The Government is suggesting an extension to Sunday opening hours. Benedict King longs for the Sundays when everything was closed
Thanks to the virus, the Government is planning to allow supermarkets to stay open longer on Sundays to make it easier to buy essentials.
This would be a relaxation of the Sunday Trading Act, which came into force in England and Wales in 1994. There had never been Sunday-trading restrictions in Scotland, although shops there tended to follow similar practices to shops in England. Northern Ireland had similar rules to England and Wales.
Before 1994, England and Wales were governed by the 1950 Shops Act. Generally, this prohibited shops from opening – but with many, bewildering exceptions. You could buy fruit and vegetables, but not if they were canned. You could buy razor blades for medicinal reasons (eg removing corns) but not to shave. You could buy fish and chips from a restaurant, but not from a chippy.
It was daft. Even the courts couldn’t understand it. In the early 1980s, the Auld Committee, set up to investigate the situation, recommended complete liberalisation. A Sunday Trading Bill was introduced to that effect in 1986. It was defeated, with 72 Tory MPs voting against it – the only time an entire government bill was defeated during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
The 1994 bill was a compromise. You could buy anything, but shops over 280 square metres could trade for only six hours between 10am and 6pm. No one could be forced to work. In reality, it was a historic defeat for the Sabbatarians. Since the early-eighth century, when King Ide of Wessex introduced rules on Sunday observance, puritans and party-poopers have been trying to make Sunday ‘special’ or, as many consider, ‘dull’. In 1994, they were finally defeated. For the purposes of consumption and entertainment, Sundays are now like any other day.
When I was growing up in Oxford in the 1980s, Sundays weren’t boring. They were just inactive. It was pleasant to go out and simply enjoy the city and its reduced pace for one day a week. Hardly anyone was about. People wandered to church and bought the papers; a few tramps staggered about; the odd gaggle of teenagers loafed around. It was like the lockdown, but with no social distancing and no restrictions on meeting people. Families went for leisurely walks in the parks after lunch. You could go to the cinema, and to the pubs when they opened. The slower pace was a collective discipline. ‘No one’s preventing you from doing nothing’ isn’t good enough. The experience depended on no one else doing much.
I don’t want a religious Sunday. I want an idle Sunday for hedonistic reasons. The lockdown is boring, but we have been reminded of how blissful it can be to have an occasional break from the frenetic activity of the modern world and the remorseless orgy of consumerism that often feels like a substitute for religious observance.
We should restrict trading to Sunday mornings – between 6am and noon. Retail maniacs, could, like the devout of old, get up early to do their thing. The rest of us could enjoy those old idle afternoons. Sunday need not be offered up to God, but most of us could, like the good Lord on the seventh day, use a rest from the world we have created.