What was the only Government Bill defeated at Second Reading under Margaret Thatcher? The answer is nothing to do with the poll tax or Europe or even Keynesian economics. It was her Bill to abolish the Sunday trading laws – introduced when her powers were at their zenith in 1986.
No fewer than 72 Conservative backbenchers rebelled – enough to annul her three figure majority and defeat the Bill by 14 votes. Thirty years later, it was Tory MPs once again who saw off an attempt by George Osborne to liberalise the laws by leaving decisions in the hands of local authorities.
So Boris Johnson will be chancing his Parliamentary arm if he seeks temporarily to suspend the laws, cautiously relaxed in 1994, in order to boost English and Welsh economic growth as the Coronavirus recedes. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own arrangements, the former having no Sunday trading restrictions at all.)
There is reason for those Conservative backbenchers taking the view that they did, and the heart of it lies in the tensions between two fundamentals of the centre-right: the free market and the nation state. By way of analogy, here are two illustrations.
First, the two minute silence each year on November 11. We do not each choose when we observe it, picking whatever moment during the year that suits us. Instead, we honour it together as a collective obligation, in memory of those who died during two world wars.
Second, and more happily, Christmas Day. Again, we do not each pick our own day of the year to enjoy this Bank Holiday. Instead, we celebrate it at the same time. Although it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, its fundamental purpose is less religious than recreational: to pause normal life near the winter solstice. It is a more exact parallel because shop closures on December 25 are enforced by law.
The Sunday trading restrictions are driven by the same logic: that we are a country as well as individuals, and that we gain from protecting the natural flow of life between work and leisure. Again, the original justification for keeping Sunday special was religious. But there is nothing inherently faith-based about it: rather, institutional religion, in the form originally of Judaism, wrapped the Sabbatarian impulse in the clothing of a divine commandment.
It will be said that plenty of people work on Sunday as it is. Certainly, some will toil today in factories and offices. As others are doing at home, including the writer of this editorial. The shops are open anyway for a large slice of the day, in most of the country, and Scotland survives happily enough without closing its own. All of this is true, but misses the essential point.
Which is that the law helps to preserve the unique character of Sunday, and the pause for rest, family life and recreation which goes with it; the recognition that we work to live, not live to work (or should do). The impulse to protect it is felt strongly in this Conservative home – ConservativeHome.
Home, not work, is where the heart it is, and it’s no coincidence that the founder of this site, Tim Montgomerie, didn’t call our site ConservativeWork. None the less, the issue shows up the differences among conservatives, both with a small and a capital C.
The Conservative Party’s full title is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and those unionists were originally liberal ones: the Party is, if you like, a coalition of conservatives and liberals – in the old-fashioned sense of that last word. Its electoral potency is derived from that fact.
The liberal strain prioritises the freedom of the individual and the strictly Tory strain, which stresses the role of institutions in shaping those individuals in the first place, our common interest as citizens. So in this case. Tories would add: what about freedom of shopworkers to choose their hours? Would a change in the law truly honour it?
The possibility of temporarily relaxing the Sunday trading laws has clearly been floated to test reaction among Conservative MPs. (It was raised with the big supermarkets earlier during this crisis. They didn’t favour easing restrictions at that stage because of doubts about the availability of enough workers to staff the stores.)
There is a precedent. The laws were suspended during the Olympics, and their lifting defied the usual rule, which we suspect applies to the recent waiving of the law that bars home abortions: namely, that nothing is so permanent as the temporary.
So Tory MPs should keep their eyes and ears open. If their judgement is that a suspension really would be no more than just that, there’s a good case for voting for the law to be paused. The economy is going to need all the growth it can get.
But backbenchers are shrewd at sniffing out Ministerial intent, and it is vital to safeguard the Sunday status quo, with its pluses for families, mental health and wellbeing. After all, Britain isn’t just a market with a flag on top, for all our talk of people and nations. Between work and home lies the third part of what makes us human: civil society.