On November 11 each year, we stop working – many of us, at any rate, however briefly. We do so to remember those who died in two World Wars, especially members of our armed forces, and those who have perished in conflict since. This habit recognises that we are not only consumers but citizens, with values that include choice but are not confined to it. The men who died for their country in the mud of the Somme in 1916 or above the skies of Kent in 1940 did not choose to be British. They simply felt themselves to be so, and were prepared to sacrifice their lives in consequence.
This is the right place to start thinking about George Osborne’s plan further to ease restrictions on Sunday trading: that’s to say, with an acknowledgement that a country is more than a mass of individuals and that life is about more than work. The question that follows from this way of thinking is: should government encourage a collective day of rest once a week, using the law as a tool if necessary? People will answer it in different ways, which is just as it should be – but it is the right place to start. Assuming instead that life is a market – no more or less – is the wrong one.
So should the law guard a weekly day off work? Some say that because Britain has a Christian heritage it should keep Sunday special, but this is to look at the custom through the wrong end of the telescope. Observing a common day of rest pre-dates Christianity, which shifted the Jewish sabbath to the day of resurrection. And while some believe that both came about simply because God wants it so, a more persuasive explanation is that there are natural rhythms in life: summer succeeds winter, waking follows sleep, and leisure balances work – reminding us that we work to live, not live to work.
Indeed, leisure is the complement of work, just as idleness is its opposite. And the point of observing leisure as a collective – the making of time for family, friends and recreation – was to safeguard it for the individual: after all, you can’t be pressured into working for seven days if everyone rests together on one of them. True, that agriculture-based world is long gone. In modern times, some people work on Sundays, and have been doing so for a long time. Margaret Thatcher tried to ease restrictions on Sunday trading, and Tony Blair succeeded in doing so. Now the Chancellor wants to go further.
Osborne is a social as well as economic liberal – as his anti-single earner family childcare policy indicates – who believes that more Sunday trading will mean more economic growth. Perhaps he is right, although the big supermarkets would feel more of the benefit than small shopkeepers. But this only returns us to where we started. Just as consumption isn’t everything, so growth isn’t everything. We could doubtless get faster growth by enrolling children in the labour force, concreting villages by cental diktat, pouring toxins into rivers or abandoning immigration controls. But we don’t – and rightly.
In short, the choice here looks like a classic standard-of-living versus quality-of-life trade off. In this case, Conservatives should be for quality of life. Britain’s family breakdown rates are high. There is an economic cost: the taxpayer may be shelling out north of £100 billion year to pay for the consequences And there is a social cost, too: our children are among the unhappiest in the world. Fewer restrictions on Sunday trading will further cramp family life. A parent at work can’t talk to his or her partner at home (assuming he has one), read to his children or visit his own parents and relatives.
Increasingly, we live amidst a Lonely Crowd, as Jeremy Hunt reminded readers of this site last week. Those who have the social capital to cope should not wave away those who may not – and are coping less well – while mouthing slogans about choice as catch-all get-outs. As we have seen, there is more to life than choice – which would be compromised in this case, in any event. USDAW is right to fear that while the letter of the law might protect shop workers, the way of the world works rather differently: bad employers can find ways of bringing pressure to bear.
The Chancellor apparently wants decisions about Sunday trading to be devolved to local authorities. This might appease localist sensibility, but it wouldn’t make economic sense – at least, if his main aim is simply to go for maximum growth. During the General Election, the Party said that it had “no current plans to relax Sunday trading laws”. Tearing up the present settlement may be consistent with the words of that statement, but it is at odds with its spirit, or at least its clear purpose. The Government has enough battles to fight with picking this one, especially with a majority of only 12.