As the government is defeated on its attempt to reform Sunday trading legislation, here’s a reminder of the same issue thirty years ago, in an extract from Alwyn W Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s:
As home secretary, William Whitelaw had had his own version of the old actors’ adage about not working with children and animals: ‘I was well known for my reluctance to become involved in legislation over Sundays, alcohol, animals and sex – subjects which tended to arouse fierce passions and cause immense parliamentary difficulties, usually without solving the problems.’ But the much less astute Douglas Hurd was now in the home office, and in 1986 he brought the Shops Bill to Parliament, intending to relax the restrictions on Sunday trading in England and Wales that had been imposed by the 1950 Shops Act.
The existing law was, as Hurd pointed out, ‘confused and widely ignored’: fish and chip shops, for example, were prevented from opening on the Sabbath, but Chinese takeaways were not, since no one in 1950 had foreseen their rise, and though it was legal to sell newspapers and periodicals, the sale of books was banned, so one was prohibited from buying a copy of the Bible, but could happily stock up on pornographic magazines. Meanwhile many shops – DIY stores and garden centres prominent amongst them – were simply ignoring the law, and local councils, who were responsible for enforcing it, lacked the resources and the will to stop them. To make the situation yet more absurd, these regulations did not apply north of the border, for Scotland was not covered by the legislation.
The Bill proposed sweeping away all the restrictions, and it met with substantial opposition both from church groups led by Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were determined to protect Sunday as a day of worship, and from the shop workers union, USDAW, who were equally determined to stop their members’ hours being extended. The former won over large numbers of Conservative backbenchers, the latter convinced the Labour Party, and the Bill was rejected at its second reading, a highly unusual fate for a piece of government legislation; sixty-eight Tory MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against the measure.
‘The trade unions, churches, small shopkeepers and the women’s movement have all been campaigning against Sunday opening,’ exulted Tony Benn in his diary. ‘It was the first time that the supremacy of market forces had been thwarted, and it sort of indicated that the Tories can’t be certain of getting away with the rest of their policies.’
He was a little premature – if it was the first Commons defeat for the Thatcher government, it was also the last – but there was a feeling abroad that the government was losing touch with a crucial section of its support, not merely the regular churchgoers, but also the traditionally minded people who may have grumbled about restrictions on Sunday shopping, yet still had an instinctive attraction to the rhythms of life that had been accepted for centuries. And Benn was right to identify that the focus on market forces was the key to why the Thatcherite coalition was showing signs of strain: the veneration of profit did not sit easily with many of those who were natural Tories.