An unconventional coalition of the religious right and the left came together in an unholy alliance to defeat Sunday trading reforms this week. The government’s opponents lost no time in celebrating their victory, which keeps alive the record of every government since the 1970s being defeated in the House of Commons. Just 27 Conservative rebels joined with the opposition benches to inflict defeat on proposals to give local authorities the power to decide whether to liberalise Sunday trading laws in their areas in a defeat for localism and more broadly, individual choice.
Setting aside the case for and against extending Sunday trading hours beyond the current six hours for larger stores, there is the bigger question of why is government deciding this at all? The Liberal welfare reforms from 1906 onwards, and subsequently World Wars One and Two, saw a significant expansion of the state in British society. Many measures were justified and justifiable in improving welfare and aiding the war effort, but much of the government encroachment on individual liberty was not removed when the wars were won and the welfare state fully established by the Atlee government. Press censorship was formally ended, but persisted in quite robust form until the more permissive era of the 1960s made it fruitless, some would argue it still continues today. Government control on opening hours of pubs and shops remained and became a source of relatively frequent legislation in the first half of the 20th century, with the 1950 Shops Act the consolidation of various pieces of legislation from 1912 to 1938. The 1950 Act stood until 1994’s Sunday Trading Act allowed limited Sunday opening for larger stores.
Protection of workers was the main motivation behind government interventions in the consumer shopping market in the 20th century but now there are broader pieces of legislation on workers’ rights, the 48 hour week and religious discrimination at work laws that cover those concerns. Yet, government is still controlling and restricting the offline shopping market at a time when online shopping growth threatens the very existence of many high streets and stores. Retailers and many retail workers are crying out for a more level playing field to enable them to compete fairly with their online competition. ComRes polling of London shop workers showed three quarters in favour of more flexible trading hours on a Sunday.
Then there are consumers, and all shop workers are ultimately consumers themselves too, who consistently support longer opening hours and the subsequent flexibility it gives them. Since some trading was allowed two decades ago Sunday has quickly become the second most popular shopping day after Saturday despite its limited opening hours. Many people resent being restricted as to when they can and can’t buy products in stores and have turned to online shopping where no such restrictions apply and the convenience of the customer is king. If our high streets are to survive in the 21st century then they can no longer have one hand tied behind their back by government regulation. In 2016 it is illogical and illiberal that lawmakers in Westminster are still dictating when shoppers are allowed to shop and shops allowed to open, such decisions should be left to market demand.