finish the roast and my father would take us to Kensington Gardens to play on the swings. On the way home, he would buy a block of raspberry ripple ice cream for after lunch, and two copies of Teddy Bear magazine (necessary because my sister would not let me share hers). As we walked down Queensway, all the shops would be shut, save for Bobby's (the newsagent), where the aforementioned treats were sold. Sunday was an exciting and special day simply because not very much happened.

I was reminded of this feeling, which I'd quite forgotten, when last Sunday I strolled, with my daughter in hand, down the rather long high street in the Suffolk village of Long Melford. There were no chains there, just one intriguing little shop after another - the best of which was Lady Jane's Department Store, housed in a rather handsome Georgian building. Through the windows, I could see merchandise that I couldn't get closer to, inspect or buy. This happened in shop after shop, and everything looked all the more enticing and intriguing because I didn't have instant access to it. As I pressed my nose up against the glass, I realised that, having lived in London all my life, I hadn't needed to press my nose up against a shop window for a very long time. I felt sad.

There was something so self-possessed about all those shut shops. They weren't all pleasing. And much as they no doubt needed custom, they need rest - and need it more - at least one day a week.

One of the things I love about Christmas is the collective slowing down, that feeling almost of bunking off from life. No one else does very much, so you feel you can switch off, too. It's a little pit stop in a big year of action.

I now realise, too late, of course, that this was what I loved about Sundays. They were like Christmas every week.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.