When the right-wing Archbishop Cranmer blog lines up right alongside The Guardian, USDAW, several Labour leadership candidates and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady one knows something has gone awry. In this case, it is George Osbourne’s latest plan to extend the Sunday trading laws. It seems left and right, Christian and non-Christian alike believe the move to be less than excellent.
First, lest we forget, let’s remember that the government introduced a short-term measure to extend the Sunday trading laws for the duration of the London Olympics. As Gillan Scott remembers well, “voices from the Church of England along with various others raised the concern that this was the first step to them being permanently scrapped.” Nonetheless, a response was sent as recently as April to the Keep Sunday Special campaign assuring them that the government had no plans to extend the Sunday trading laws. To be precise:
I am writing on behalf of the Prime Minister… I can assure you we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws. We believe the current system provides a reasonable balance between those who wish to see more opportunity to shop at large stores on a Sunday, and those who would like to see further restrictions. (Abigail Green, Political Correspondence Manager, letter dated 20th April 2015).
Given such assurances, it seems odd that the extension of Sunday trading laws are now being mooted once again, this time on a permanent basis, by George Osbourne. I wouldn’t quite want to say the quoted letter represents a lie but it does rather suggest assurances from the office of Prime Minister aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Certainly it is an assurance that is hard to square with Osbourne’s new proposal and his comment that “Even two decades on from the introduction of the Sunday Trading Act, it is clear that that there is still a growing appetite for shopping on a Sunday”.
So what if shops open up a bit longer on a Sunday? Let’s be clear why this represents an issue. The issue is not primarily one of faith. Traditional sabbatarians are perfectly able to keep the Sabbath themselves (i.e. not using shops and services on a Sunday that cause others to work) without restricting the freedom of others to do so if they wish. Moreover, as outlined here, there is no particular reason to tie the Sabbath command to Sunday and thus it is possible to have a day of rest another time in the week. So, if not an issue primarily revolving around sabbatarianism, why does this represent a problem? There are three basic reasons.
First, it is detrimental to the families of shop workers. Though it is possible for shop workers to have another ‘day of rest’ in lieu of Sunday, it is often not possible for them to have any time with their families on any other day. Saturday and Sunday used to afford families time together. Traditionally, Saturday was nuclear-family time whilst Sunday was church-family time. Weekend opening has been in force for decades and Sunday trading possible since 1994. Children are on ever-increasing schedules of extra-curricular clubs, additional tutoring and nightly homework with parents faring little better. Sunday used to be a time for families to relax before beginning the hectic weekly routine. Sunday trading already eats into such family time and extending it further can only make matters worse.
Second, it is detrimental to Christian workers. Though there is no scripture command for us to meet together on Sunday (see here), this has traditionally been the day Christian churches meet. Moreover, despite being free to meet on any other day of the week, it is clearly the case that the majority of people enjoy weekends off and thus Sunday becomes a good day for most to meet. Sunday trading laws make it particularly difficult for Christian shop workers, and even some of those in higher managerial positions in the retail sector, to meet with other believers. Though we are free to meet on any given day, Christians are still commanded to not “neglect our meeting together” (Heb 10:25). As most churches meet on Sunday, the trading laws make this nigh on impossible for Christian workers.
This isn’t just an issue of Christian workers being able to meet with fellow believers. Many good Christian people cannot enter the retail sector because it will force them to choose between church commitment and work. This happened to me some years ago. I applied for a managerial role with one particular supermarket and, as my CV obviously indicated, I was involved heavily in church. I made it to second-round interview and was asked directly about my desire to work on Sunday. I made it very clear I was prepared to work 6 days a week, and would even work slightly longer hours if need be, to avoid Sunday working so that I could attend church. Unsurprisingly, I was not invited back. Extension of Sunday trading laws will force some to choose between feeding their family physically and feeding their soul spiritually.
Thirdly, it is a measure of government policy and what they value as important. George Osbourne cited research which claimed that extending the laws by just 2 hours in London would create 3000 extra jobs and £200m in extra income. The driving force behind the measure is monetary. It is a placing of the national economy over and above the health of the family unit. It is a desire to put markets ahead of the needs of the workers propping them up. What is more, the research cited by the Chancellors seems questionable given that during the relaxation of Sunday trading laws during the London Olympics retail sales fell by 0.4% overall and as much as 20% being reported by some smaller retailers.
This is an ideological position being touted by the government where growth in GDP is considered the summum bonum of British existence. The workers are simply there as wealth creators to prop up market performance. Gillan Scott argues, to paraphrase Jesus, “the markets were made for man, not man for the markets”. Whilst I don’t agree markets particularly serve the interests of people, he is right that we were certainly not created as market-fodder. As Frances O’Grady rightly puts it “We need a better economic plan than asking people to spend another day of the week putting debt on their credit cards”.
It is questionable whether the measure would, in actual fact, increase GDP. Nonetheless, the question is primarily not one of faith nor one of growth. The question is what do we value as a society. If increasing GDP is all there is, and it can be proven the measure would strengthen the economy, a solid case can be made for relaxing the law. If the family unit, workers rights, the ability of Christian people to practice their faith, Christians in the retail sector, spiralling costs related to stress brought on by high expectations and increasing hours and other non-monetary concerns really matter, then perhaps we should consider not only keeping the laws as they are but restricting them further still.
At the heart of this move is the rampant capitalist consumerism that we have seen at large since the 80s. The banking crisis should have been warning enough that untrammeled greed is not, as Gordon Gekko famously averred, good. If it is not good in the banking sector, for those who have vast amounts of money to spend, how much worse is such thinking for those who will be encouraged to rack up increasing debts buying goods they frankly don’t need. What is for sure is that buying those goods you really don’t need can certainly wait until Monday and nobody will be more grateful for your minuscule attempt at restraint than the working parents who can finally spend a day with their children.