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.