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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Keeping Sunday Special and the Politics of Rest

5th November 2015

The human need for regular rest is an inconvenient truth for capitalism. It would be easier if we could simplify the world into a liberal paradigm, allowing rational agents and perfect markets to efficiently distribute our natural resources, our relationships, and even our sleep. This is indeed what the economic liberal consensus of the last thirty years has attempted, with predictably corrosive consequences. Almost any study will show that today’s globalised, round-the-clock economy has taken its toll on our planet, our communities, our families and our mental health. As David Cameron confirmed in Prime Minister’s Questions last week, neo-liberal economics also have no time for our Sundays: the Government’s proposed deregulation of Sunday trading rules would create a truly 24/7, restless economy.

Before the liberal consensus, communal rest, along with other non- monetised goods like family and community life, were the remit of the Church. So it is not surprising that in a secular age (where fewer than 10% of the population are habitual churchgoers), restrictions on Sunday trading are deemed to be an unnecessary relic of the past, constraining Britain’s capacity to modernise and reflect changing times. However, privatising Sundays would be a big mistake: for our workers, our families and our communities. Moreover, this step would be radically out of step with public opinion.   Yes, British society is less ‘Christian’ than it used to be. Yet that does not mean that voters have rejected civic life altogether. To the contrary, in our atomised, 24/7 economy there is a greater need than ever before not only for rest, but for some sense of shared community life and common identity.  That is why the campaign to keep Sunday special is not a nostalgic attempt to relive the past, but instead represents a living, breathing example of One Nation politics.  Like it or not, rest is political.

Firstly, this is because rest matters to workers. Liberals care about freedom, and there is good reason to believe that if workers are not guaranteed a day off, protected by law, they will feel pressured by their employers to work on Sundays. Restricting trade is therefore liberating. This isn’t simply well-meaning but outdated paternalism. The point is that many do prefer to rest but lack bargaining power. The sad reality is that to some employers, shop workers are dispensable and the spectre of job loss will haunt those who fail to comply. The decline of union power means that if deregulation does lead to any employment changes, it will be on the terms of big High Street retailers, not the workers themselves.

Secondly, rest matters to families. Cameron has claimed that the Government’s proposals would increase the ‘choice’ available to families who may want to spend Sundays shopping. Yet workers also have families, and for many, Sunday is their only day off. A full weekend’s rest is a luxury of the middle classes, and the benefit of a few extra hours shopping for Oxford Street tourists seems a small gain for such a great loss to families who simply do not have space during the week to be together. Families are more pressured than ever before. Cameron promised that this would be ‘the most family friendly government ever’; does he really believe that more shopping is the answer for Britain’s families?

Finally, rest matters to communities. The Prime Minister has said that it is time to ‘modernise’, but if there’s anything we know about modern economies, it is that we over-consume: the environment and workers would both benefit from a chance to rest. In most of Europe – including the Northern European nations whose quality of life aspire to – shops are shut for the whole of Sundays. Clearly, successful modern economies don’t have to be constantly shopping. Nor is this ‘modernisation’ needed to keep up with cultural changes in British society. Whilst it is true that the Church’s influence is waning, senior Jewish and Muslim leaders as well as secular trade unionists and community groups are standing up for Sunday’s special-ness.

We can no longer afford to ignore the fact that for both producers and consumers, today’s economy is physically and emotionally draining. Londoners compete with other world cities for the lowest hours of sleep. Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of a Shadow Minister for Mental Health is a welcome sign that politicians are beginning to listen to an increasingly loud cry for politics to see citizens as human: not just consumers and producers, but those whose wellbeing must be valued and protected by law. It is no good seeing personal rest, or family time off, as something private, of irrelevance to the state. For the freedom of our workers, the strength of our families and the flourishing of our society, rhythms of regular rest must be built into the fabric of our national life. That is why we must keep Sunday special.

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