The Conservative Party is set to take another swipe at the Church of England tomorrow as George Osborne announces in his Budget speech that he will look at relaxing Sunday trading laws – the legislation that keeps Britain’s shops from opening longer on Sundays.
Traditionally, shops have only been able to open for six hours on a Sunday in Britain, a notion derived from the idea that Sunday should be treated as “special” because of its role as the Christian Sabbath, or ‘Lord’s Day’.
But the debate surrounding Sunday trading laws has been raging since the mid-1980s, as Britain began to shed its Christian heritage in exchange for a more mercantile vision for the country. Campaigns to scrap Sunday trading laws have fallen at various hurdles until now, when Chancellor George Osborne is expected to ram his plans home.
The news will come as a shock to campaigners who have fought hard against the measures for over 30 years. The Keep Sunday Special group – which includes trades unions, the irreligious, the religious, and businesses – was promised by the Conservative Party before the general election that there were “no current plans to relax Sunday trading laws”.
According to the Times, the Conservative Party said at the time: “We believe that the current system provides a reasonable balance between those who like to see more opportunity to shop in large stores on a Sunday and those who want to see further restrictions.”
But this is beginning to look like yet another Conservative Party election fib, as Mr Osborne has now told admitted to the Times: “Even two decades on from the introduction of the Sunday Trading Act, it is clear that there is still a growing appetite for shopping on a Sunday. There is some evidence that transactions for Sunday shopping are actually growing faster than those for Saturday… This will be another part of my plan to ensure a truly national recovery, with our great towns and cities able to determine their own futures.”
He said that while the government would not introduce a nationwide, sweeping change to the law, it would devolve powers to local authorities to decide. If presented by way of local referenda, the move may actually prove popular. If imposed on towns because of the Conservative Party’s plans to further secularise Britain, the Tories may well push the last of their traditionalist conservative supporters into the hands of another party.
In 2005, during Gordon Brown’s Labour government, over 60 Conservative MPs signed an Early Day Motion – a symbolic apparatus of Parliament – to oppose plans to deregulate Sunday trading. Some of these MPs are now ministers in government, and engaged constituents will no be watching to see how their MPs campaign this time around.