Could shopping on the Christian Sabbath be beneficial to the U.K.'s economy?

Last Sunday afternoon, I went to a local shop to discuss problems that had arisen with our refrigerator. That is not, I fully recognise, a statement of particular interest to anyone else. It is certainly not a statement which is likely to raise a whole batch of questions.

If, however, I had made the statement 50 years ago, it would have caused some raising of eyebrows. Indeed, it would have been a most unlikely statement to make. At that time, it was fairly unknown for shops to open on Sundays. It was generally not legal for them to do so. Sunday opening was not allowed, because Sunday is the Christian Sabbath.

Things changed many years ago, partly, I think, because the proportion of the population who are practising Christians had fallen greatly, partly because there was a general relaxation of trading regulations, and some major changes in the way in which people wanted to organise their shopping. One important reason was that people were under increasing pressure from their working lives, and needed to be able to do at least some of their shopping on Sundays.

Current legislation imposes conditions on large shops — supermarkets, for example — which do not apply to small ones. The House of Commons Library sets out the differences: Large shops (over 280 sq. m./3,000 sq. ft.) may open Monday to Saturday without restrictions. On Sundays, opening is restricted to six continual hours between 10.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m. All large shops must close on Easter Sunday and on Christmas Day.

In contrast, there are no opening restrictions for small shops (under 280 sq. m./3,000 sq. ft.). In effect, a small shop could remain open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, including Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, if the owner so wished.”

There have been quite strong moves to relax the opening hour regulations even further, largely because some in the government believe that this would provide a fillip to the economy (which has been for many months in quite a low state). Whether allowing more relaxed opening hours would in fact be a great boost to the economy is, of course, a moot point. The suggestion that opening hours might be relaxed, however, has caused some controversy. One Member of Parliament, for example, claimed that such a move would damage relations between the Church and the Government.

My decision last week to visit a shop on a Sunday afternoon was made purely because that time was convenient. I freely admit that I did not give a moment’s thought to the possible implications of Sunday trading (I had, in fact, in the morning attended a service at my local church).

As a general rule, I do not visit large shops on Sundays, though I do regularly visit one of our local small shops, mainly to buy a newspaper. If I am honest, my abstention from Sunday shopping can be attributed to two things: first, because it was simply not possible in my younger days, I never developed the habit. Secondly, to be frank, I take no pleasure from shopping and so there is generally no incentive to do it on a Sunday.

My recent Sunday shopping expedition did, however, cause me to think about the whole question. Is the concept of shopping on Sundays still, for many people, a matter of controversy? Do most people actually like Sunday shopping, or find it especially convenient? Would many people be handicapped if it was not available? On the other side of the argument, would many people be greatly upset if Sunday opening hours were increased?

I do not have any clear idea what the answers to such questions might be. On a purely personal level, I did not feel any great sense of change as the country moved from no Sunday trading to the present plethora of shops which are open for business on Sundays. It is all simply part of the background to my existence as someone who dislikes shopping, on whatever day it happens.