How Sunday trading changed the UK

by bbc

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Fifteen years ago, Sunday trading laws were introduced that led to a national love affair with shopping. The "day of rest" was never the same again.

"If England has not been invaded since 1066, it is because foreigners dread having to spend a Sunday there."

So noted a retired British Army officer in a French work of fiction from the 1950s, a time when Sundays in the UK were a bit different from how they are now.

The biggest transformation has been since the early 1990s, when Sunday was still a day that commonly began with church worship, followed by roast lunch with the family and time at home together.

For many people today, that is still the norm, but a piece of legislation that is 15 years old this week has made Sundays generally more active and varied.

Although some shops had defied the law, the 1994 Sunday Trading Act allowed all smaller shops in England and Wales to open all day. Larger ones are still restricted to six hours of business between 10am and 6pm and cannot open on Easter Sunday.

DIY stores embraced the change

In Scotland, shops determine their own hours although - as they can south of the border - people working in retail and betting can opt out of working on Sundays if they wish.

The trading act was passed despite stiff resistance from trade unions, religious groups and even some large stores such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose. Eight years earlier, attempts by Margaret Thatcher to deregulate Sunday trading led to her only Parliamentary defeat during her time as prime minister.

So when the law was finally passed, it was a huge step, says Professor Jeremy Baker, of ESCP Europe Business School.

"Sunday was a very symbolic day. It was a religious day and even for those people who are not religious it was a family day, a home day. So the idea of going out to the shops on this home day was genuinely shocking to people.

Sundays on high streets resembled other days

"You were supposed to spend the time at home, however boring it was. It was considered to be good for you. You were showing loyalty to the family."

The act helped to develop a new shopping culture and a new leisure pursuit, he says, but at a cost.

"Going to the shops became an event, even if you didn't buy anything, because you'd go and you'd walk around and have coffee. The shopping mall as a new city centre was very much accelerated by the law."

But the shopping boom that followed is now coming back to haunt the country in recession, says Mr Baker, because there are just too many shops.

Shops in many towns and villages remain closed on Sundays, and in those areas little has changed. Public transport still has a Sunday timetable all over the country, while most banks and theatres remain closed.

But shopping malls and city centres are as busy as any other day. More than half the population regularly goes shopping on a Sunday, which means that hundreds of thousands of people have to work.

Where retail led, pubs followed. A year after the trading act, pubs were allowed to open all day on a Sunday. Previously they had to close between 3pm and 7pm.

The proliferation of televised football on Sundays - there are sometimes more top-level matches on a Sunday than a Saturday - provided pubs with an added attraction. Horse racing, cricket and rugby have followed its example.

It all means that Sundays are losing their intended meaning, says John Roberts, director of the Lord's Day Observance Society, because when God created the world he set aside one day that was different. It was also the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he adds.

Sunday prayers... watching football in the pub

One of the weaknesses of society is that people are not meeting together and eating together, he says.

"If mum is working and dad is down the pub and the other members of the family somewhere else, then family life is sliced through. And the country will never ever get back to stability until it gets back to valuing the family."

Peter Lynas, of Keep Sunday Special, thinks the law was a compromise that has worked reasonably well.

"It has retained a certain distinction to Sundays but at the same time it respects the rights of people who want to go shopping and those that don't."

His concern is that the opt-out that the act gave to workers who didn't want to work on Sundays is not being enacted, and his group is calling for a "family day" for parents to be given a statutory day off at the weekend, if they want one.

It's great that some families make use of more visitor attractions being open to have exciting days out together, he says, but too many youngsters are dragged to the shopping mall every Sunday and think the day is all about consumerism.

But feminist Kathy Lette, author of the novel To Love, Honour and Betray, says Sundays are much more fun now than in 1988, when she moved to England from Australia.

"Let me tell you, Sundays back then were about as interesting as watching Albanian daytime television - as riveting as watching hair recede. Sundays broke my only commandment - thou shalt not bore."

It has definitely made life easier for working mothers, she says, because trying to fit in the food shop after work or on a busy Saturday is an ordeal.

"Working mums need options - and Sunday shopping has been a life saver."

2012-03-18 15:14:50